Conflict North Korea’s Stocks of Chemical Weapons



The war of words between North Korea and the US has focussed on the provocative test firing of missiles and the potential nuclear capability which the rogue state may or may not possess. However, one expert believes that North Korea’s massive stockpiles of chemical weapons could also wreak havoc should hostilities commence. The Centre for Non-proliferation Studies estimates North Korea has between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons.[1]

The most potent and deadly chemical it has in its possession is said to be VX which is the deadliest nerve agent ever created. Its most recent use by North Korea was in Kuala Lumpur airport where North Korean agents and two locals assassinated Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam.

The former commanding officer of the UK’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment (CBRN) and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon warned of its widespread dangers if delivered in a missile or if quantities were to fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. He said even a microscopic drop of VX nerve agent can be deadly. He suggested that North Korea may deliberately supply extremists with either chemical or worse nuclear weapons. He also reminded the author that North Korea helped to set up Syria’s nuclear weapons programme in 2006 which was subsequently destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.

De Bretton-Gordon fears that the tough sanctions on North Korea may result in it selling its stockpiles to the highest bidder regardless of who it is, however Professor Hazel Smith at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) believes that such an outcome would be unlikely and went on to say that it would be a major change in policy for the North Korean regime. She rules out any interaction on the basis that North Korean shipping is monitored very closely and would be unable to transport weapons or chemicals without being detected.

Some observers believe that nuclear war on the Korean peninsula and wider region which includes Japan is unlikely, however if hostilities break out, chemical attacks are much more likely. Speaking at the Defence and Security Equipment International conference in London, de-Bretton-Gordon said, ‘I think we now know that they have 5,000 tons of VX. We know they have missiles capable of firing 4,000 to 6,000 miles, probably with a payload of half a ton, so half a ton of VX in those missiles could kill tens of thousands of people, and they could do that now, so that is a genuine concern.’ Once again Professor Smith does not agree with de-Bretton-Gordon as she states that ‘chemical weaponry doesn’t form part of the regime’s strategic plans.’

Pyongyang could also use biological weapons to target South Korea’s water and food supplies with something like anthrax or yellow fever, however according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) it points out that using biological weapons would be as dangerous to North Korea’s own forces as they are to South Korean or US forces, and the North’s limited medical services would make the agents more lethal. Therefore it deduced that using biological agents is not a likely option.

The Pentagon has deemed the purchase and deployment of missile defence systems to be an extremely high priority due to the threat from North Korea and as such it is preparing to ask Congress to transfer some $416 million from Army operations and maintenance accounts. If approved 20 new silos and 20 new missiles for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD) system based in Fort Greely, Alaska would be constructed, US Navy Aegis Ballistic missile ships would be upgraded as would radar systems in Hawaii and Alaska.

South Korean soldiers have been carrying out drills in preparation for nuclear or chemical attacks by Pyongyang. They were photographed wearing respirators, carrying weapons and were running a decontamination exercise at a sports stadium in the capital Seoul.[2] Many analysts believe that in the event of hostilities Seoul will be the primary target as it is the capital of South Korea and is within range of Pyongyang’s artillery batteries. The US has stationed more missile defence systems to protect the South, however despite the protection they will offer, it will be virtually impossible to stop the North’s artillery from firing high explosive, chemical and nuclear shells across the border. It has not been confirmed if Pyongyang is in possession of artillery-based tactical nuclear weapons, however some higher calibre artillery pieces (155mm) are known to be able to fire shells which can deliver five to fifteen kiloton yields.

It is not known whether Pyongyang has this capability, however it can fire chemical weapons through these delivery systems. It is widely believed that Kim Jong-un’s scientists have been able to produce a nuclear warhead which can fit on one of its missiles which has raised the stakes and the tension significantly between Pyongyang and Washington.

Amidst all the tension President Donald Trump has threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea,’ the reality is that tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands may die in South Korea and beyond before the rogue state is stopped. Many analysts are of the view that any conflict with North Korea would not be a short clinical affair and may cause the US and any of its allies who come to its aid to be embroiled in yet another ‘open-ended’ and very bloody conflict.

Pyongyang recently announced that the ‘fiery rhetoric ‘from the White House was a ‘declaration of war.’[3] As a result, President Trump’s military advisers stated in no uncertain terms that the US had the capability to respond to any aggressive action from the rogue state. At the beginning of the week in separate forums, the US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, the National Security Adviser, H R McMaster and the Joint Chiefs Chairman, Joseph Dunford, all explained the US’s commitment to restrict Pyongyang’s access to nuclear weapons but reiterated the point that diplomacy was very much the first line of defence or attack depending on your point of view.

Former CIA Deputy Director, John McLaughlin was dismissive of the belligerent rhetoric from Pyongyang as it is a continuation of a theme which has been going on for years, however he did state that ‘the new element here is that Trump keeps shooting back, rhetorically, rhetorically, and no president has done that before in the way he does. That puts an element of unpredictability here we haven’t seen before.’ Many analysts remain of the opinion that Kim Jong-un’s main priority is the survival of his regime and that any form of conflict is likely to be very bad for South Korea and some others, however it will utterly devastate his country and will most certainly remove him from power.

Whilst North Korea appears to be teetering on the brink of war it has made public statements that it wants an official end to the Korean War, which was halted by a 1953 armistice but not ended by a peace treaty. It also wants nothing short of full normalization of relations with the US and to be treated with respect and as an equal in the global arena, which many would agree is a much more favourable option.