09.02.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Revisiting ‘Biological Weapons on the Korean Peninsula’


In December 2017, The Washington Post came out with a large article, in which biological was ‘added’ to the nuclear threat of the DPRK. It turns out that North Korea has been conducting the secret development of advanced biological weapons for more than 10 years. Microbial masses have already been developed, and it is possible that Pyongyang’s nuclear warheads will also be equipped with the anthrax bacilli.

This publication was followed by materials in more ‘tabloid’ sources, but with roughly the same content.

It turns out that back in 2006, the US intelligence presented Congress with a report on the clandestine development of biological weapons in the DPRK, but at the time scientists lacked a technical basis for this. Today, the necessary infrastructure is there, and Pyongyang is ‘steadily moving towards acquiring the necessary mechanisms’ which can be used to produce microbes ‘in industrial volumes’ and in laboratories specializing in genetic modifications. The threat is perceived to be so serious that the Pentagon has been obliged to vaccinate all members of the Korean contingent from anthrax and smallpox. Although the production of bacteriological weapons is likely to be dispersed ‘in the food or pharmaceutical industry’, its center is the recently opened Pyongyang Biotechnology Institute, which formally produces vitamins and pesticides.

As early as in 2015, a staff member of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies , Melissa Henhem, analysed the photos published in the DPRK press from this location (the place was visited by Kim Jong-un) and came to the conclusion that the North Koreans are going to ‘produce anthrax spores there for military purposes’. However, it was not a study, but a blog entry, and the arguments were summed up as ‘demonstrated equipment too high-tech for their declared purposes of peaceful use’.

Questions arose to Henhem’s arguments- on the photo at least there were no necessary protective measures for work with dangerous bacteria and no protective equipment. But the required explanation was quickly found – as the equipment for the production of bacteria was bought illegally, the rest was simply ‘not delivered’ and more generally: ‘Such a regime can force scientists to work without protection.’

The fact that the country’s authorities send their scientists abroad to receive scientific degrees in the field of microbiology, according to American ‘experts’, also ‘serves as proof’: So if the DPRK is engaged in DNA sequencing, that means they are creating viruses.

Shortly thereafter, South Korea reported that in the blood of defector from the DPRK they found antibodies to anthrax. The name of the former North Korean was not disclosed, but the ‘find’ aroused Seoul’s concern, since this could mean that Pyongyang has an anthrax agent that the regime could use as a biological weapon.

And on 18 December 2017, while presenting a new national security strategy, the head of the White House himself mentioned that the DPRK authorities ‘spend millions of dollars on the creation of nuclear and biochemical weapons to pose a threat to the United States, while the North Korean people suffer from hunger’.

In fact, the reasoning of the publication is based on the thesis ‘Why would the terrible regime not produce biological weapons if it has a theoretical capability for this’? After all, North Korea, as a patented state of evil, cannot engage in peaceful research, and any production or study of ‘dual use’ is understood to be an attempt to deceive sanctions or to concoct something worse.

However, according to current and former US officials who have access to secret files, definitive evidence that the DPRK is producing biological weapons is still not present. In addition, experts have subjected the idea of weapons of double mass destruction to justified criticism – at least because biological components will be destroyed during the explosion of an atomic bomb.

As for the interest in biotechnology, the DPRK has a great interest in natural sciences: The Temple of Science and Technology, located in the niche of the Polytechnic Museum, has a very large section devoted to genetics, but not only genetics. One should not forget the tradition of compulsory vaccinations, taken from the USSR, including from epidemic diseases such as smallpox.

It should also be recalled that Kim’s visit to the Institute of Biotechnology coincided with the scandal in the Republic of Korea relating to the disappearance of living anthrax bacteria and interpreted in the North as evidence of US preparations for conducting bacteriological war against the DPRK. After all, in April 2015, the American military mistakenly sent samples of live anthrax spores to their base in the city of Osane, the province of Gyeonggi. After that, the representatives of the ROK and the US for five months analysed the situation, carefully examining American soldiers who were in contact with the dangerous cargo. However, no adverse effects were found. At the same time, it turned out that since 2009, the US military has imported living samples of anthrax to South Korea a total 16 times, which could be used as a biological weapon.

Siberian anthrax spreads very quickly and mortality rates average around 80%. The disease is difficult to prevent or cure because of the high resistance of anthrax to antibiotics and natural environment. Theoretically, 100 kg of Siberian anthrax can strike up to three million people in urban settings. The same result (according to South Korean media) is provided by an explosion of a hydrogen bomb with a capacity of 100 megatons, and it is no wonder that within the framework of a defensive reflex, the DPRK began to take measures, including involving the military.

In general, if we use the same logic as the DPRK in relation to the ROK, it is high time for the world community to beat the alarm about the ‘very probable biological experiments of Seoul’-incidentally in 2018 349 billion won (328 million dollars) has been allocated for research in the field of biotechnology, which is 10.5% more than in 2017. Of course, $55 million has been allocated for research in the pharmaceutical industry, $25 million for research in the field of medical technology, and $35 million for research on the human brain, but ‘you understand that this is no accident’?!

Let’s add to this rumour that employees of the presidential administration in South Korean were vaccinated against anthrax. The administration’s press release, published on 25 December 2017, states that the vaccine was indeed imported into the country, and the decision on its additional purchase was made after the April 2015 incident, when it was found that, according to the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the current stock of anthrax vaccine in the country is sufficient to treat only a thousand people.

So, if desired, such low-ground charges can be presented to anyone, interpreting any facts in a favourable manner.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in history, leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of the Far East RAS, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook‘.