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Chemical Last updated: March, 2014

North Korea claims that it does not possess chemical weapons (CW). Assessment of CW stockpiles is extremely difficult even in countries with more transparent systems than North Korea. However, the DPRK is thought to be among the world's largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United States and Russia, who are working to destroy their Cold War caches. [1] In 2012, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) estimated the DPRK possesses between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including phosgene (choking agent), hydrogen cyanide (blood agent), mustard (blister agent), and sarin (nerve agent). [2]

According to the South Korean MND, over 70% of North Korea's ground forces, supported by thousands of artillery systems, are deployed within 90 miles of the DMZ. [3] The U.S. Department of Defense has described this as an "offensively oriented posture." [4] South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, reported in 2002 that chemical weapons were suspected to be among those deployed near the DMZ in forward units. [5] Chemical weapons could potentially be used in the early stages of an attack to debilitate key metropolitan areas in South Korea. [6]

North Korea remains one of the six countries not to have signed or acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). North Korea has signed the Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of CW in warfare, but does not prevent a state from producing or possessing them. [7] The DPRK refused to acknowledge having chemical weapons as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which was passed in October 2006 following North Korea's test of a nuclear device.

Capabilities

North Korea may between 2,500 tons and 5,000 tons of CW agents. [8] The South Korean government assesses that North Korea is able to produce most types of chemical weapons indigenously, although it must import some precursors to produce nerve agents, which it has done in the past. [9] At maximum capacity, North Korea is estimated to be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons of CW. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX are thought be to be the focus of North Korean production. [10]

According to the government-sponsored Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology [한국화학연구원] in South Korea, North Korea has four military bases equipped with chemical weapons, 11 facilities where chemical weapons are produced and stored, and 13 locations where research and development is carried out relating to chemical weapons. [11] Two facilities near the cities of Kanggye and Sakchu are reportedly equipped for final preparation and the filling of artillery shells with CW agents. The testing of agents reportedly is also performed at these two locations, possibly in very large underground facilities. [12] However, there has been no open source evidence of new storage facilities. [13]

North Korea's current weak economy has resulted in severe shortages of both energy and raw materials, making estimating the country's CW production levels even more difficult. [14] It is possible Pyongyang is allowing its existing CW cache to age due to these economic circumstances, which could make them unreliable on the battlefield — if usable at all. This may be particularly true of what is thought to be the majority of the DPRK's cache: unitary munitions which hold a single canister of lethal chemicals, rather than a more stable binary system holding two more stable chemicals which are later combined. [15]

Nevertheless, North Korea has a considerable and capable, albeit aging, chemical industry, able to produce dual-use chemicals such as phosphate, ammonium, fluoride, chloride and sulfur. [16] The DPRK has in recent years continued to acquire from abroad (China, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.), dual-use chemicals that could potentially be used in its CW program. [17]

North Korea is believed to be capable of using a variety of means to deploy its stockpile of chemical agents, including field artillery, multiple rocket launchers, FROG rockets, Scud and Nodong missiles, aircraft and unconventional means. [18] Additionally, U.S. military authorities believe there is long-range artillery deployed in the DMZ, along with ballistic missiles capable of delivering chemical warfare agents. [19]

History

In the aftermath of the Korean War and in light of the perceived nuclear threat from the United States, North Korea sought a less costly alternative to nuclear weapons. [20] An indigenous chemical industry and chemical weapons production in North Korea have their roots in the 'Three Year Economic Plan' that spanned the years from 1954 to 1956, the period immediately following the Korean War, and the first 'Five Year Plan' from 1957 to 1961. However, significant progress was not made until the first 'Seven Year Plan' (1961-67). [21] At that time, Kim Il Sung issued a "Declaration for Chemicalization" whose aim was further development of an independent chemical industry capable of supporting various sectors of its economy, as well as supporting chemical weapons production. [22] It was during this time that the DPRK established the basic organization of the current Nuclear and Chemical Defense Bureau. [23]

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the DPRK received assistance from both the Soviet Union and China in developing its nascent chemical industry. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated in May 1979 that the DPRK had only a defensive capability in CW. [24] Estimates vary as to when North Korea is believed to have acquired the capability for independent CW production. Some sources suspect it was not until the early 1980s, and others speculate it was as early as the 1970s. [25] By the late 1980s, the DPRK was capable of producing substantial amounts of CW agents and deployed a large number of chemical weapons munitions. [26] In January 1987, the South Korean MND reported that the DPRK possessed up to 250 metric tons of chemical weapons, including mustard (bliser agent), and some nerve agents. [27] By 2010, the MND's estimate had climbed to 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of chemical agents, including nerve agents. [28]

Scarcity Requires External Sources

During the 1990s,  lack of precursors required for the manufacture of nerve agents forced the DPRK to look for foreign sources. In 1996, an employee of a Kobe, Japan-based trading company was caught trying to export 50kg of sodium fluoride and 50kg of hydrofluoric acid to North Korea via North Korean cargo vessels. Japanese authorities arrested the individual and charged him with the crime of illegally trading in chemicals that can be used for making chemical weapons, and in this case, sarin. [29]

