Potemkin or real? North Korea’s biological weapons program

By Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley | July 18, 2017


Kim Jung-un’s June 2015 visit to a pesticide facility—Pyongyang’s Bio-technical Institute—rekindled long-standing suspicions that North Korea might be developing bioweapons. Photos of the tour, shown on North Korean television, showed a smiling Kim. He posed with military officers and personnel in lab coats in front of apparently new buildings, with sparkling laboratories and shiny equipment. The tour took place amid tensions with the United States—and soon after a US military laboratory accidentally shipped live anthrax to a US airbase in South Korea, an accident that Pyongyang translated as an act of aggression. These circumstances contributed to a belief that the visit to the pesticide facility was designed to send a message to the United States: that North Korea has an active bioweapons program.

North Korea’s hermetically sealed borders, along with its limited economic and political connections with the rest of the world, make it impossible to verify current or past allegations about the existence of a bioweapons program. One must be prudent when discussing North Korea, and not jump to conclusions or ascribe a threatening meaning to any sliver of information that manages to emerge, particularly when it emerges in time of crisis. Otherwise, the risk of adopting costly policies or engaging in unnecessary conflicts increases. What’s needed instead is to systematically analyze the available information, keeping an eye on what it takes to produce functioning bioweapons and keeping in mind that a country’s ability to produce such weapons is constrained by its political, economic, scientific, and social context. When such an analysis is performed, the odds that North Korea has established a successful bioweapons program appear much lower than some estimates would suggest.

What is known? Very little is known for sure about North Korea’s alleged bioweapons program. Much of the available data is drawn from scant intelligence estimates issued by the US, Russian, and South Korean governments, most of these estimates over a decade old. Additional information can be found in the media and from other independent sources, but such information cannot be corroborated and some of it is of questionable reliability.

Most government sources seem to agree that North Korea’s interest in biological weapons started in the 1960s, in the same era when Pyongyang launched its chemical weapons effort. On December 25, 1961, President Kim Il-sung issued a “Declaration of Chemicalization,” ordering the military to develop chemical weapons. Around the same time, he reportedly instructed the Academy of Defense Sciences to investigate biological weapons. According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, North Korea established a testing center at the academy in the 1960s, and reportedly acquired strains of the causative agents of anthrax, plague, and cholera from an unidentified source in Japan in 1968.

The program’s research and production infrastructure is difficult to discern with any precision. The South Korean government estimates that 10 facilities might be involved in bioweapons activities—seven research centers and three production facilities. Media and other independent sources provide more details about facilities suspected of involvement in the program, but this data cannot be verified. Four facilities are often mentioned in academic publications and other media sources as carrying out activities dedicated to biological weapons (with the South Korean government sometimes cited as a source): the Germ Research Institute, established in the 1970s; as well as the Central Biological Research Institute, the military biodefense unit, and the No. 5 Factory (sometimes referred to as the February 25 Factory, or No. 25 factory), all created in the 1980s. South Korean and Japanese media outlets list up to a dozen other dual-use and medical facilities that are potentially connected to the program, but do not provide clear evidence of bioweapons activities at these facilities.

Government and open-source documents are also decidedly vague about the activities of the program and the agents under study. Several sources claim that North Korean bioweapons research has focused on 13 agents, including the usual suspects: anthrax, plague, botulinum toxin, and hemorrhagic fevers (link in Korean). In the 1990s, US intelligence suspected that North Korea was working on a smallpox weapon based on samples obtained from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But these claims have not been substantiated. In addition, several defectors have made allegations of human testing at military and medical institutions. None of these claims has been confirmed. Furthermore, some of the defectors later acknowledged that they had no first-hand knowledge of bioweapons activities. Experience shows that one always needs to be cautious about defector testimony: Recall the Iraqi defector Curveball, whose claims about mobile biological weapons laboratories were used by the George W. Bush administration to build a case for the invasion of Iraq. Those claims were eventually debunked by the Iraq Survey Group.

