Chemical Weapons: The North Korean Angle



As the US begins debate on intervention in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attacks of August 21, we thought we would take a brief look at the North Korean angle.

According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention, seven states are not members: Burma and Israel have signed but not ratified (both in 1993) and five states have not signed: Angola, South Sudan, Egypt, Syria, and North Korea. We can give Angola and South Sudan a pass. Israel has demurred because of the absence of regional cooperation, including from Iraq under Saddam Hussein as well as Egypt and Syria now (see the NTI profile). That leaves North Korea and Syria in predictable company.

What have they got? Among the useful assessments available online are a short up-to-date profile by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a 2009 report by the International Crisis Group and a chapter from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment (behind a paywall, but a useful catalog). The short answer: the country’s aging chemical industry has almost certainly been used to produce chemical weapons precursors in the past and the country probably maintains an inventory. In its 2010 White Paper, the South Korean Ministry of Defense estimated that inventory at 2500-5000 tons, with the capacity to produce that much again annually if necessary. Intelligence reports believe that the capacity extends across the full range of chemical agents, from more traditional blistering, choking and blood agents to nerve agents including sarin and VX. The International Crisis Group is somewhat more agnostic about what is known, but leaves no doubt that North Korea has a capability.

The concern about these weapons is magnified by the forward deployment of North Korean artillery, which can be configured to deliver these agents within a theater that butts up against Seoul. Following the shelling of Yeonpyeong in 2010, the South Korean government went so far as to take the expensive step of distributing gas masks to residents of the island; this alone says something about the confidence the ROK has in its intelligence.

We know that North Korea and Syria have cooperated in various endeavors; and yes, there may be a North Korean-Syrian connection in this domain as well. Japan’s Sankei Shinbun, which has been known to portray North Korea in the worst possible light, claimed last week that North Korea had tried to send gas masks to Syria in April of this year. But we do not have to rely on Sankei Shinbun. the shipment was interdicted by Turkey and we have evidence from previous interdictions, including a Greek seizure of protective suits in 2009 and a similar seizure off Pusan by the South Koreans in the same year. Needless to say, in the Syrian case gas masks are not defensive gear but designed for the protection of soldiers engaged in chemical weapons attacks. Assuming that the report is correct, and not the product of a misinformation campaign, and that this latest shipment was not one-off—it would suggest that North Korea is complicit in the crimes of the Assad regime.

South Korea has been quite outspoken about the Syrian massacre. According to the Wall Street Journal, South Korea was one of several allies that has quietly pushed the Obama to act on Syria, believing that failure to do so will weaken the integrity of the norm against chemical weapons. What is shocking is that the fears arise as much from internal as external uses of chemical agents: the Iraqis deployed such weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war but the most infamous use by Saddam Hussein was against the Kurds.

Given the nature of these regimes, it is not surprising that similar allegations have arisen vis-à-vis North Korea, although they remain contentious. In our own work, more than 100 refugees who attested to having been incarcerated in North Korean prisons claimed that medical experimentation on prisoners occurred in those camps. Obviously their stories cannot be verified. But in 2004, Olenka Frenkiel produced a report for the BBC in which she provided evidence in the form of a smuggled document suggesting that such activity occurred. Josh Stanton at One Free Korea provided a long, thorough post in 2007 on the revelations that came from defectors who were guards at Camp 22. These guards claimed that gas chambers were used at the camp. DailyNK reported in 2009 on medical experimentation. Shin Dong-hyuk relates a first hand account of witnessing experimentation in Escape from Camp 14. (Shin is the subject of this week's Lunch with the FT, by the way.)

Some would dispute whether these fragmentary and not always verifiable stories add up to the proverbial smoking gun. But the very nature of the Kim regime makes the charges plausible; there are obvious reasons why Syria, Iraq and possibly North Korea engage in such practices.

More From

More on This Topic