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North Korea

Biological

Last Updated: July, 2018

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, is a party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Geneva Protocol. The DPRK is suspected of maintaining an ongoing biological weapons (BW) program in violation of its international commitments, but there is no definitive information about the program’s status.

According to North Korean defectors and assessments by the U.S. and South Korean governments, North Korea began acquiring a biological weapons capability as early as the 1960s under the orders of Kim Il-sung. [1] Unlike its chemical weapons (CW) program, Pyongyang is believed to have built its biological program indigenously. [2] The 2016 White Paper from South Korea's Ministry of National Defense (MND) assesses that North Korea is able to indigenously cultivate a number of biological agents often used as weapons, including the causative agents of anthrax and smallpox [3] In 1997, North Korean Colonel Ju-Hwal Choi defected and testified that the Germ Research Institute of the Armed Forces Ministry is the DPRK’s lead organization for developing biological weapons. [4] However, due to the opacity of North Korea’s regime, there is no reliable up-to-date information on the organization responsible for developing biological weapons, or the status of its efforts.

Capabilities

Open source information provides 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. Most recent estimates 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. [5]

Biological weapons programs are by their nature very difficult to monitor. Barring further information from Pyongyang, researchers can only estimate which causative agents might be included in North Korea's inventory. Analysis of North Korea’s BW program has been based in part on defector testimony, which has led to varying accounts of North Korea's capabilities and a high degree of uncertainty. Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments suggests that the Korean People's Army's (KPA) inventory might include the causative agents: Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Clostridium botulinum (Botulism), Vibrio cholera (Cholera), Hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever), Yersinia pestis (Plague), Variola (Smallpox), Salmonella typhi (Typhoid Fever) and Coquillettidia fuscopennata (Yellow Fever). [6] However, parliamentary audit documents of the MND assert that North Korea has developed more than 13 kinds of biological agents. In addition to those mentioned by Jane's, they include Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, Entamoeba histolyca (Dysentery), Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), Rickettsia rickettsii (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), and T-2 mycotoxins (Alimentary Toxic Aleukia). [7]

U.S. government assessments have frequently asserted that the DPRK possesses significant biological weapons capabilities. However, U.S. estimates are not always internally consistent, and recent versions have tended to downgrade earlier editions. The U.S. State Department's 2014 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] South Korea’s 2016 National Defense White Paper asserts that “it appears that the North can independently cultivate and produce such biological weapons as the bacteria of anthrax, smallpox, and pest [plague].” [9]

While the United States and Russia consider eliminating their stocks of variola virus (the causative agent of smallpox), a particular concern is the status of North Korea's 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. [10] If true, this would violate Pyongyang's commitments as a State Party to the BTWC, to which it acceded in March 1987. 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. [11]

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. [12] 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) spores from UV light, which would be the first step in preparing the agent for weaponization. [13]

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. In June 2015 the South Korean Defense Ministry asserted that, “North Korea has 13 types of BW agents which it can weaponize within ten days, and anthrax and smallpox are the likely agents it would deploy.” [14] In recent years, South Korea has reported an increasing number of small-sized drone infiltrations. [15] While the reported drones have all been surveillance drones, a high-level defector stated that he witnessed the mounting of undisclosed biological or chemical weapons on drones, and that the drones’ dispersal capabilities were tested on animal populations. [16] Defectors have accused the North Korean regime of testing biological agents on human subjects, but these claims cannot be independently substantiated. [17]

History

Alleging (falsely) that the United States had used poisonous gases and bacteria 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. [18] North Korea 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. [19] Several defectors have alleged that the College for Army Doctors and Military Officers and Kim Il-sung University Medical College conducted human testing on political prisoners, although such assertions are difficult to verify. [20]

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 agents 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. [21]

Although international efforts to strengthen export controls and sanctions implementation 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. [22] The DPRK also has sufficient stocks of growth media, including agar, peptone, and yeast extract from breweries, to support a BW program. [23]