It came to light in the fall of 2004 that a considerable amount — more than 100 tons in one case - of sodium cyanide, a dual-use chemical that could be used to manufacture both hydrogen cyanide (blood) and tabun) (nerve agent), had been exported to North Korea by China and Malaysia in the previous year without government approval. In the case of China, South Korea was the original exporter of the chemical, which was then been re-exported to North Korea. Another such attempt via Thailand was reportedly thwarted. [30]

North Korea and the Chemical Weapons Convention

Beginning in 1997, the ROK government tried to convince the DPRK to join the CWC, but to no avail. [31] The DPRK has also rebuffed similar efforts on the part of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Japanese government. [32] In theory, North Korea's accession to the CWC could convey long-term economic advantages by giving the DPRK access to trade in treaty-controlled chemicals and technology. In the short term, however, North Korea is not likely to join the CWC regime. [33]

Allegations of Human Testing

Charges of experimentation on humans with chemical agents have been reported by activists, North Korean defectors, and the South Korean government; however there is no publicly available evidence to substantiate these allegations. [34] In 1994, the South Korean National Unification Board reported to the National Assembly that Pyongyang was testing CW on its political prisoners. [35] In 2004, a BBC-produced documentary titled "Access to Evil" alleged that the DPRK had used political prisoners as test subjects for its chemical weapons. However, numerous discrepancies in the documentation related to the film came to light and threw the veracity of the allegations into question. [36] In response to the documentary, South Korea seemed to demur on its previous assertions. A spokeswoman for South Korea's Unification Ministry said only, "We have no official comment on whether humans were used for tests...there are areas [of the documentary] that are not completely free of doubt." [37] Activists have asserted that the South was being diplomatic in order to avoid confrontation with the North. In 2013, Human Rights in North Korea, citing defector testimony, alleged that the DPRK was testing CW on political prisoners and disabled children at Detention Camp 22 (Hoeryong Concentration Camp) and at an island off South Hamgyong Province. [38] In February 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council reported accounts of the use of CW on disabled persons, however it could not independently verify the accuracy. [39]

Recent Developments and Current Status

While there is no evidence that North Korea's CW program is growing, the threat is still taken very seriously by South Korea. A month after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing civilians with conventional munitions, the South Korean National Emergency Management Agency distributed 1,300 gas masks to residents of islands along the disputed western border, as well as an additional 610,000 to boost numbers amongst the 3.93 million civil defense corps members. The Agency also said it would renovate existing emergency shelters located at subway stations and underground parking lots to protect against chemical weapons. [40] These efforts may be undertaken to assuage fear more than anything else, as a gas mask cannot protect against blister agents that affect the skin such as Mustard, Lewisite, and Phosgene oxime, which North Korea is believed to possess. In October 2013, U.S. and South Korea agreed to build a joint surveillance system to detect biochemical agents along the demilitarized zone. This agreement will enable information sharing on vaccines and diseases as well. [41]

Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father died in December 2011, has yet to make a public statement on North Korea's chemical weapons program.

