Now that the Singapore summit of President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is in the rearview mirror, major questions remain, particularly about the part of North Korea’s doomsday arsenal that Pyongyang’s military is most likely to use in a war, one that can potentially kill millions of people, and one for which the U.S. military is woefully unprepared: chemical and biological arms.
Nuclear weapons will continue to be the top concern. But they are far from the only one. Specifically, U.S. forces in the region lack sufficient medical countermeasures, protective gear and technology to identify so-called chem-bio agents, Pentagon insiders say. And the troops are insufficiently trained, manned and equipped for such a fight, according to previously unreported Pentagon audits and Army officials. Only about 1 in 3 of the Army’s special units that deal with doomsday agents is fully prepared, the service confirmed.
“We are definitely under-invested in countering North Korea’s chemical and biological threats,” said Andrew Weber, a former head of the Pentagon’s chem-bio defense programs. U.S. capabilities are improving, he says, but “we are playing catch-up, especially on the biological side.”
The world recoiled this year at pictures of men, women and children choking on chemical gas in Syria, and an American-led coalition responded with airstrikes. Such scenes could play out a thousand times more in a potential chemical or biological war on the Korean Peninsula.
If Kim were to unleash his suspected stockpile of smallpox, to name just one biological agent believed to be in his possession, it could bring back to the world perhaps the deadliest scourge in human history.
“We need to accelerate our readiness efforts, because this is a serious issue,” said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, in a brief interview.
As for North Korea’s chemical arsenal, U.S. intelligence officials have assessed for years that Pyongyang possesses a variety of agents — several thousand tons’ worth — that its military can deliver via missiles, artillery, aerial bombs or by commandos on the ground.
U.S. military bases in South Korea, with about 28,000 American troops, are in range of such an attack. So are some 200,000 U.S. citizens living in Seoul, South Korea’s capital, as well as millions of South Korean military personnel and civilians.
North Korea’s missiles can reach Japan, where about 90,000 Americans are estimated to live, and the western Pacific island of Guam, where roughly 7,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
North Korea’s chemical agents include especially deadly ones like the nerve agent called VX, which Kim’s assassins are understood to have used one year ago to kill his half-brother in Malaysia.
The Malaysian incident raises the prospect of Kim potentially using chemical or biological weapons against U.S. targets in many parts of the world outside of Northeast Asia if the agent or its components are transportable.
Another perilous chemical believed to be in North Korea’s inventory is sarin, one ton of which can kill tens of thousands of people — and one of the agents Syrian President Bashar Assad is suspected of using against his own people, including in the town of Douma in April.
North Korea’s biological arsenal, meanwhile, is shrouded in more mystery than its chemicals. Pyongyang is believed to possess at least 13 different biological warfare agents, experts say, but how extensively North Korea has weaponized them, if at all, is unclear.
The inventory may include botulism, cholera, hemorrhagic fever, plague, typhoid and yellow fever, U.S. officials say.
But anthrax and smallpox are the two biological agents that U.S. officials are most confident North Korea possesses.
One of the four North Korean defectors who fled south last year had antibodies to anthrax in his system, according to press reports in South Korea.
The South Korean government assessed in 2015 that some of North Korea’s biological agents could be weaponized in 10 days.
Of course, U.S. intelligence has been wrong about weapons of mass destruction before, so all assessments should be viewed skeptically.
Still, if only a fraction of the unclassified intelligence reports on North Korea’s chem-bio capabilities are true, it is still cause for concern.
If war erupted or even appeared imminent, Kim would be more likely to use biological weapons than chemical ones, and nuclear arms would be his last resort, says Weber, the former Pentagon official.
The reasons are manifold. The North Korean military views chem-bio agents as regular weapons of war, not as arms that are beyond the pale, analysts say. In addition, the North Koreans might think, correctly or not, that the United States would see a chem-bio attack as less severe than a nuclear one and therefore less likely to trigger an all-out U.S. military response.
What’s more, North Korea could deploy biological agents stealthily, perhaps by commandos on the ground, in a pre-war phase before a full-scale conflict erupted. A bio attack could sow panic on U.S. bases or among civilians in South Korea or Japan and could disrupt the logistics of U.S. or allied forces.
Biological weapons might have another perceived advantage for Kim. It might not be immediately clear that a weapon had been deployed at all, as reported symptoms could be confused for a naturally occurring incidence of disease. And if the outbreak was deemed to be man-made, assuming such a determination can be made, it might be difficult or impossible to prove who caused it.
Once the shooting would begin in a war on the Korean Peninsula, there is little reason to think Kim would hesitate to use every capability at his command — including chem-bio agents. After all, he is said to have killed his own family members.
While he would have an interest in protecting the lives of enough of his own troops to defend his regime, he might also be willing to sacrifice some of those soldiers, and many of them might be willing to be sacrificed, says Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea at RAND Corp., a think tank that gets some of its funding from the Pentagon.
In the event of an all-out war, Kim might be forced to use chemical and biological weapons simply because he lacks sufficient conventional power and does not have enough nuclear weapons to hit all the targets he will need to take out, Bennett says.
If a military conflict were imminent or had begun, U.S. forces would try to take out North Korea’s chem-bio arsenal as soon as possible, even pre-emptively. But they might not have enough intelligence on where those agents are hidden, nor the ability to destroy them if they are deeply buried. Plus, there is the risk that a U.S. strike could disseminate lethal toxins that could endanger innocent Koreans or U.S. personnel.
