- Nov 22, 2003
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Considering they didn't do that well:
North Korea: The Bigger (Non-Nuclear) Threat
Popular Mechanics contributing editor Simon Cooper wrote about Chinese military spying in the August 2006 issue and frequently reports on biological and chemical weapons. Here, he weighs in on the crisis over a North Korean nuclear test, which was condemned by a U.N. resolution over the weekend.
BY Simon Cooper
Published on: October 16, 2006
PopularMechanics.com, Oct. 16, 2006 Watching the United Nations Security Council grind its way to a compromise resolution on North Korea, it's hard to avoid returning to one question: What took them so long to do something about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction? Over the past 45 years, North Korea has assembled a huge arsenal of mass casualty weapons - namely biological and chemical weapons. Yet it is only when North Korea gets as far as possible nuclear capability the U.N. rouses itself from its slumbers and waddles into action.
I've been writing and researching the subject of biological and chemical warfare on and off for six years. The extent of North Korea's completely operational biochemical warfare program is widely known and frequently assessed by the U.S. and its allies, as well as many non-proliferation organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague in the Netherlands. North Koreas program has been in development since the '60s under the control of the fabulously Orwellian Fifth Machine Industry Bureau. In that time, North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) program has assembled a formidable array of poisons, toxins, chemicals and weaponized germs.
The consensus among weapons inspectors, intelligence analysts, academics and others I have interviewedwhich is backed up by the available open source material-is that North Korea has developed anthrax, plague and botulism toxin as weapons and has extensively researched at least six other germs including smallpox and typhoid. It is also believed to have 5,000 tons or more of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and phosgene (a choking gas). The Center for Nonproliferation Studies says North Korea ranks "amongst the largest possessors of chemical weaponry in the world." South Korea's military estimates half of North's long-range missiles and 30 percent of its artillery are CBW capable.
John Bolton, now leading the charge at the U.N., gave a speech in 2002 as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, in which he stated: "North Korea has a dedicated, national level effort to achieve a BW capacity and has developed and produced and may have weaponized, BW agents .... the leadership in Pyongyang has spent large sums of money to acquire the resources ..... capable of producing infectious agents, toxins and other crude biological weapons. It likely has the capability to produce sufficient quantities of biological agents for military purposes within weeks of deciding to do so and has a variety of means at its disposal for delivering these deadly weapons."
Yet, in the four years since that speech, no one involved in the monitoring of North Korea can point to a determined (or even tentative) front-of-stage or behind-the-scenes effort to rein in North Korea's CBW arsenal. The country is a signatory to the Biological Toxin and Weapons Convention, but as this convention does not mandate independent inspections, we have no idea if it is abiding by it. (The answer is no, according to just about everyone.) And North Korea is the only nation that has neither signed, acceded to or is IN negotiations to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which does enforce inspections.
So why have we done nothing? Apparently, we have fallen prey to what former weapons inspector Christopher Davis has dubbed "nuclear blindness", which he defines as "the tunnel vision suffered by successive governments, brought on by the mistaken belief that it only the size of the bang that matters."
Davis eloquently expands on this blindness, noting too many times in the past we have failed to anticipate future developments, refused to think the unthinkable and expect the unexpected. Too many times we have been outmaneuvered by those who take the time to think and plan and do not simply rely on reacting to events."
Perhaps because of the Iraq WMD debacle the United States feels unable to press the case on this aspect of North Korea's arsenal. But there's a crucial difference: It's essentially undisputed that North Korea actually has these weapons.
While it would be foolish not to be gravely concerned about North Korea's purported development of an offensive nuclear capability, the actual threat for the foreseeable future is, arguably, minimal. North Korea's threadbare economy (it has a GDP of $40 billion - compare that to California's gross state product on $1.55 trillion per year) is incapable of maintaining an effective nuclear weapons program. Its nuclear science is at best second rate and, certainly, is second hand.
In contrast, as one North Korea expert explained to me, CBW is mass destruction on the cheap. "Biological and chemical weapons are very inexpensive, many, many times cheaper than nuclear." Another expert gave this grim assessment: "The use of anthrax is a distinct possibility for this nation [North Korea]."
Yet the West's myopic obsession with North Korea's nuclear efforts has allowed this far more real and equally lethal threat to escape into the shadows: a WMD program, backed by in excess of 13,000 specially trained troops, capable of devastating its southern neighbor, attacking U.S. troops in Asia and disrupting the regional economy in ways that could see the U.S. and other western nations plunged into crisis.
Yes, the new resolution 1718(2006) includes a reference to biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, but only as an afterthought, and the resolution exists only because of the nukes and their perceived threat. Unfortunately, in this case, as with others, the world is overly focused on a potential retina-searing nuclear detonation, without properly appreciating the very clear-and-present CBW killer that exists just a virtual button's push away from Kim Jong Il's perfectly manicured fingernails.