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Biological Last updated: March, 2014

Although the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Geneva Protocol, it is suspected of maintaining an ongoing biological weapons program.

According to North Korean defectors and assessments by the U.S. and South Korean governments, North Korea began to acquire a biological weapons (BW) capability as early as the 1960s under the orders of Kim Il Sung.[1] Unlike its chemical weapon (CW) program, Pyongyang is believed to have built its biological program indigenously.[2] However, open source information on North Korea's presumed biological weapons program is highly variable and largely unsubstantiated. The 2012 white paper from South Korea's Ministry of National Defense assesses that North Korea is able to indiginously produce Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Variola major (Smallpox), Francisella tularensis (Rabbit Fever), and Bunyaviridae Hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever).[3] Due to DPRK’s strict control of information, there is no reliable information on which organization is now responsible for developing biological weapons. However, in 1997, KPA Colonel Ju-Hwal Choi, defected and testified that the Germ Research Institute of the Armed Forces Ministry is the lead organization for developing biological weapons.[4]

Capabilities

Open sources provide a wide range of estimates on the state of North Korea's biological weapons capabilities, from possession of a rudimentary biological warfare program to deployed biological weapons. However, the most recent estimates appear to conclude that the DPRK possesses a range of pathogen samples that could be weaponized, and the technical capabilities to do so, rather than deployed, ready-to-use biological weapons.

Biological weapons programs are by their nature very difficult to verify. Barring further information from Pyongyang, researchers can only estimate which causative agents might be included in North Korea's inventory, and what their status may be based on defector testimony, which can be unreliable. This has led to varying accounts of North Korea's capabilities. Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments suggests that the Korean People's Army's (KPA) inventory might include the causitive agents: Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Clostridium botulinum (Botulism), Vibrio cholera (Cholera), Bunyaviridae Hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever), Yersinia pestis (Justinianic Plague), Variola (Smallpox), Salmonella typhi (Typhoid Fever) and Coquillettidia fuscopennata (Yellow Fever).[5] However, parliamentary audit documents of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) assert that North Korea has developed more than 13 kinds of biological agents. In addition to those mentioned by Jane's, they include: causitive agents of Dysentery, Brucellosis (Crimean Fever), Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), Rickettsia prowazekii (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), and T-2 mycotoxins (Alimentary Toxic Aleukia).[6] Lastly in 2004, Gen. Leon LaPort - then Commander of U.S. Forced Korea, testified that North Korea potentially had 21 biological agents.[7]

U.S. government assessments have frequently stated the belief that the DPRK possesses significant biological weapons capabilities — although U.S. estimates are not always internally consistent and more recently threat assessments have tended to be downgraded. The U.S. State Department's most recent (2013) report, “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” states that “North Korea may still consider the use of biological weapons as an option, contrary to the BWC.”[8]

The debate in the early 2000s was especially conflicted, with some arguing that Pyongyang only had samples of BW agents, while others believed they held full weaponized stocks of agents. For example, General Thomas A. Schwartz, Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), stated in March 2002 testimony before the U.S. Senate that, "... North Korea has the capability to develop, produce and weaponize biological warfare agents.”[9] In May 2002, John R. Bolton, then U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, described the DPRK's biological weapons program as "a dedicated, national-level effort to achieve a BW capability," and claimed that it "has developed and produced, and may have weaponized, BW agents in violation of the [Biological and Toxin Weapons] Convention." Bolton further noted that the:

  • "leadership in Pyongyang has spent large sums of money to acquire the resources, including a biotechnology infrastructure, capable of producing infectious agents, toxins, and other crude biological weapons. It likely has the capability to produce sufficient quantities of biological agents for military purposes within weeks of deciding to do so, and has a variety of means at its disposal for delivering these deadly weapons.”[10]

In 2006, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense stated: "Pyongyang has been producing poison gas and biological weapons since the 1980s. It is believed that... North Korea is able to produce biological weapons such as the bacteria of anthrax, smallpox, and cholera.”[11] More recently, these types of assessments have taken a cautious turn. The Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis's 2010 report to congress on WMD acquisition delivered a much more muted message than previous reports, stating only: "North Korea has a biotechnology infrastructure that could support the production of various BW agents.”[12]