Shortfalls in Protection
Defense Department public affairs personnel say they are sparing no effort to prepare for such weapons.
“In light of the increased level of rhetoric and provocations coming from North Korea, there continues to be emphasis on CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] defense readiness in both Peninsula-based units as well as those units identified for possible deployment to the KTO [Korean Theater of Operations] in the event of hostilities,” said U.S. Forces Korea in a statement.
The emphasis may be coming too late, many experts worry.
For the U.S. armed forces, a chemical or biological attack would be a nightmare scenario for a number of reasons.
Military equipment must be decontaminated, and protective gear (for people, weapons and vehicles) must be put in place — all while revving up for a military response.
Once it is clear that an attack has occurred, the challenge would immediately be determining what the agent was and responding medically to a potentially large number of affected personnel, assuming it is not too late to treat them.
Anthrax and smallpox are the only two biological agents that U.S. troops in South Korea are known to be vaccinated against, a fact well-known to North Korea.
Moreover, the medical tools needed to treat people affected by biological agents are lacking.
“For a number of agents, we have no medical response capability other than basic medical care,” says Weber, the former Pentagon chief of chem-bio defense.
In some biological warfare scenarios, the symptoms show up long after the dispersal. And by the time people realize they have been hit, the usefulness of protective gear is diminished.
What’s more, U.S. forces probably do not have enough of that gear anyway. The charcoal-lined protective suits set aside for chem-bio scenarios only last 24 hours after exposure and then must be replaced. That means multiple sets are needed for each of the 28,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea alone.
“If you are going to get into a serious chemical environment, you are going to have to have lots of suits per person, and we are not there,” says Bennett of RAND.
If the North Koreans do have smallpox and if they used it, a lethal outbreak might spread widely.
Smallpox is said to have killed at least 300 million people in the 20th century alone before being eradicated in the 1970s. The lone surviving samples of the virus were supposed to be in the then-Soviet Union and the United States. But North Korea may have obtained some.
A re-release of that scourge into the world would be “a global catastrophe,” Weber says. “It would spread like wildfire.”
The U.S. military itself has called into question its units’ readiness to respond to a chem-bio crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
First, the Army’s 5,000-soldier force that specializes in responding to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons is not sufficiently prepared, the service confirms.
In fact, only about 1 in 3 of the 130 units is rated as fully ready, with enough equipment, training and people, the Army says.
Until recently, training for such missions “was set at a lesser priority resulting in associated skill atrophy and reduced readiness of both maneuver and CBRN forces’ ability to operate in a contaminated environment,” Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, said in a statement.
Guy Roberts, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, told a Senate panel last November he is “very much worried” about its biological weapons.
“Frankly,” Roberts said, “I think this is one area we really are not well-prepared to deal with. And that’s one of the things that, if confirmed, I plan on addressing very strongly.”
Pentagon audit reports paint a disturbing picture of the preparedness of U.S. forces for chem-bio war in Asia and beyond.
In an originally secret 2015 report, the Pentagon inspector general, or IG, found that masks, protective suits, gloves and boots were not present in some units, and had not been adequately inspected in others.
An unclassified summary of the 2015 report was released last year.
It said U.S. military units in South Korea “were not issued all required individual protective equipment to defend against chemical and biological agents. Further, U.S. forces were not performing required protective mask maintenance checks and services, maintaining serviceable individual protective equipment, or properly storing individual protective equipment. … Without sufficient quantities of personal protective equipment, personnel are at risk in a contaminated environment.”
Two years ago, yet another IG report disclosed that most audited Army and Marine Corps units in South Korea had failed to train as collective units to perform their missions in the event of chem-bio warfare.
Individual soldiers in one Army brigade had rehearsed functions such as putting on masks and suits and, prior to deploying to South Korea, had incorporated chem-bio tasks in its training as a unit, the IG acknowledged. However, once deployed to South Korea, fully 18 of 19 of the brigade’s units, plus another Marine Corps unit that was audited, had not trained to perform their missions collectively as if in a toxic environment, even though that is a military requirement, the IG found.
“If not corrected, the CB [chem-bio] deficiencies discussed in this report increase the risk that U.S. forces stationed in the ROK [Republic of Korea] may not be able to conduct their missions in a wartime environment,” the auditors wrote.
Asked about the report, U.S. Forces Korea officials said recently that Army and Marine Corps units are making sure they conduct the required chem-bio training, which they called “the top training priority.”
The Pentagon inspector general, though, is withholding judgment for now.
“The only way to verify recommended actions have been taken is through a follow-up audit,” said Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the inspector general, in a statement.
The U.S. shortfalls may not matter in the end, as long as Trump and Kim reach a deal on North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the weeks ahead. Such an accord would reduce the chances for war on the peninsula, even if the arrangement would not limit Kim’s chem-bio arsenal or his missile inventory.
However, a successful completion of the talks — and a successful implementation of any agreement — would be a historical aberration.
Three U.S. presidents have reached deals with North Korea since 1994, only to see them fall apart later as both sides hurled recriminations.
If these new talks also crumble, it will restart war preparations. And if war comes, it is more likely to at least begin with a different sort of doomsday weapon than the nuclear kind that the world is now focused on.