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North Korea’s Chemical Warfare Capabilities

By
10 October 2013


The recent revelations of chemical agent usage in Syria’s long civil war not only reveals the tragic levels that this conflict has descended to but has also unexpectedly raised interest in the chemical warfare capabilities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which has reportedly provided chemical warfare assistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.[1][2]

The available body of evidence reveals that the DPRK produces and possesses the capability to effectively employ throughout the Korean peninsula, significant quantities and varieties of chemical weapons. It also has, to a lesser extent, the ability to employ these weapons worldwide using unconventional methods of delivery. Just as ominous as these chemical weapons production and delivery capabilities is a growing body of evidence that indicates a DPRK history of proliferation of chemical capabilities to nations such as Syria, Iran and others.

Organization[3]

Chemical weapons research, development and production within the DPRK are the responsibility of organizations subordinate to the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Munitions Industry Department—more specifically the Second Academy of Natural Sciences and the Second Economic Committee’s Fifth Machine Industry Bureau. Both organizations receive co-operation and assistance from the Academy of Sciences and the Korean People’s Army (KPA). The Fifth Machine Industry Bureau, with the assistance of the KPA’s Nuclear Chemical Defense Bureau, controls all facilities, or sub-facilities, that manufacture chemical weapons. The academy’s Third Machine Industry (artillery shells), Fourth Machine Industry (missile warheads) and Seventh Machine Industry (air delivered weapons) Bureaus provide additional assistance. At present, there are at least 18 facilities that have been associated with chemical precursor or agent production.[4]

Chemical Warfare Agents

Chemical agents currently reported to be in the KPA inventory include, but are not necessarily limited to: adamsite (DM), chloroacetophenone (CN), chlorobenzyliidene malononitrile (CS), chlorine (CL), cyanogen chloride (CK), hydrogen cyanide (AC), mustard-family (H, HD or HL), phosgene (CG and CX), sarin (GB), soman (GD), tabun (GA) and V-agents (VM and VX).[5] It is important to note that, according to KPA defectors, the DPRK produces a total of 20 different chemical agents for use in weapons. It is believed that the KPA has concentrated upon sulfur mustard, chlorine, phosgene, sarin and the V-agents.

To date, there have been no public indications that the DPRK produces binary chemical agents. However, given the benefits of such weapons (such as safety and a longer shelf-life), it is likely that some binary agents are in production.

Reported Human Testing[6]

Intermittent reports from defectors state that the DPRK has conducted testing of chemical agents on political prisoners. For example Kwon Hyok [pseudonym], a security official at Detention Camp 22, has described incidents where healthy prisoners were placed inside glass chambers into which was inserted “gas” while technicians observed their deaths.[7] Im Chun Yong, a former special operations forces member, states that similar experiments took place on an island in the Yellow Sea. These reports are extremely difficult to confirm.[8] Taken as a whole, and within the context of what is currently known about the treatment of political prisoners within the DPRK, such reports suggest a long-standing DPRK policy of low-level lethal testing of chemical agents on unwilling human subjects.

Chemical Agent Production Capacities and Inventory

The DPRK is almost certainly self-sufficient in the production of all necessary precursor chemicals for first generation chemical agents, including nerve agents. DPRK publications suggest that among the precursors it is capable of producing are, ethylene chlorohydrin, hypochlorous acid, phosgene, phosphorous trichloride, sulfur dichloride, sulfur monochloride, thiodiglycol and thionyl chloride.

The best estimates available credit the DPRK with an annual production potential of 4,500 tons of chemical agents in peacetime and 12,000 tons in wartime. Estimates of chemical weapons inventory have varied considerably over the past 20 years. In 1989, the inventory was estimated to be “180 to 250 tons of chemical weapons of several kinds.”[9] During October 2008, the ROK minister of defense stated that the DPRK possessed 5,000 tons of chemical agents.[10] Current estimates suggest an inventory of 2,500-5,000 metric tons of agents, the majority of which were believed to be in the form of mustard, phosgene, sarin and V-agents.[11] It is further believed that this inventory includes as many as 150 warheads for ballistic missiles. The KPA may also possess limited numbers of binary (GB, GF or VX for example) chemical munitions.

