In October 2002, North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-chu, during a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, declared “North Korea does not have just nuclear arms. It has bio [biological arms] and all other things.”
This boast, whether true or not, refers to a biological and chemical industry that has been over forty years in the making. Testimony from defectors and reports from the South Korean and U.S. government indicate that North Korea possesses the ability to produce both chemical and biological weapons. The extent to which it has actually done so, however, remains unclear. North Korea is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but has ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
North Korea began to develop its chemical industry following the Korean War. According to a study by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND), North Korea did not embark upon the pursuit of chemical weapons until after 1961, when Kim Il-sung issued his “Declaration of Chemicalization.” The U.S. Department of Defense, in an April 1996 report, concluded that Pyongyang was able to produce large quantities of chemical agent by the late 1980s.
According to the Pentagon, North Korea’s chemical warfare effort was “intensified and expanded” from 1990-1995. A 1999 MND report found that the North Korean government began providing its population with gas masks in 1992. The government also required regular nuclear, biological, and chemical defense drills for military and paramilitary personnel, as well as for the civilian population. According to the Pentagon, the protective military gear included suits, detectors, and decontamination systems.
In its recent unclassified reports to Congress, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has asserted that North Korea possesses a “long-standing chemical warfare program” and the “ability to produce bulk quantities” of agent, but the reports do not claim that North Korea has actually manufactured chemical warfare agent. Yet, in 1997, the U.S. State Department, in response to questions posed by U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, stated that North Korea was, in fact, “believed to have a sizable stockpile of chemical weapons.” The MND has been more specific. It claimed in 2003 that North Korea had produced “over ten kinds of lethal chemicals that include nerve, blister, and blood agents” and had a stockpile of “some 2,500 to 5,000 tons of these chemical agents.”
According to maps provided in several MND white papers, North Korea has eight chemical research institutions spread throughout the country. Some of these institutions are in proximity to three chemical production facilities. These maps also indicate that North Korea possesses six chemical storage facilities concentrated near the border with South Korea. In 2002, an unconfirmed report in the Japanese media claimed that North Korea was producing the nerve agent VX at a plant in Ch’ongsu near its border with China.
More detailed allegations have come from North Korean defectors. In 1997, Choi Ju-hwal, a former official in the North Korean Ministry of the People’s Army, testified before the U.S. Senate that North Korea’s Fifth General Bureau leads its chemical weapons development. Under this superstructure, according to Choi, the Second Natural Science Academy heads the Hamhung Branch and three other institutes responsible for chemical weapons research and production. Choi also cited the following factories as involved in nerve and blister agent production: the Kangye Chemical Factory, the Sakju Chemical Factory (possibly the Saku Chemical Facility ), the “February 8” Vinalon Factory, the Ilyong Branch of the Sunchon Vinalon Factory, and Factory No. 297.
An unconfirmed South Korean media report has also suggested that the Aoji Chemical Depot, the Hamhung 28 Vynalon Factory, and the Ch’ongjin Chemical Depot produce chemical weapons. Chemical factories listed by the German government as risky end users in warnings supplied to its exporters include the Chungsoo Chemical Factory, the Manpo Chemical Complex, the Sariwon Potassic Fertilizer Complex, the Sinuiju Chemical Fiber Complex, and the Sinhung Chemical Complex.
In addition to listing facilities, North Korean defectors have made other allegations regarding North Korea’s chemical-related activities. In January 2004, the BBC issued a series of reports suggesting that North Korea had been testing chemical weapons on prison inmates. Defector Kwon Hyok told BBC News that he was the head of security at “prison camp 22” in Haengyong in 1993 and had witnessed chemical experiments carried out on political prisoners in gas chambers.
North Korea has also pursued an interest in biological weapons, which the CIA and the Pentagon assert goes back to the 1960s. In 1999, the MND reported that by 1980 North Korea had succeeded with experiments in bacteria and virus cultivation for biological weapons. By the late 1980s, according to the MND, North Korea had “completed live experiments with such weapons.” Also during the 1980’s, according to the MND, Kim Il-sung made the statement that “poisonous gas and bacteria can be used effectively in war.”
In 2001, the Pentagon issued a report calling the North Korean biological industry “rudimentary (by Western standards),” but nonetheless found it “could support the production of infectious biological warfare agents and toxins such as anthrax, cholera, and plague.” During a speech in August 2002, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, John R. Bolton, made an even stronger allegation. He stated that “the U.S. Government believes that North Korea has one of the most robust offensive bioweapons programs on earth.” He added that North Korea “has developed and produced, and may have weaponized, BW agents in violation of the Convention.”
According to the MND, North Korea is suspected of possessing thirteen types of bacteria, including anthrax, small pox, and cholera. Choi Ju-hwal’s testimony before the U.S. Senate suggested that the Germ Research Institute in the General Logistic Bureau of the Armed Forces Ministry is responsible for developing biological weapons. A South Korean media report in 2001 cited North Korea’s Biological Research Institute, overseen by the Second Natural Science Academy, as playing a “leading role” in biological weapons development. Other facilities with equipment reportedly capable of biological weapon manufacture include Chongju No. 225 Factory and the Military Prevention Medical Unit.
North Korea has fielded a variety of munitions that could deliver a chemical payload. These include 170 mm and 240 mm long-range artillery guns, multiple rocket launchers, mortars, aerial bombs, and FROG rockets of over 100 mm caliber, as well as Scud-type missiles, fighters, bombers, and AN-2s. According to the MND, this configuration would allow North Korea to simultaneously launch chemical munitions into the front and rear theaters of battle in a war against the South. The CIA reported in 2003 that North Korea was “believed to possess a munitions production infrastructure that would have allowed it to weaponize BW agents.” The CIA also stated that North Korea “may have some such weapons available for use.”
A Japanese media report in June of 2000 indicated the potential connection between chemical production, weaponization, and deployment facilities. According to the report, Yi Chun-song, former Vice Director of the Operation Bureau of the North Korean Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, claimed that the “102 plant” in North Hamgyong Province manufactures chemical agents, which are then transferred to the “108 plant” of the bomb manufacturing facility in Jagang Province. Completed chemical weapons, according to Yi, are then deployed at the 425th, 806th, and 815th training facilities and at one bomber division.
There have been several recent reports of chemical precursors and equipment en route to North Korea. In April 1996, Japanese police began investigating the Japan-based company Toa Gijutsu Kogyo after one of its employees, Tanetoshi Ri, was arrested on suspicion of smuggling sodium fluoride and hydrofluoric acid from Japan to North Korea without export approval. The sodium fluoride in question could be used to manufacture the nerve agent sarin.
In May 2003, Der Spiegel reported that the German government had intercepted a 30 metric ton shipment of sodium cyanide, which is the approximate amount needed to manufacture 100 tons of the nerve agent tabun. The shipment was officially headed from Germany to Singapore, but was believed by the U.S. government to be bound for North Korea.
In May 2005, U.S. State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, stated that among the eleven successes over nine months of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, one case of bilateral cooperation prevented North Korea from “receiving materials used in making chemical weapons.”