The evolution and current status of the North Korean program are equally uncertain—government estimates generally provide no details on these issues, or on the possible achievements of a bioweapons program. For example, US assessments are consistently vague and continually changing. While some US estimates have taken the view that North Korea is engaged in research and development but that the country has not yet weaponized bio-agents or produced bioweapons, others state that North Korea may already possess ready-to-use biological weapons. A 1997 CIA assessment indicated that North Korea was “capable of supporting a limited [biological weapons] effort.”  Defense Department assessments of the late 1990s and early 2000s concurred, describing North Korea’s bioweapons infrastructure as “rudimentary” and capable of producing “limited quantities” of bio-agents. Starting in 2000, CIA estimates began to change, placing more emphasis on North Korea’s production capabilities and indicating that “North Korea [was] capable of producing and delivering via munitions a wide variety of chemical and biological agents,” and “possibly [had] biological weapons ready to use.”

In 2002, State Department official John Bolton dialed up the threat dramatically, declaring during a meeting of the Korean-American Association in Seoul that the North “has one of the most robust offensive bioweapons programs on Earth … and … has developed and produced, and may have weaponized, [biological weapons] agents… .” He added that “North Korea likely has the capability to produce sufficient quantities of biological agents within weeks of a decision to do so.” It is worth noting that in 2002 John Bolton also accused Cuba of having a biological weapons program. His claims were soon contradicted by US intelligence.

A 2011 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence sharply deflated the North Korean threat, merely stating that North Korea has “a biotechnology infrastructure that could support the production of various [biological weapons] agents” and that the country could use its conventional munitions production infrastructure to weaponize bio-agents. More recent reports issued by the office provide no assessment of a potential bioweapons program in North Korea. It remains to be seen whether this indicates the absence of a bioweapons program or the absence of evidence to substantiate suspicions.

In a rare assessment made public in 1993, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service seemed to agree with pre-2000 US assessments that North Korea’s biological activities were of a defensive nature. The report indicated that various research institutes, universities, and medical institutions were engaged in “applied military-biological research” and that “bio-agents are being tested on the island territories belonging to the DPRK.” The report, however, noted that “there is no evidence of offensive bioweapons activities” (link in Russian). A 2005 report by the Swedish Defense Research Agency came to the same conclusion, indicating that no evidence suggested a large-scale bioweapons program with dedicated production facilities in North Korea.

South Korea, on the other hand, has consistently claimed that the North Korean bioweapons program has advanced to the production phase—but official reports do not explicitly state that North Korea has produced or stockpiled bioweapons. Reports published by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense generally state that Pyongyang has been producing biological agents since the 1980s, but the reports are more cautious about the North’s weaponization capabilities, indicating that North Korea is “likely capable” or is “suspected” of being able to produce bioweapons including anthrax, plague, and smallpox. But like the United States, Seoul provides few details and little evidence to support its assessments.

Equipment is only a small part of the story. It is not surprising that Kim Jung-un’s visit to a pesticide facility resulted in alarming analyses—government threat assessments are inconsistent and vague, international access to North Korea is extremely limited, and fear about bioterrorism has been elevated since 9/11 and the US anthrax-letter episode. But recent history demonstrates that access to relevant material and equipment is hardly a guarantee of a successful bioweapons program. When threat assessments are made solely on the basis of the equipment to which nations have gained access, grossly exaggerated evaluations of capabilities are possible—just witness Libya and Iraq’s nuclear and biological weapons programs.