Chemical Protection Equipment Production[12]

The production of chemical defense and decontamination equipment is known to occur at the No. 279 Factory (a.k.a. Research Center 279). While research and development into the “…decontamination of people, equipment, clothing, and water against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons” is conducted by the No. 398 Institute (Research Center No. 398). Both facilities are located in Pyongwon-gun, Pyongan-namdo. Like the Kanggye and Sakchu Chemical Weapons Factories, these facilities are subordinate to the Equipment Department of the Nuclear-Chemical Defense Bureau. Products from No 279 Factory are shipped to the “Maram Materials Corporation” and “Chiha-ri Chemical Corporation.” According to DPRK defectors, the Hamhung University of Chemical Engineering provides many of the researchers employed at the No. 398 Institute.

February 21, 2013, Kim Jong Un inspects the equipment of the KPA Unit 323, including what appears to be a DPRK manufactured gas mask—presumed to be manufactured by the No. 279 Factory. (Photo: KCNA)

DPRK manufactured gas mask seized by the Greek government en route to Syria in November 2009—compare with image above. (Photo: UN Panel of Experts)

Kim Jong Il visiting Hamhung University of Chemical Engineering in May 2010. (Photo: Korea News Service)

DPRK civilian and military scientists and researchers maintain active research programs directly applicable to chemical defense. For example, in 2008, scientists at Kim Il Sung University were engaged in studying various methods of sulfur mustard decontamination. Other scientists worked on the synthesis of diethyl phosphite which has known commercial uses, but can also be used as a precursor chemical for the G-series of nerve agents.

Proliferation

Since the 1990s there have been repeated reports that the DPRK has provided chemical weapons, agents or technology to Egypt, Iran, Libya and Syria. Most of these reports center around the sales of defensive equipment, manufacturing technology, assistance in developing chemical warheads for Scud class ballistic missiles and development of chemical warfare production infrastructure.

With regards to DPRK-Syria chemical weapons-related activity, reports originating in the Middle East indicate that there was an acceleration of such efforts beginning in early 2007. These reports identify the city of Aleppo as the center of this activity. It was near Aleppo that a chemical-related accident allegedly occurred in July 2007 in which both Syrian and DPRK personnel were killed when a missile with a chemical warhead exploded prematurely. These reports, while numerous, remain unconfirmed.[13]

On September 22, 2009 the ROK Coast Guard intercepted the Panamanian registered container ship MSC Rachele that, having stopped previously in Nampo (DPRK), was sailing from Dalian (China). The vessel was subsequently brought into the port of Busan where its cargo was inspected and compared with the ship’s manifest. The inspection identified four shipping containers that contained DPRK-origin chemical protective suits destined for Syria.[14]

The following month, November 2009, the Greek government detained a merchant vessel under suspicions that it might be carrying cargo violating UN sanctions and conducted an inspection. The cargo was of interest because it had originated in Nampo (DPRK), was trans-shipped through the port of Dalian (China), transited through Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) and other ports, and was en route the Syrian port of Al Lādhiqīyah (Latakia). The inspection resulted in the identification and seizure of four shipping containers that contained 13,000 chemical protective suits, 23,600 gas indicator ampoules to detect specific chemical substances and other items—all manufactured in the DPRK. The intended recipient of the goods was the Syrian Environmental Study Center. In March 2012, the Syrian Government stated that this shipment of chemical protective suits and ampoules was for agricultural and laboratory use. The Environmental Study Center appears to be linked with the Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology, an educational institution that provides training to the Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS), which has been previously implicated in Syria’s weapons of mass destruction programs.[15]