Sources:
[1] "미국의 북한 생화학무기 압박 전략 [U.S. Strategy of Pressure on North Korean Biological, Chemical Weapons]," Shindonga, Donga Ilbo Magazine, November 2004, shindonga.donga.com; North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 161.
[2] Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 2012.
[3] Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 201.
[4] Department of Defense, "Proliferation: Threat and Response," Office of the Secretary of the Defense, January 2001.
[5] Lee Kyo-Gwan, "리포트 -화학무기 전방부대 배치 완료 [NK Report - North Korea Completes Chemical Weapons Deployment in Forward Units]," Chosen Ilbo, 5 November 2002, www.chosun.com.
[6] "북한, 화학무기 생산능력 1일 15.2t [North Korea capable of manufacturing 15.2 tons per day of chemical weapons]", Yonhap News, 16 August 1997, www.yonhap.news.co.kr.
[7] The other four countries who have not signed the CWC are: Angola, Egypt, Somalia and Syria; "Status of Participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention as at May 21 2009," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," www.opcw.org; "1925 Geneva Protocol (in alphabetical order)," United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, http://unhq-appspub-01.un.org.
[8] "미국의 북한 생화학무기 압박 전략 [U.S. Strategy of Pressure on North Korean Biological, Chemical Weapons]," Shindonga, Donga Ilbo Magazine, November 2004, shindonga.donga.com; Lee Yoon-Geol, "북한, 핵만큼 무서운 생화학무기 5천 t 보유 [North Korea has 5000 Tons of Chemical Weapons as Scary as Nuclear Weapons]," Sisa Journal, No 1121, 13 April 2011, www.sisapress.com; Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 2010.
[9] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org; for further reading see: Eric Croddy, "Vinalon, the DPRK, and Chemical Weapons Precursors," NTI Issue Brief, February 2003, www.nti.org.
[10] Lee Yoon-Geol, "북한, 핵만큼 무서운 생화학무기 5천 보유 [North Korea has 5,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons as Scary as Nuclear Weapons]," Sisa Journal, No. 1121, 13 April 2011, www.sisapress.com.
[11] 북한 화학무기 5천톤 보유, 군사기지 등 관련시설도 28곳 [North Korea has 5,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons and 28 Support Facilities]," Nocut News, 17 October 2006, www.nocutnews.co.kr.
[12] Joseph S. Bermudez. Jr., "Asia, Inside North Korea's CW Infrastructure," Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 August 1996.
[13] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[14] Eric Croddy with Clarisa Perez-Armendariz and John Hart, Chemical and Biological Warfare : A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen, (New York, NY; Springer-Verlag, 2002), p. 51; North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), pp. 161-162.
[15] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[16] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) Program," North Korea's Weapons Programs: A Net Assessment, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 21 January 2004, p. 51, www.iiss.org.
[17] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[18] Kwan Yang-Ju, "핵무기 못지않은 북한의 화학무기 폐기 방안 강구 긴요 [Strategy to Eliminate North Korea's Biological and Chemical Weapons Needed]," Northeast Asian Strategic Analysis, Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA), 7 October 2010; North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 162.
[19] Department of Defense, "Proliferation: Threat and Response," Office of the Secretary of the Defense, January 2001.
[20] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[21] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Warfare Arsenal," Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 May 1993.
[22] Korea Institute for National Unification, "2009 북한개요 [2009 North Korea Summary]," 2009, p.109, www.kinu.or.kr; "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[23] "미국의 북한 생화학무기 압박 전략 [U.S. Strategy of Pressure on North Korean Biological, Chemical Weapons]," Shindonga, Donga Ilbo Magazine, November 2004, shindonga.donga.com.
[24] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Warfare Arsenal," Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 May 1993.
[25] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Warfare Arsenal," Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 May 1993; "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," Asia Report No. 167, International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009; Lee Yoon-Geol, "북한, 핵만큼 무서운 생화학무기 5천 보유 [North Korea has 5,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons as Scary as Nuclear Weapons]," Sisa Journal, No. 1121, 13 April 2011, www.sisapress.com; "북한 생화학무기 대량생산 [North Korea Mass Producing Biological and Chemical Weapons]," Yonhap, 23 October 1992, www.yonhap.news.co.kr.
[26] Eric Croddy with Clarisa Perez-Armendariz and John Hart, Chemical and Biological Warfare : A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen (New York; Springer-Verlag, 2002), pp. 50-51.
[27] "Defense Minister on DPRK Submarine, Rocket Test," The Korea Herald, 29 January 1987, p. 1.
[28] Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 2010.
[29] "Trader Nabbed for Illegal Chemical Exports," Jiji Press Ticker Service, 8 April 1996, www.lexisnexis.com.
[30] "화학무기 원료 시안화나트륨 북유입 / 정부, 위험물질 북에 얼마나 갔는지 깜깜 [Chemical Weapon Precursor Exported to North Korea/Government Unsure about Amount Exported]," Donga Ilbo, 29 September 2004, www.donga.com; "Toxic Chemical Shipped to North Korea from South Korea," Agence France-Presse, 24 September 2004, www.lexisnexis.com.
[31] "South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Urges Pressure on North over Chemical Arms," Yonhap, 7 May 1997.
[32] "Foreign Minister Urges Chemical Weapons Body to Deter North Korea," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 3 December 1998.
[33] "Why the Discrepancy Between ROK, DPRK Joint Communiqué Regarding Military Authorities Talks," Yonhap, 8 April 2002.
[34] Antony Barnett, "Revealed: the gas chamber horror of North Korea's gulag," The Guardian, 1 February 2004, www.guardian.co.uk.; Joseph S. Bermudez. Jr., "Asia, Inside North Korea's CW Infrastructure," Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 August 1996.
[35] "North Korea Alleged Using Detainees in Chemical Weapons Tests," Associated Press, 26 September 1994.
[36] Bertil Lintner, "North Korea and the Poor Man's Bombs," Asia Times Online, 9 May 2007, www.atimes.com.
[37] Samuel Len, "Skepticism Over Gas Tests; Seoul to Await Probe After Report on North," International Herald Tribune, 3 February 2004, www.lexisnexis.com.
[38] David Hawk, “North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps,” Human Rights in North Korea, 27 August 2013; Julian Ryall, “North Korea ‘Testing Chemical Weapons on Political Prisoners’,” The Telegraph, 14 October 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk.
[39] UN Human Rights Council, "Report of the Detailed Finds of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," A/HRC/25/CRP.1, p.93, 7 February 2014, www.un.org.
[40] "S. Korea to Guard Against N. Korea's Chemical Weapons," Agence France-Presse, 9 December 2010.
[41] “South Korea, US Agree to Build Anti-bioterrorism System,” Yonhap News Agency, 20 October 2013, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr.

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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