The focus on the Korean peninsula’s nuclear crisis has ignored a core feature of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal. Various sources suggest that the country possesses one the largest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) in the world.
North Korea’s chemical weapons program commenced in the late 1950s, soon after the Korean War. Till 1979, it was estimated by the US Defense Intelligence Agency that North Korea“had only a defensive CW capability.” The scenario, however, changed in the 1980’s. The 1987 South Korean Ministry of National Defense report estimated that North Korea “possessed up to 250 metric tons of chemical weapons.” The 2009 International Crisis Group had pegged the quantity of chemical weapons in North Korea to between 2,500 and 5,000 tons. The 2010 South Korean Ministry of Defense Report contained the same estimates as the International Crisis Group report.
Since World War II a few countries have used chemical weapons. The Egyptians used chemical weapons like choking and mustard agents in Yemen’s civil war (1963, 1965 & 1967. The Soviets used chemical arms such as mustard and incapacitating agents against the Afghan Mujahideen (1978-1992). In 1987 chemical weapons were used by Libya against rebels in Chad. However, the most extensive use of chemical weapons was in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Saddam Hussein’s regime then went on to use chemical weapons against its own people, the Iraqi Kurds. In Halabjah (1988) an estimated 5000 people were killed through such an attack, many of them civilians. On 21 August 2013 the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad attacked his own citizens in Ghouta through rockets containing Sarin, a nerve agent. It is estimated that well over 1000 people perished in this attack. And, Once again, Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on 14 April 2017 on Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province of Syria.
An interesting point to ponder upon is that most cases of CBW attacks by states after WWI have been associated with countries that were under despotic regimes. The fact that no country with a democratic government has used CBWs in warfare since WWI indicates that the intolerance of the people towards the use of such heinous weapons is real.
Any way one looks at it, North Korea fits the profile of a country with a high probability of using chemical and biological weapons. A micro-glimpse of this was revealed in Malaysia when VX was used to assassinate Kim Cho’ng Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader, Kim Cho’ng Un. The use of this chemical in a crowded international airport clearly displays, yet another despotic regime’s disregard for the consequences of exposing the general public to such weapons.
North Korea is a signatory of the Geneva Protocol and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) but not the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of Chemical and Biological weapons but does not forbid the production and stockpiling of the same. The BTWC and the CWC were established (in 1972 and 1993, respectively) in order to complement, and further enhance the Geneva Protocols. The BTWC, however, without a proactive office (such as the OPCW for the CWC), remains ineffective in implementing its articles.
The one convention that is intrusive and effective is the CWC. The political instability in the Korean Peninsula, coupled with Kim Cho’ng-Un’s proclivity of threatening South Korea and the probability that he possesses one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world makes it imperative that diplomatic efforts converge on pressuring Pyonyang to accept and sign this convention.
In 2013, Syria filed its papers and became a signatory of the CWC. Even Russia, its longstanding ally, could not help. International outrage over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against rebel groups clearly illustrated that any strategy that provides space for chemical or biological weapons in a country’s arsenal is flawed and will not be tolerated. Despite this, chemical weapons were used yet again by Bashar Al-Assad in April 2017. The Russians, due to their constant support to the Assad regime have led many to believe that they were complicit in these disgraceful attacks.
In North Korea’s case, China remains the sole country that has any measurable influence. In a paper titled, “The China-North Korea Relationship” published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Eleanor Albert states, “China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for upwards of 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume. Conversely, China’s purchases from its neighbor include minerals, seafood, and manufactured garments. In the first quarter of 2017, China–North Korea trade was up 37.4 percent from the same period in 2016.”
China will most definitely not want to be in a similar situation as Russia is in Syria and be accused of complicity if an untoward accident or attack with North Korea’s chemical weapons was to occur. Beijing will have to use its substantial economic leverage to convince the leadership in Pyongyang to adopt certain steps to alleviate global concerns. In 2003, the Chinese Prime Minister, Hu Jintao, cut off oil supplies to North Korea, which resulted in a dialogue between the Americans and the North Koreans in Beijing over the Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear policy. Recently, Chinese President Xi Jin Ping banned all coal imports from North Korea soon after Pyongyang tested a new intermediate-range missile.
Similar, if not more aggressive measures need to be applied on North Korea for them to become signatories of the CWC and accept the assistance of the OPCW to eradicate all chemical and biological weapons stockpiles from the peninsula. Nothing less than this will suffice as the repulsion to this form of warfare has been internalized in the psyche of individuals and nations, alike.