The Buzz

Everything You Need to Know: North Korea's Chemical Weapons Are No Joke

Rockets and missiles are one way North Korea could deliver chemical weapons and have the longest reach. As of 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense estimates North Korea has less than one hundred short-range missile launchers of all types, including the Toksa/KN-02 Viper (a derivative of the Russian SS-21 Scarab) with a range of 75 miles, and its collection of Scud missiles, with a maximum range of 185 to 625 miles. Toksas and Scuds would have to be based close to the border.

North Korea also has less than fifty launchers for its No Dong missiles. Developed using Scud technology, No Dong has a range of 800 miles, making it useful for striking from deep inside North Korea against South Korea and Japan.

Artillery is by far the most numerous chemical-weapons delivery system. North Korea is believed to have 5,100 multiple rocket launchers and 4,400 self-propelled artillery pieces. Rocket artillery of 122-millimeter or greater and field artillery of 152-millimeter or greater would be capable of firing chemical shells. The majority of Pyongyang’s artillery would be capable of delivering chemical strikes.

The North Korean People’s Air Force is capable of delivering chemical weapons by air, but its aging fleet of airplanes are less reliable and less likely to get through South Korean defenses than other means. They will also be heavily in demand for conventional missions. Nevertheless, it has eighteen Su-7BMK “Fitter” and thirty-two Su-25 “Frogfoot” aircraft that could carry out chemical strikes.

North Korea’s large number of special forces and their importance to any war plan make it likely they would work with chemical weapons to some extent. Trained in infiltration techniques, North Korean infiltrators could be used to deliver chemical weapons or exploit the chaotic aftermath of a chemical attack.

There may be ways North Korea plans to disseminate chemical weapons that remain undiscovered. Chemical agents could be delivered by submarine or drone. North Korea could even use new, undiscovered tunnel systems to launch chemical attacks behind South Korean lines.


North Korea will use chemical weapons to alter the correlation of forces the way other countries use high technology. The most important targets would be South Korean forces directly across the border, manning the country’s impressive border defenses. Attacks such as these in support of a ground offensive would seek to break through and facilitate the push on Seoul and beyond.

Air bases would be key targets for chemical strikes, as shutting them down, even temporarily, would negate the tremendous advantage the United States and South Korea have in terms of air power. Daegu Air Base, home of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s F-15K fighter bombers, and the American bases of Kunsan and Osan would likely be hit hard by North Korean missiles.

South Korean ports, such as Busan, will also be the targets of strikes, as these will be the nodes through which American reinforcements will flow. Chemical weapons could be used against ROK Army reservist depots, delaying the firming up of reinforcements for the front.

North Korean Special Forces could even use chemical weapons against civilian targets. Attacks on politicians, infrastructure and other high-value civilian targets could cause panic and a loss of confidence in the government. Attacks similar to to the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo, Japan could lower civilian morale and cause panic. A panicked civilian population will create serious problems, as civilians clog the roads attempting to flee the fighting.

Finally, U.S. facilities in Asia beyond the Korean peninsula will come under chemical attack. Chemical attacks on Kadena Air Base, Misawa Air Base and Yokota Air Base in Japan would staunch the flow of U.S. airpower into the region. (There is little downside to attacking Japanese territory, since the Japanese do not have offensive weapons.) Similarly, attacks on facilities at Yokosuka, Atsugi and Sasebo would target U.S. Navy forces. Guam, a base for American submarines and bombers, is in reach of longer-range North Korean missiles, such as Taepodong.


Would North Korea chance using chemical weapons? The deterioration of the conventional North Korean military makes the use of gas more necessary than ever. The KPA has few “force multipliers” to enhance its effectiveness on the battlefield and even fewer that only it alone would use.

It’s long been thought that chemical-weapons use would invoke “massive retaliation” by the United States and South Korea. However, short of employing nuclear weapons, the latter powers will already be using everything at their disposal to defeat a KPA invasion force. From the North Korean point of view, as long as the nuclear threshold is not crossed, there’s little political downside to using chemicals.

The failure of the West to respond to chemical use in Syria has shown that warnings about “red lines” and the use of gas are hollow. There are great differences between gassing Syrian civilians and American troops, but it’s clear that some of the taboo of using chemical weapons has worn off.