Of particular concern, as the United States and Russia are pressured to eliminate their stocks of variola virus (the causative agent of smallpox), is the status of North Korea's own inventory. According to a May 1994 Defense Intelligence Agency report which cited an anonymous source, Russia supplied variola virus to North Korea and Iraq sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s.[13] If true, this would violate Pyongyang's commitments as a State Party to the BTWC, to which it acceded in March1987. However, North Korean soldiers who defected to South Korea in the 1990s had antibodies from recent smallpox vaccines.[14] Because North Korea did not participate in the World Health Organization's (WHO) smallpox eradication program, it is unknown whether it had any stocks of the variola virus, or if it did, whether the stocks were destroyed.[15]

North Korea has demonstrated it may possess significant biotechnology expertise despite its poor industrial sector; for example, the country's scientists reportedly developed a Hepatitis-B vaccine in 1999.[16] However, it is less clear whether North Korea is capable of weaponizing BW agents. Jane's Intelligence Group notes that North Korean scientists used microencapsulation to protect Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) cells from UV light, which would be the first step in preparing such an agent for weaponization.[17] In 2005, Gen. Leon LaPorte, then Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, stated that he did not believe Pyongyang had been able to weaponize biological agents.[18]

Also, while the DPRK possesses considerable capabilities to deliver CW agents, it is unclear whether comparable munitions are available to deliver BW agents. Although the DPRK has advanced missile technology, the fragile nature of biological agents complicates the task of using missiles as a means of delivery and dispersal. While the ROK government has estimated that half of the DPRK's long-range missiles and 30 percent of its artillery pieces are capable of delivering chemical or biological warheads, it is not known whether biological payloads would survive and be effectively dispersed by these missiles.[19]

While North Korea has been implicated in WMD proliferation, it is unclear whether its illicit cooperative activities extend to BW. Reports of BW proliferation to Iran exist, but remain unverified. It is known that North Korean military personnel signed a military cooperation agreement with Cuba and visited a "genetic-bioengineering institute" in the 1990s. However, this can be seen largely as circumstantial evidence.[20]

History

Asserting that poisonous gas and bacteria had been used against North Korean and Chinese forces during the Korean War, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung ordered the establishment of a biological weapons program in the early 1960s.[21] The country subsequently established the program within the Academy of National Defense. However, results from this program were unremarkable. An estimated 10 to 13 different types of pathogens were investigated during the early development process, including the causative agents of anthrax, cholera, plague, smallpox, and yellow fever.[22] Between 2003 and 2004, and in 2009, defectors alleged that the College for Army Doctors and Military Officers and Kim Il-sung University Medical College conducted human testing on political prisoners, which matches reports from the 1970s. However, such assertions are difficult to verify.[23]

Via entities in Japan and elsewhere, North Korea imported cultures of the causative agents for anthrax, plague and cholera. Actual production of BW agents, including the causative bacteria for cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and anthrax is believed to have begun in the early 1980s. Unlike the DPRK's development of chemical weapons, its biological weapons development has been mostly indigenous.[24]

Although efforts to strengthen international and national export controls and the implementation of sanctions on Pyongyang have limited the DPRK's ability to import dual-use equipment and supplies, the country has proven resourceful in securing materials from abroad. In 2006, for example, Japanese authorities discovered that the DPRK had obtained a freeze dryer—which could be used to freeze-dry pathogens—from a Tokyo-based trading company in 2002.[25] The DPRK also has sufficient stocks of growth media, including agar, peptone, and yeast extract from breweries, to support a BW program.[26]

Recent Developments and Current Status

Within the past decade, North Korea is suspected of having researched Avian Influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), but this research was most likely undertaken solely to produce vaccines and test kits.[26] However, natural outbreaks in recent years have strained the public health system so much that North Korea has needed external assistance.

Recent assessments of North Korean BW capabilities and intentions have tended to downgrade the threat as compared with past assessments.[27] Pyongyang appears to have chosen to focus its limited resources on improving is missile and nuclear capabilities, which it likely perceives to be of greater strategic utility than biological weapons.