Images of dual-use equipment at the pesticide facility do not reveal anything about the activities occurring there. One can’t assess the activities occurring at the site without knowing whether personnel can actually use the dual-use equipment and adapt its technology to bioweapons development. Iraq, for example, acquired drying equipment necessary for bioweapons development but was not able to use it for lack of expertise. Also, claims that because the pesticide facility might produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and that therefore it can produce anthrax, are shortsighted at best. Bt has indeed been used as a simulant for anthrax, but individuals who have expertise working with Bt cannot automatically produce an anthrax weapon. As is known from the Soviet bioweapons program, scientific expertise in the civilian field does not necessarily translate into expertise in the weapons field. For example, when the Soviet research facility “Vector” was created in the 1970s, its staff of virology experts (including smallpox experts) all came from the university system and had no weapons expertise. Five years of experimentation and testing—and the help of experienced bioweapons scientists from another facility—were required for the university experts to master the specialized bioweapons knowledge needed to succeed.

Further, several pieces of laboratory equipment that could be used in a bioweapons program, such as the autoclave shown in the North Korean television report about Kim Jong-un’s visit to the pesticide facility, require electricity. If the power supply at the facility is intermittent—and power in North Korea is indeed intermittent—it is unlikely that such devices can be used effectively. Finally, to ascertain the existence of bioweapons activity, one needs to visit a site and determine whether it displays hallmarks or signatures of bioweapons infrastructure or activity. For example, during site visits to Russian facilities that took place under the 1992 Trilateral Agreement signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, US and British inspectors found evidence of bioweapons activity—such as high containment equipment and aerosol testing chambers—even though the Russians undoubtedly had tried to hide such traces.

More broadly, what is missing in assessments of the North Korean bioweapons threat is an understanding of the conditions required to produce bioweapons successfully—and an evaluation of whether North Korea meets the required conditions. Analyses of past state and terrorist bioweapons programs indicate that the continuity and stability of scientific and production work must be ensured over a long period of time to allow scientists and technicians to accumulate the knowledge necessary for development of a working bioweapon.

In addition, because bioweapons are based on fragile microorganisms that are sensitive to their handling and to environmental conditions, the development stages of bioweapons are highly interdependent—a stage cannot occur until the previous stage has been successfully completed. This calls for an organizational structure that carefully coordinates and synchronizes the work of the teams involved. It also requires a management model that allows scientists to communicate freely, share information, and openly acknowledge failures in order to learn from them. When these conditions are not met, programs face steeper learning curves, long delays in project development, and numerous failures. Very few of the known state bioweapons programs have produced a working weapon, and many have failed despite having access to the required material and financial resources. In North Korea’s case, the data available from open sources and government assessments raise many questions about the country’s ability to produce a working bioweapon.

Required: Expertise, continuity, management. The North Korean bioweapons program is suspected of having been launched in the 1960s, with new infrastructure built in the 1970s and 1980s. But was this a continuous program—or a series of separate and independent programs? Did the team that reportedly started to investigate bioweapons with strains obtained from Japan in 1968 continue its involvement in the 1970s and 1980s when new facilities were established, or did the work switch to new teams at those facilities? Did the original teams transfer their expertise and accumulated knowledge to the new teams? What was the knowledge base of both teams when they started, and did they have expertise working with the agents selected for work? Answers to these questions could provide important clues about the continuity and speed of the program and about the personnel’s ability to accumulate knowledge and make progress.

The Iraqi bioweapons program, which was long suspected of having reached an advanced stage, and even of producing a smallpox weapon together with mobile production sites, provides a good illustration of how difficult it is to assess a bioweapons program with limited knowledge about the program’s continuity or level of expertise. After the two Gulf wars and countless UN inspections, it became clear that prior threat assessments had been grossly exaggerated. The Iraqi program lasted about two decades, but it was only able to produce crude liquid agents, such as anthrax and botulinum toxin, which were hastily placed in bombs that would have destroyed most of the agent upon impact.

A close analysis of the program shows that it faced two key problems: a lack of continuity and a lack of expertise. The Iraqi program is best described as a succession of three separate programs, each conducted independently from the others and with little or no transfer of expertise and knowledge. The first effort started in 1974 but was ended after four years, officially due to “scientific fraud.” A second program was launched in 1979 that investigated plant diseases, and possibly assassination weapons, but it also soon faltered because of lack of expertise. The third program was launched in 1983 with a new team investigating anthrax and botulinum toxin as potential bioweapons. Although this third program came to include a large number of facilities, it relied on a relatively small number of personnel—who had no expertise working with the two agents selected for work and also lacked expertise in important stages of bioweapons development, such as scale-up, drying, and weaponization.