Recent Developments and Current Status

On 6 June 2015, state media showed Kim Jong Un touring the Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute, which is ostensibly dedicated to creating biopesticides. Expert imagery analyses of the facility and site construction showed that it has dual-use capabilities, and could be used (for example) to manufacture large batches of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax). [24] Many have interpreted publicity surrounding the Institute visit as North Korea’s response to a May 2015 incident in which the U.S. Army may have inadvertently shipped partially inactivated anthrax samples to South Korea, which North Korea viewed as an act of aggression. [25]

While it is widely acknowledged that North Korea has the intent to develop biological weapons, it is still unclear if a bioweapons program exists or its phase of development. A 2017 analysis of North Korean biological weapons capabilities published by Harvard’s Belfer Center concludes that, while North Korea likely possesses several types of pathogens and dual-use facilities capable of biological agent production, the extent of weaponization and means of delivery are unknown. [26]

Sources:
[1] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, June 18, 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] Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, "2016 Defense White Paper," (English Translation), p. 34, www.mnd.go.kr.
Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Report to Cognress (2015) p21, www.defense.gov.
[6] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, July 5, 2010.
[7] 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, October 3, 2010, www.yonhapnews.co.kr.
[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] Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, "2016 Defense White Paper," (English Translation), p. 34, www.mnd.go.kr.
[10] William J. Broad and Judith Miller, "Government Report Says 3 Nations Hide Stocks of Smallpox," The New York Times, June 13, 1999, p. 1.
[11] "Smallpox Eradication: Destruction of Variola Virus Stocks," Report by the Secretariat, 52nd World Health Assembly, Provisional Agenda Item 13, April 15, 1999, http://apps.who.int.
[12] Park Dong-sam, "북한의 전략무기개발 어디까지 왔나? [How Far Has the DPRK's Development of Strategic Weapons Come?]" Pukhan (Seoul), January 1999.
[13] Andy Oppenheimer, ed., Jane's Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense 2008-2009, August 2008, pp. 30-31, http://janes-store.ihs.com.
[14] Hyu-Kyung Kim, Elizabeth Phillip and Hattie Chung, North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The Known and Unknown, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, October 2017.
[15] Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, "2016 Defense White Paper," (English Translation), p. 34, www.mnd.go.kr.
[16] Guy Taylor, “North Korea attack drones carrying biological, chemical weapons can strike Seoul within 1 hour,” The Washington Times, 22 May 2017, www.thewashingtontimes.com.
[17] Michelle Florcruz, “Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea Tested Chemical Weapons On Disabled Children, Defector Claims,” International Business Times, June 7, 2015, www.ibtimes.com.
[18] 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.
[19] Eric Croddy with Perez Armendariz and John Hart, Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002).
[20] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, July 5, 2010.
[21] "2008 Defense White Paper" (English Translation), Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, May 2009, p. 30, www.mnd.go.kr.
[22] 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, August 11, 2006, www.kinds.or.kr; "DPRK Probably Produced Centrifuge to Produce Biological Agents," U.S. Army Asian Studies Detachment, November 22, 2006, in OSC document JPP20071005137003.
[23] Andy Oppenheimer, ed., Jane's Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense 2008-2009, August 2008, pp. 30-31, http://janes-store.ihs.com.
[24] Melissa Hanham, “Kim Jong Un Tours Pesticide Facilitiy Capable of Producing Biological Weapons: A 38 North Special Report,” 38 North, July 9, 2015, www.38north.org.
[25] Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, “Potemkin or real? North Korea’s biological weapons program,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 18 July 2017, www.thebulletin.org.
[26] Hyun-Kyung Kim, Elizabeth Philipp, Hattie Chung, North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program, the Known and Unknown, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, October 2017, www.belfercenter.org.

Get the Facts on North Korea
  • Conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017
  • 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

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2018.