The Buzz

Why the World Should Fear North Korea's Chemical and Cyber Weapons

The hopeful news is that leading officials in Seoul and Washington understand the stakes and the need to work together to preserve deterrence in the face of emerging threats. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently stated that using force to settle the North Korea problem by would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” And President Moon Jae-in’s new national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, has emphasized that “there is ample room for the U.S. and South Korea to calibrate and plan their joint engagement with the North.”

The bad news is that the bizarre publicity campaign about a fantastical conspiracy to assassinate Kim, coupled with suspicions about Pyongyang’s growing cyber hijinks, suggest a regime bent on acquiring multiple weapons of mass disruption and destruction. Even if leaders can make headway on reining in the looming nuclear dossier, the dual threats of biochemical and cyber weapons will remain a gathering peril.

In reminding the world why Iran poses an array of threats to regional security, President Donald Trump preempted the argument of those who believe that a nuclear deal would significantly reduce hostility with North Korea.

The VX nerve agent that killed Kim Jong-un’s half-brother and the WannaCry malware that infected the global Internet represent a dangerous convergence of two threats far more likely to be used in anger than missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Like Iran, North Korea poses multiple hazards to international security.

(This first appeared in May and is being reposted due to breaking events.)

To be clear, nuclear weapons are a real and gathering danger, and frequent test launches by the Korean People’s Army suggest steady progress toward deploying long-range nuclear missiles. Yet there is considerable experience and success in deterring nuclear arsenals. The same cannot be said for biochemical and cyber weapons.

Biochemical weapons have been used throughout modern warfare. In World War I, chlorine gas caused soldiers to drown from the fluid that filled seared lungs. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has acted with near-impunity in dropping the deadly nerve agent sarin on men, women and children.

Off the battlefield, lethal toxins have been employed by Russian and North Korean agents to eliminate political opponents. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko slowly succumbed to radiation poisoning after imbibing tea laced with polonium-210. In February, Kim Jong-nam swiftly succumbed after being wiped with the chemicals that comprise VX, a thiophosphonate one hundred times more toxic than sarin.

Pyongyang’s outlandish contention that American and South Korean agents plotted to assassinate North Korea’s “supreme leadership” with biochemical weapons sounds more like a B-rated movie script than the official discourse of a state. It is vaguely reminiscent of the 1952 hoax perpetuated by China that U.S. soldiers were using biological weapons during the Korean War.

Yet North Korea’s latest, persistent allegations of an South Korea-U.S. conspiracy to “eclipse the eternal sun” of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea raise intriguing questions about North Korea’s true motivations and intentions.