As a result, each team had to start work from scratch. Each faced a steep learning curve due to its lack of expertise. The teams had access to equipment, but lack of expertise prevented them from using it. The autocratic management of the program, and the atmosphere of fear created by Saddam Hussein and his son-in-law (who was responsible for weapons programs), created further challenges to knowledge accumulation: Failure bore serious consequences for one’s career or life.

If the North Korean program has faced similar issues, it is unlikely that it has made substantial progress over the past 30 years.

Needed: Economic stability. Another issue that requires investigation is the impact of North Korea’s economic circumstances on a potential bioweapons program. North Korea’s command economy has suffered from serious material shortages since the country’s founding. The demise in the early 1990s of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s main supplier of fuel, sent the economy into a downward spiral, resulting in a four-year famine that killed close to 3 million people. Although the famine ended in 1998, thanks to international humanitarian assistance, the country continues to face food crises and the majority of the population is still malnourished. In 2016, Pyongyang warned its population to get ready for another possible famine due to a new set of international sanctions. The country also suffers because, in its planned economy, output objectives are set for each institution and resources are centrally (and inefficiently) allocated. Despite several attempts at economic reform, the North’s economy is still unable to meet the people’s needs.

Some would argue that the defense sector gets priority in allocation of resources and therefore is shielded from incessant economic crises. But this is a faulty assumption. The Soviet Union also had a planned economy, with centralized allocation of resources and a defense sector that received priority status. Yet the defense complex could not escape the shortages that plagued the Soviet system. For example, bioweapons facilities routinely lacked the required equipment or reagent necessary for their work. The output objectives set by central authorities did not always take into account scientific realities, nor did they factor in the difficulties that the economic system itself imposed on obtaining the required technical and human resources. As a result, scientists sometimes had to stop work in order to independently procure material and equipment that they could not get through official procurement routes, creating substantial delays in bioweapons development. And when they failed to meet centrally set objectives, they either lied about the outcome of their work or produced bad science. Thus, despite its priority status, the Soviet bioweapons program suffered due to an inefficient economic system, and its achievements were much reduced as a result.

It is likely that North Korean facilities suffer from much greater challenges: While the Soviet economy could obtain some resources from overseas and send some personnel to learn new techniques in the West, North Korea is a closed country due both to its own system and to international sanctions. Pyongyang’s bioweapons program is unlikely to benefit from outside expertise. North Korea could in theory obtain missing equipment or material illegally—the country is adept at establishing illicit procurement networks. But in the bioweapons field, illicit procurement can harm scientific work, especially when laboratory equipment or material is obtained from different suppliers. For example, a change in the quality or characteristics of reagents can doom an experiment because unknown variables can be introduced.

Furthermore, North Korea experiences regular power outages, and the quality of its water is notoriously bad. These factors too can affect scientific work. Power outages can cause fragile microorganisms to die due to improper storage or working conditions—and if outages occur during production, they can compromise weeks, or possibly months, of work. North Korea’s unsanitary water might also harm experiments by introducing foreign organisms that could contaminate a batch of bio-agents. Such challenges ultimately create additional disruptions in scientific work and lengthen the time required to obtain positive results.

Compulsory: A scientific foundation. Understanding Pyongyang’s alleged bioweapons efforts also requires a good understanding of the status of natural and medical science in North Korea. Without a solid foundation in natural and medical sciences, a bioweapons program cannot succeed. When Soviet authorities issued a decree to expand the country’s bioweapons program in the early 1970s, they had to face the reality that Soviet science had fallen behind and needed modernization. Years of Stalin’s purges, along with the policy of Lysenkoism—which negated the role of genetics in science—had resulted in the elimination of a whole generation of competent scientists. Some of them had been at the forefront of bioweapons development, but now they were replaced with a new generation of scientists educated in flawed science. It took the Soviet Union close to a decade to catch up and create the modern infrastructure needed to meet the bioweapons challenge. The Soviet Union procured some needed equipment overseas and sent some of its scientists for training in Western laboratories. Even so, Soviet scientists could not reach the objectives set by central authorities to create new types of bioweapons.

