More Than A Nuclear Threat: North Korea’s Chemical, Biological, and Conventional Weapons

Introduction and Main Points

North Korean development of biological weapons both poses a serious potential threat to the United States and its strategic partners, and illustrates the broader dangers of proliferation. Biological weapons pose dangers that are growing steadily with the proliferation of the civil, dual- use, and military technologies that can be used to develop and manufacture biological weapons – such as genetic engineering and drones.

Figures One to Three show that some estimates indicate that Cold War biological weapons could be even more lethal that nuclear weapons, and they have always far cheaper. Such weapons can also substitute for nuclear proliferation. They also do not require and high cost delivery systems like large ballistic missiles that are relatively easy to detect and locate, although they can supplement them. Moreover, they can act as a powerful threat and deterrent on their own, or act as compensation for inferiority in nuclear forces.

In theory, North Korea has rejected the development of biological weapons and advocates a "nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons free zone" in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention on March 13, 1987, and has consistently denied that it has biological weapons ever since. It has accused the United States of using biological weapons in the Korean War, and more recently of sending Anthrax to South Korea as part of such an effort, proving “that the United States is a group of gangsters threatening human existence.” North Korea has also clearly developed nuclear weapons, however, and has long possessed large stocks of chemical weapons. Its restraint in any area of military activity seems dubious at best.

This means that the United States must plan for the possibility that North Korea has biological weapons and will continue to develop more sophisticated weapons over time. There also is a significant amount of reporting that it does have ongoing biological weapons programs, and even the mere possibility that North Korean -- or any other set of threat -- biological weapons exist already presents major problems for U.S. military planning, and already gives North Korean deterrent and strategic leverage.

Such weapons present major problems for intelligence collection and analysis in both peacetime and war. This is true at both the strategic level – which is illustrated at the end of this testimony – and the operational level. For example, they present unique challenges in attributing and characterizing attacks – particularly if they are used on distant targets, mirror natural disease, and are used at a time when no major crisis and period of tension exists with North Korea.

At the same time, even the best open source efforts present serious problems in terms of access to accurate data on North Korea and in estimating the ability to characterize the real-world effectiveness of current and future weapons programs, and these challenges may limit even the best intelligence efforts. So do key technical uncertainties. Serious questions exist about the ease of developing and producing truly effective biological weapons with predictable and controllable effects. Such questions also exist about the ways in which biotechnology will evolve new threats over the coming decade, and over the risk tolerance of the developer and user.

Accordingly, there are several priorities that this Committee should address in dealing with the issue of North Korea's biological weapons programs.

  • The first is the need to ensure that the United States has given the right priority to developing the best possible data at the classified level and that we provide enough reliable unclassified data to properly define and examine the North Korean biological threat.
  • The second is to look beyond estimates of the threat based on Cold War technologies and the current state of the art technologies, and examine how a North Korean threat could evolve over the next ten to fifteen years.
  • The third is to look beyond more conventional ways that North Korea might use such weapons and examine the full range of ways in which North Korea might use biological weapons in a conflict.

This report was originally a written testimony for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy