North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs
Asia Report N°167
18 Jun 2009
This report examines North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities in the context of its military doctrine and national objectives. It is based on open source literature, interviews and unpublished documents made available to Crisis Group. Companion reports published simultaneously assess the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and what the policy response of the international community should be to its recent nuclear and missile testing.
North Korea’s programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles pose serious risks to security. Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are the greatest threat, but it also possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons and is suspected of maintaining a biological weapons program. The Six-Party Talks (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) had been underway since August 2003 with the objective of ending the North’s nuclear ambitions, before Pyongyang announced its withdrawal in April 2009, but there is no direct mechanism for dealing with its chemical weapons and possible biological weapons. The North Korean leadership is very unlikely to surrender its WMD unless there is significant change in the political and security environments.
The Six-Party Talks produced a “Statement of Principles” in September 2005 that included a commitment to establish a permanent peace mechanism in North East Asia, but the structure and nature of such a cooperative security arrangement is subject to interpretation, negotiation and implementation. Views among the parties differ, and no permanent peace can be established unless North Korea abandons all its WMD programs. The diplomatic tasks are daunting, and diplomacy could fail. If North Korea refuses to engage in arms control and to rid itself of WMD, the international community must be prepared to deal with a wide range of threats, including those posed by Pyongyang’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities.
Unclassified estimates of the chemical weapons (CW) arsenal are imprecise, but the consensus is that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) possesses 2,500-5,000 tons, including mustard, phosgene, blood agents, sarin, tabun and V-agents (persistent nerve agents). The stockpile does not appear to be increasing but is already sufficient to inflict massive civilian casualties on South Korea. The North’s CW can be delivered with long-range artillery, multiple rocket launchers, FROGs (free rocket over ground), ballistic missiles, aircraft and naval vessels.
North Korean military doctrine emphasises quick offensive strikes to break through enemy defences in order to achieve national military objectives before the U.S. can intervene effectively on behalf of its South Korean ally. However, the North’s conventional military capabilities are declining against those of its potential foes, so the leadership is likely to rely on asymmetric capabilities for its national security objectives. This strategy poses a significant danger because it risks deliberate, accidental or unauthorised WMD attacks or incidents.
North Korea has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) but has signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) as well as the Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. The government denies having CW or biological weapons (BW) programs but claims to be threatened by South Korean and U.S. CBW even though Seoul and Washington are parties to the CWC, BTWC and the Geneva Protocol. South Korea had a CW program but completed the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile in 2008 and is in compliance with all its CBW arms control commitments.
Despite a dismal economy, the North Korean regime appears stable. However, leader Kim Jong-il’s health problems in the fall of 2008 have raised concerns about succession problems. In a struggle for power or a coup d’état, the use or transfer of North Korean WMD would be unlikely but cannot be ruled out. In the case of state collapse, WMD and related materials would have to be secured as quickly as possible. This would require considerable planning and resources, but current international mechanisms would probably be inadequate in a sudden crisis. Diplomatic efforts should focus on the nuclear issue now, but preliminary efforts should also be made to address Pyongyang’s chemical weapons and possible biological weapons. Understanding the motivations of North Korean leaders is essential to structuring a diplomatic solution for the elimination of their WMD, and if diplomacy fails, a clear assessment of capabilities and intentions will be imperative to counter the threats.
The proliferation of North Korean WMD materials or technology would endanger global security and non-proliferation regimes. An international norm against chemical and biological weapons has emerged, but a few nations and terrorist groups still seek to acquire them. Most states can produce chemical weapons on their own if they choose to, but North Korea could provide materials or technology for integrating CW munitions with delivery systems to shorten developmental and deployment timelines. The North’s biotechnology capability is rudimentary, but any biological agents or BW technology in its possession would be highly valued. North Korean entities, with or without government authorisation, could be tempted to sell biological weapons or agents, believing the detection risk to be low. The likelihood of such a transfer would increase if the country were to become unstable or collapse.
The North’s economy urgently needs reform, but the regime’s failure to adopt changes leaves weapons and weapons technology as its vital source of foreign exchange. Abandonment of CW and BW and integration into the global economy will require compliance with international export control rules and norms, as well as significant aid.
Diplomatic efforts to eliminate North Korean WMD and ballistic missiles must continue, but the international community must be prepared for multiple contingencies including:
a deliberate, accidental or unauthorised chemical or biological attack or incident;
a chemical weapons accident in North Korea;
an accidental release of biological agents in North Korea;
the North’s use of CW following an intentional or inadvertent military clash and escalation;
North Korean use of biological or chemical weapons in a preventive war against South Korea;
the transfer of chemical or biological weapons, precursors, materials and technologies to other states or non-state actors; and
There are a number of international institutions for dealing with the North Korean chemical and biological weapons programs. However, they may not be sufficient for addressing all issues, and new regional instruments may be necessary. Regional efforts could increase opportunities for cooperation through issue linkage and confidence-building aimed at the establishment of a collective peace and security regime. For example, the region could initiate processes for missile disarmament and cooperation in the peaceful exploration of outer space; the elimination of chemical weapons; conventional arms control; and non-traditional security cooperation in the realms of energy security, food security and public health.
While the diplomatic priority now must be to focus on the nuclear issue, progress on this front would create opportunities to address Pyongyang’s other weapons of mass destruction, including a large chemical weapons stockpile and possible biological weapons, which must be eliminated before a stable and permanent peace can be established in North East Asia. If North Korea credibly commits to abandoning its nuclear program in the Six-Party Talks, a multi-faceted effort should be made to establish a fully WMD-free Korean Peninsula.
Seoul/Brussels, 18 June 2009
 Crisis Group Asia Report N°168, North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs, 18 June 2009; Crisis Group Asia Report Nº169, North Korea: Getting Back to Talks, 18 June 2009.