Mystery Clouds North Korea’s Chemical Arsenal

Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

North Korea has been brazen in displaying its nuclear capabilities and missile ambitions, but lets the world know virtually nothing about its age-old and lethal stockpile of chemical weapons, denying their existence completely.

But new evidence suggests that Pyongyang might retain a significant arsenal of chemical weapons, experts said. Kim Jong-un’s regime may have attempted to ship chemical weapons or missile parts to Syria through a state corporation under international sanction, according to a United Nations report.

Reviewed by Reuters news agency, a 37-page U.N. panel report issued earlier this month said that unidentified U.N. member states intercepted two shipments sent by the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), Pyongyang’s arms dealing front, to the Syrian Scientific Research Center, which has long overseen Damascus’s weapons programs.

“The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK (North Korea),” the document read, according to Reuters.

While the nature of the shipment remains unconfirmed, the specter of the regime’s export of weapons of mass destruction haunts the possibilities for war on Korean peninsula. Experts said that using chemical or even biological weapons, would be a near certainty in an armed conflict between North Korea, its neighbors and the U.S. And if Kim Jong-un has enough chemical stockpile to sell, dodging tightening sanctions to acquire capital, that suggests he has an ample amount of the deadly materials on hand.

Specifics on North Korea’s chemical weapons stockpile are in short supply. Stories from defectors of tests on political prisoners, interdicted gas masks on their way to the regime, South Korean assessments of the North’s capabilities, and Pyongyang’s unwillingness to sign the chemical weapons provide strong circumstantial evidence of a chemical arsenal.

“Very little is publicly known on their chemical weapons program, and most of what is known is highly speculative. There is certainly almost nothing known about North Korea’s doctrine for chemical weapons use,” Catherine Dill, a Senior Research Associate at the
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Dill has doubts that the interdicted shipments reported by the U.N. contained chemical weapons, however, she noted that North Korea has been caught shipping missile parts to Syria in the past. And the Israelis in 2007 destroyed a nuclear facility in Syria being built with Pyongyang’s help.

A South Korean government estimate in 2012 put the amount chemical weapons at somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of sarin and VX, both nerve agents, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. In 2017, VX was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the brother of North Korea’s dictator, at an airport in Kuala Lumpur.

“If it was a war where he [King Jong-un] thought his survival is at stake, I think there’s no question he would use them,” said Dennis Wilder, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for East Asian Affairs under George W. Bush.

Although limitations in the deployment of chemical munitions means casualties would be relatively low compared to a nuclear strike or even conventional artillery, experts said stockpiles of nerve gas and blister agents like mustard gas give Pyongyang a means of escalating an open conflict by striking terror in civilian populations. As images from Syria have shown, a death by nerve toxin is a slow and painful one, with children and the elderly most vulnerable.

“He could do far more damage to Seoul with artillery than with chemical weapons, but there would of course be the shock factor of seeing chemical weapons used in warfare,” Wilder added.

He noted that as sanctions squeeze Pyongyang, there will be even more incentive for the regime to sell weapons on the global black market.

“We need to be very vigilant about the proliferation threat, because there’s a good chance he [Kim Jong-un] will sell fissile material or attempt to sell fissile material to a third party, and so we need to have our intelligence resources focused on this and be ready to act if we see anything like this,” Wilder added.

Action doesn’t mean a pre-emptive military strike however.

“You interdict it,” he recommended.

The means for disarming North Korea of its chemical weapons stockpiles are illusive. Not only does the North deny having them, but it’s far easier to hide them than nuclear weapons, said Joseph DeTrani

, a former U.S. ambassador and intelligence officer involved with North Korean non-proliferation negotiations. It’s especially difficult since chemical weapons components are so valuable to the cash-starved North.

“They have significant stockpiles and they are capable of selling it. It’s like their missile technology that they sold to Libya and Syria and Iran. They’re working with countries they support, and they’re getting their resources from these sales,” DeTrani said.

Both DeTrani and Wilder said that getting rid of the North’s chemical stockpile would be a task best suited to diplomacy. Until then, the North will continue to grow its capabilities, DeTrani said, and the threat will grow.

“We need to get North Korea to sit at the table so we can get monitors in there and get them to be signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. I would say North Korea, left on its own…there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re working on their asymmetrical capabilities. That has to be better understood and dealt with,” he said. “All the more reason we need to get North Korea to the table to stop these programs and move in a different direction.”

Wilson Dizard is a national security editor at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @willdizard.

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