If North Korea Collapses: What Happens to Its Nightmare Weapons of War?

A North Korean collapse would be a disaster. Consider this: What happens to its nuclear, chemical and possible biological weapons? 

A North Korean collapse is easily one of Northeast Asia’s greatest fears. But what would happen in to Pyongyang’s stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction in such a scenario? A regional crisis could quickly take on global dimensions. With this in mind, the National Interest presents the following article, which was first published at 38 North, a blog of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. It is republished with their permission.

North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) pose a number of challenges, particularly how to find and secure those weapons if the regime collapses. This article will look briefly at 1) North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs; 2) activities coalition forces might conduct in a collapse scenario; and 3) challenges posed by an operation to eliminate the North’s WMD.

The North Korean Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs

North Korea’s WMD programs date back decades and are believed to have produced significant stockpiles of weapons. According to open sources, North Korea likely has upwards of 10-16 nuclear weapons today and potentially up to 100 by the end of the decade. While it is hard to know the degree of their sophistication, it is a safe assumption that they are low-yield (about 10 kilotons), non-boosted, first generation weapons. Few outside of North Korea have a sense of where the warheads and fissile material are stored given the scarcity of intelligence information coupled with North Korea’s proclivity to develop hardened and deeply buried facilities and storage depots. This lack of understanding about the locations of nuclear weapons storage will make finding them before they can be employed or moved in a collapse scenario enormously challenging.

The same intelligence limitations apply to the North Korean chemical weapons (CW) program. While our knowledge about North Korea’s CW stockpile remains limited, it is safe to assume that the North has been producing first generation blister, choking and nerve agents, and conceivable that they have a limited number of more advanced binary agents such as VX or GB. Moreover, the North Koreans probably have CW-armed artillery shells and possibly bulk agent positioned north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It is also possible that such shells and bulk agent are located elsewhere in the country, which would further complicate any foreign military movements deep into North Korean territory. While it is impossible to ascertain with confidence how much CW Pyongyang has produced, a reasonable guess would put the North’s annual production capability in the low tens of thousands of metric tons of material.

We know next to nothing of the North Korean biological weapons (BW) program, but they could well be producing BW—or even keeping large stockpiles of agent, as did the Soviets. South Korean officials in recent years have speculated that North Korea could produce anthrax or smallpox but there is little evidence that these statements are anything more than speculation.

Eliminating the North Korean WMD Programs

Should the United States have to engage in post-regime collapse operations or participate in a counter-offensive aimed at neutralizing an incursion of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) into South Korea, there are a number of challenging tasks that coalition forces may have to perform simultaneously. These will include: 1) locating, isolating and eliminating WMD program elements); 2) managing the consequences (to include humanitarian assistance, decontamination, disaster relief, etc.,) of possible WMD attacks; 3) missile defense; 4) locating, seizing and securing weapons depots; 5) rendering constituted WMD safe through dismantlement of the warhead or weapon delivery mechanism; 6) maritime interdiction to prevent leakage off the peninsula; 7) stopping movement of people and materials of concern along land borders; and 8) dismantlement of possible proliferation networks so that materials of concern or even weapons do not move out of the theater in the midst of a chaotic security environment (such an effort will inevitably take time but should begin soon after the onset of hostilities or regime collapse).

Of course, these operations will likely be done in conjunction with other conventional missions that may be occurring simultaneously, such as humanitarian assistance/disaster response, defeating KPA remnants, force protection and a possible non-combatant evacuation of American citizens out of theater—potentially all while wearing equipment to protect coalition forces from chemical attack, should they be operating in a chemically or biologically contaminated environment. In short, trying to do all of this successfully and near simultaneously could prove too much for coalition forces.

While it is unknown how many chemical, biological or nuclear production plants, depots, storage sites and related facilities exist in North Korea, coalition forces will have to secure these facilities in a timely fashion. Failure to do so could enable the use or transfer of these weapons to hostile actors. That mission requires these forces to  identify, locate, secure, disable and destroy WMD programs in non-permissive environments (where an adversary is actively engaged in combat operations) or semi-permissive environments (certain areas of operation are non-contested, but contain pockets of irregular or organized  armed resistance such as was the case during worst days of the Iraqi insurgency).