Decades of economic sanctions, and the desperate state of North Korea’s economy and society, have undoubtedly had an effect on the scientific sector. Reports about the nation’s health care system are revealing: Hospitals are reportedly unable to procure medication for patients and are otherwise poorly equipped. If North Korean natural science is in as bad a state as the medical sector, it is likely that North Korea does not have the knowledge base required to support bioweapons development. A poor public health system also places a country at risk if an accident should occur in a bioweapons facility. And such an accident would ensure international detection of the program.

Potemkin villages? One can develop a more accurate assessment of a country’s bioweapons capabilities, and the speed of its progress, by gathering data about the scientific, economic, political, and social conditions in which scientific work occurs than by relying solely on isolated pieces of information about equipment acquisition. Reaching an evidence-based assessment is all the more important in North Korea’s case because the regime often builds Potemkin villages for internal and external consumption. From fake missiles displayed during military parades to malls filled with modern electronics and clothes that are only for show and not for sale, to the incessant barrage of reports on North Korean television showing a smiling Kim Jong-un visiting technology fairs or plants that produce food products, the regime aims to project an image of strength and abundance both to the outside world and to its starving population. The visit to the pesticide facility might well have been another Potemkin exercise.

It is quite possible that North Korea has engaged in exploratory bioweapons research, but it is unlikely that the country has been able to establish the conditions required to achieve a working bioweapon. The poor state of North Korea’s medical and (most probably) science sector implies that the country does not have a sufficient knowledge base to research, design, produce, and dry bio-agents, not to mention weaponize them. The deficiencies of North Korea’s economic system, along with the weight of decades of international sanctions, cast doubt on the country’s ability to acquire but also to ensure a continuous supply of equipment and material needed in bioweapons work. Little is known about the organization of scientific work in North Korea, but it is more than likely that science is managed in an autocratic manner, and that subordinates do not challenge orders from higher-ups or openly report failures, particularly if they risk sanctions for doing so. All this casts doubt on the ability of scientists and technicians to learn from each other, accumulate knowledge, and acquire outside expertise when needed—traits that have been a hallmark of past successful bioweapons programs. Without a solid knowledge base and a continuous and stable work environment and infrastructure, scientists are less likely to overcome the challenges of working with fragile, living microorganisms.

One might ask why, if North Korea has been able to produce a nuclear weapon in the same adverse conditions, it shouldn’t also be successful in the bioweapons field. The answer lies in the decidedly different nature of bio-agents and nuclear weapons. Unlike nuclear material, living microorganisms are fragile and unpredictable. They are more sensitive than nuclear material to changes in work conditions, equipment, laboratory materials, and other disruptions. A country that cannot ensure a stable and continuous work environment is unlikely to operate a successful bioweapons program.

More research is needed to characterize North Korea’s political, economic, organizational, and managerial circumstances, and probe the effects of these circumstances on bioweapons work. But if the United States and the international community are serious about preventing the emergence of a North Korean bioweapons threat, they might seek to forestall the threat by means of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). North Korea has been a party to the convention since 1987—but the BTWC lacks a verification mechanism. If a verification regime for the treaty were instituted, the United States could not only obtain more accurate data about the North’s program but, more importantly, promote routine inspections that would prevent progress in Pyongyang’s bioweapons development. Conducting international inspections, or merely threatening to do so, has proved to be an effective strategy in creating disruptions and delays in past biological weapons programs, including in the Soviet Union and Iraq, and even in the program of the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo.


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