With Kim Jong-nam’s killing, North Korea shows the world its deadly arsenal includes more than nuclear weapons
Donald Kirk says any future talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons must have chemical weapons on the agenda, in the wake of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination
The poisoning of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has one salutary effect. It makes us painfully aware of a category of weapons of mass destruction that has been largely overlooked in the focus on nuclear devices.
In all the talk about the North Korean menace, little has been said about its capacity for developing chemical and biological weapons. How advanced is it? Some believe it has developed dozens of types, ranging from anthrax to ricin. Certainly, it would seem, it is capable of inflicting death with VX, the compound that killed Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur.
The question is whether North Korea can deliver this and other agents on a mass scale.
One thing is certain: chemical and biological warfare should be on the table for negotiations with the North Koreans, along with their nuclear programme. Those who would like to renew the dormant talks on persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid should not hesitate to put these other means of mass killing on the agenda.
Looking back, it seems odd that none of the parties to the previous talks, including Russia, Japan and South Korea, the US and China, has elevated biological and chemical weapons to the same level of urgency.
To be sure, if the topic had made it on the agenda, the North Koreans would probably have noted that the other parties in the talks have or had their own arsenals of biological and chemical weapons.
These weapons are more difficult than nuclear weapons and missiles to detect. Satellite imagery can spot missiles on launch pads, and underground nuclear tests are detected almost immediately by seismic measuring devices. But nobody knows what experiments are going on inside laboratories.
One report suggested that a North Korean pesticide factory was producing biological or chemical weapons, or both.
For any deal on biological or chemical weapons to work, North Korea would have to agree to inspections of suspected facilities. It would be fantasy to believe that Pyongyang would agree to such terms, but the North did sign the biological weapons convention that came into effect some 30 years ago.
Chemical and biological weapons are widely feared. Among the deadliest are sarin and the same VX nerve agent that was used on Kim Jong-nam. VX is more potent than sarin, but either can kill in minutes.
The publicity surrounding this assassination should promote the public awareness needed for high-level debate and spur demands for reform.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea