How Big of a Threat Is North Korea in Reality?

01/12/2018 02:20 pm ET
narvikk/Getty Images
narvikk/Getty Images

North Korean Anthrax: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Dan Rosenthal, Former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Army Infantry, combat veteran, on Quora:

In the wake of the run-up to yet another planned North Korean ballistic missile test, the media is already beginning to work itself into a frenzy over an alleged plan by the North to target the U.S. with an “anthrax-tipped” ICBM. Is this another “paper tiger” threat, like much of the rest of the North’s arsenal? Or a real problem meriting attention from a deterrent and counter-strike perspective?

To begin, we can address the elephant in the room — North Korea has an active chemical and biological weapons program, and has for years. According to Melissa Hanham, a well-respected analyst at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “North Korea is not only maintaining a biological weapons capability, but also has an active large-scale sanctions busting effort to illicitly procure the equipment for the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute.”

The Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute is a dual-use facility that the DPRK uses both for the creation of pesticides as well as the weaponization of anthrax, including what is believed to be human testing. [1] Kim Jong Un himself has personally toured the facility, and equipment known to exist in the facility has been linked to former Iraqi and former Soviet bioweapons programs.

We also know that the DPRK is not hesitant to use “special weapons” for illicit purposes, following the assassination of Kim Jong Nam with VX nerve agent, a chemical agent long associated with both the DPRK’s covert assassination program as well as its strategic weapons forces. The North is believed to possess at least 13 different chemical and biological agents capable of being weaponized. [2]

But while these programs are active and threats in their own right, most analysts believe that weaponizing anthrax into an ICBM-deliverable warhead is both technically beyond the capabilities of the North as well as not feasible. Though chemical and biological weapons *can* be warhead mounted on a ballistic missile, this is almost always limited to short-range, tactical ballistic missiles like the SCUD series that are of no danger to the U.S. mainland. This is due to the typical employment of chemical and biological weapons as a battlefield area-denial/suppression tool, (in addition to their more nefarious role as a mass-casualty producing weapon over urban environments). Typically, a weapon like anthrax would be deployed by artillery or short range ballistic missile to slow opposing troop movements, hinder first responders, divert civilian medical resources, and to otherwise supplement the main (conventional) effort.

Even assuming that the North Koreans had sufficiently advanced their re-entry vehicle technology to a point where they could survivably mount an anthrax warhead onto an ICBM and successfully deliver it to its detonation point, they would be wasting their time and effort on a substandard result. North Korea is believed to still be struggling with achieving a rudimentary level of accuracy with their ballistic missiles — and you need to be much more accurate with bio than you do with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, while adding bio weapons to your ICBM fleet might make sense for a nation that was purely warhead-limited, the DPRK is both warhead-limited AND missile limited (they are believed capable of producing enough fissile material for around 6–12 warheads per year, and after the most recent launches their known number of Hwasong-15 missiles has dropped to zero.) [3] Any Hwasong-15 produced that DOESN’T end up mounting a nuclear warhead is an inefficient use of their most valuable asset. And finally, the net result of ANY hostile Hwasong-15 launch — bio or nuclear — would result in the same military counterstrike from the U.S. and allies against the North (we’re not going to sit there and wait to see the results of what the incoming warhead is before we retaliate). So if launching any ballistic missile in anger against the U.S. results in the same destruction of the regime, there is literally no incentive for them to do so with a less-effective biological weapon compared to a more-effective thermonuclear one.

In summary, while North Korea *does* have an active chemical and bioweapons program, the threat posed by these weapons should be viewed in the proper context — that of supporting a regional conventional conflict as well as small-scale covert operations (like the assassination of Kim Jong Nam); and that their employment against the U.S. via ballistic missile is neither feasible nor likely.

Footnotes

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