Kim Jong Un took power of the North Korean state after the death of his father in December 2011. He has made no public indication of his plans for North Korea's biological capabilities.

Sources:
[1] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[2] Eric Croddy with Perez Armendariz and John Hart, Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002).
[3] Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, "2012 Defense White Paper,"  p. 36, www.mnd.go.kr.
[4] Ju-Hwal Choi, “Testimony of Colonel Ju-Hwal Choi, Colonel of KPA, before 105th Congress, Sess. 1, North Korean Missile Proliferation," 1997, p.8.
[5] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[6] Kim Nam-gwon, "김옥이 "군, 北생화학무기 배신 전무 [Kim Ok-i Said 'Korean Military does not have vaccine for North Korean Biochemical Weapons']," Yonhap News, 3 October 2010, www.yonhapnews.co.kr.
[7] General Leon J. LaPorte, “Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” April 1, 2004, via: http://archive.com.
[8] U.S. Department of State, "Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments," August 2011, www.state.gov.
[9] "Statement of General Thomas A. Schwartz, Commander in Chief United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command, and Commander, United States Forces Korea, before the 107th Congress, Senate Armed Forces Committee," 5 March 2002, www.shaps.hawaii.edu.
[10] John R. Bolton, "Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction," Heritage Lectures, No. 743, 6 May 2002, www.heritage.org.
[11] "2006 Defense White Paper" (English Translation), Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, May 2007, p. 30, www.mnd.go.kr.
[12] Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2010," via the Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[13] William J. Broad and Judith Miller, "Government Report Says 3 Nations Hide Stocks of Smallpox," New York Times, June 13, 1999, p. 1.
[14] Jonathan B, Tucker, Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001) p. 203.
[15] "Smallpox Eradication: Destruction of Variola Virus Stocks," Report by the Secretariat, 52nd World Health Assembly, Provisional Agenda Item 13, 15 April 1999, http://apps.who.int.
[16] Park Dong-sam, "북한의 전략무기개발 어디까지 왔나? [How Far Has the DPRK's Development of Strategic Weapons Come?]" Pukhan (Seoul), January 1999.
[17] Andy Oppenheimer, ed., "Jane's Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense 2008-2009," August 2008, pp. 30-31, http://janes-store.ihs.com.
[18] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[19] Trefor Moss, "Launch preparations are for communications satellites, says Pyongyang," 2 March 2009, www.janes.com; "North Korea sparks fears of strike on U.S. with 'rocket' launch," Mail Foreign Service, 24 February 2009, www.dailymail.co.uk.
[20] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[21] Ha Tae-won, "[시안화나트륨 北반입]北 화학무기 2500-5000t 보유 [(North imported sodium cyanide) North has 2500-5000t of CW]," Donga Ilbo, 24 September 2004, www.donga.com.
[22] Eric Croddy with Perez Armendariz and John Hart, Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002).
[23] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[24] "2008 Defense White Paper" (English Translation), Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, May 2009, p. 30, www.mnd.go.kr.
[25] Kim Cheol-hoon, "'생물무기 전용가능 동결 건조기' 김정일 직계기업이 日서 수입 [Kim Jong-il's lineal company imported lyophilizer, which is transformable to biological weapon from Japan]," Hankuk Ilbo, p.2, 11 August 2006, www.kinds.or.kr; "DPRK Probably Produced Centrifuge To Produce Biological Agents," U.S. Army Asian Studies Detachment, 22 November 2006, in OSC document JPP20071005137003.
[26] Andy Oppenheimer, ed., "Jane's Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense 2008-2009," August 2008, pp. 30-31, http://janes-store.ihs.com.
[27] Gordon Thomas, "North Korea trying to weaponize bird flu," WorldNetDaily, 8 May 2006, www.wnd.com; "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 20 January 2011.
[28] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on North Korea

  • Conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013
  • Not party to the CWC and believed to possess 2,500-5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons
  • Active exporter of ballistic missile components, technology, and design data