North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands next to a Hwasong-15 ballistic missile. Photo: Reuters / KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stands next to a Hwasong-15 ballistic missile. Photo: Reuters / KCNA

North Korea has begun tests to load anthrax onto intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to a report from the Seoul bureau of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun.

No official South Korean or US government sources have yet commented on the story, and experts suggest that missiles are an unlikely delivery system for the deployment of biological weapons. But in June, the South Korean presidential office ordered the purchase of 500 doses of vaccines against potential anthrax terrorist attacks.

Quoting “an intelligence source here” the Japanese newspaper reported that Pyongyang is “… conducting heat and pressure resistance tests to see whether anthrax germs can survive at temperatures of 7,000 degrees or higher, the level an ICBM encounters when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.”

This suggests that the alleged tests are taking place in laboratories, rather than in actual warheads on recent North Korean ICBM tests.

The report adds that the source in Seoul said Pyongyang is likely seeking to develop ICBMs tipped with anthrax warheads because its nuclear-tipped ICBMs have yet to attain the capability to strike all of the US mainland.

After its most recent November test, North Korea claimed it had “completed” its nuclear force. Overseas experts, however, are divided over whether or not North Korea has succeeded in minituarizing its fissile materials down to warhead size. Question marks also hang over the status of its re-entry vehicles.

South Korea has long estimated that North Korea has stockpiles of between 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, a capability they have been developing since the 1960s, and believes that it is capable of producing biological weapons.

Kim Jong-nam, the brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was murdered with VX agent in Malaysia this year. And in 2015, Kim J0ng-un was filmed visiting a pesticide institute in Pyongyang. The film showed a range of dual use technologies that could produce biological weapons. Defectors have also claimed that inmates in North Korean prison camps were used as human guinea pigs: After ingesting infected cabbages, inmates died after vomiting blood, these unconfirmed claims state.

The deployment of chemical weapons, World War I-style, is feasible with artillery and missiles.

“They have been experimenting with putting chemical warheads on top of short-range missiles and artillery,” Myong-hyun Go, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute, told The Asia Times. “So it could be an extension of that capability development which has been going for decades, but otherwise, I don’t know how to look at this.”

Biological weapons are a different matter. The US-based Belfer Center, in a report on North Korean biological weapons published in October this year, noted that while missiles are one way to deploy biological agents, they are difficult to stabilize as payloads. The report suggested that they would more likely be sprayed by aerosols from drones, by special forces infiltrators or sleeper agents disguised as cleaning and disinfection personnel, deploying the weapons with sprayers.

Another expert questioned the feasibility of missile delivery of biological weapons.

“I don’t buy it,” said Dan Pinkston, a lecturer on strategy at Troy University. “That would be a very inefficient way to deliver anthrax spores – if they would waste their ballistic missiles in that fashion, we would be so lucky.”

While nuclear weapons are devastating, their use carries with it the threat of massive retaliation – something the North Korean leadership is almost certainly aware of. Biological weapons are more deniable – unless deployed by a system as visible as an ICBM.

Even so, anthrax is weaponizable. At South Korea’s National Assembly inspection in October, it was revealed that the South Korean presidential Blue House, had, in June, sent a request to the Korean Food and Drug Administration to prepare 500 vaccines staffers who might be exposed to anthrax-related terrorism.

US troops deployed to the peninsula are inoculated against anthrax. And it was at the heart of a still-murky scare in the United States in 2001, when anthrax-infected mail was circulated, killing five.

Biological warfare controversies on the flashpoint peninsula date back to the 1950-53 Korean War, when communist sources claimed that United States deployed biological weapons – notably, infective insects – on North Korea. The claims gained widespread credence in global media.

However, materials held in Russian archives, that became available to Western researchers in the Boris Yeltsin era, made clear that the claims of biological warfare were, in fact, merely a propaganda ploy. North Korea is the only nation among the combatants that still clings to these claims.

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