DPRK-origin chemical protective coats seized in October 2009 (left) and November 2009 (right). (Photo: UN Panel of Experts)

DPRK manufactured gas indicator ampules seized by the Greek Government in November 2009. (Photo: UN Panel of Experts)

In December 2012, a defecting Syrian Army major who had reportedly served in the chemical branch stated that Iranian and KPA experts in treatment and usage of chemical weapons were assisting the Syrian Army.[16]

Most recently, on April 3, 2013, the Liberian flagged merchant vessel El Entisar [Victory] was detained by Turkish authorities as it passed through the Dardanelles Straits. Acting upon information provided by the United States, the authorities conducted an inspection of the vessel and identified and seized an estimated 1,400 rifles and pistols, approximately 30,000 rounds of ammunition and an unstated number of gas masks—all manufactured in the DPRK. According to a statement by the ship’s captain, the shipment originated in the DPRK. It is believed that the shipment was being transported to Syria via a circuitous route in hopes of avoiding interception.[17]


[1] This paper draws heavily upon the author’s interviews with defectors and officials around the world over the past 25 years. Almost all of these interviews were understandably granted under the provisions of anonymity for the interviewees and will unfortunately not be cited in detail here. A longer, but somewhat dated, discussion of KPA chemical warfare capabilities can be found in Chapter 8 of the author’s Shield of the Great Leader: The Armed Forces of North Korea, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, and London: I.B. Taurus), 2001.

[2] Haggard, Stephan and Noland, Marcus. “Chemical Weapons: The North Korean Angle,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, September 3, 2013; and Yori, Yanover. “The Syrian army has already used a small amount of chemical weapons in a battle near Baba Amr,” Jewish Press, December 9, 2012.

[3] “N. Korea Deploys 10 More Subs,” Korea Times, October 12, 1999; Defense White Paper 1998-2010, (Seoul: ROK Ministry of National Defense); and Bermudez Jr., Joseph S. “Inside North Korea’s CW Infrastructure,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, Volume 8, Number 8, August 1996, pp. 378–382.

[4] Yi Chung Kuk, a KPA defector, has also identified Wonsan as being the site of chemical agent production, however, no details of this have become available. “Nuclear, Chemical, Biological Warfare Research Detailed,” Naewoe Tongsin, No. 903, June 9, 1994; “North Korea Major Producer of Biochemical Weapons,” Vantage Point, November 1992, Vol. XV, No. 11, pp. 23-25; and “DPRK’s Advanced Weapons Analyzed,” Korea Times, February 8, 1991, p. 8.

[5] Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, U.S. Army Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Statement for the Record, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee, January 11, 2007, p. 13‎; “Nuclear, Chemical, Biological Warfare Research Detailed;” and North Korean People’s Army Operations, FC 100-2-99, (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army), December 5, 1986, p. 11-4.

[6] “N.K. experiments on disabled children: rights group,” Korea Herald, June 30, 2013.

[7] Frenkiel, Olenka. “Human guinea pigs,” BBC, July 28, 2004; Greimel, Hans. “NKorea-Gassing Allegations,” Associated Press, February 3, 2004; and Barnett, Antony. “Revealed: the gas chamber horror of North Korea’s gulag,” The Observer, January 31, 2004.

[8] “NKorea ‘Tests Weapons on Children’,” Chicago Tribune, July 24, 2009; and “Defector warns of N Korea chemical threat,” al-Jazeera, July 24, 2009.

[9] “Daily Says North Stockpiling Biochemical Weapons,” Yonhap, June 23, 1990; and “N. Korea is Mass Producing Chemical Weapons: U.S. Report,” FPI International, June 8, 1986, p. 4.

[10] “N. Korea Deploys 10 More Subs;” “Military Estimates DPRK Chemical Arms Stocks,” Seoul Sinmun, April 15, 1995; “North Said To Own 1,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons,” Yonhap, March 21, 1995; and “Defense Minister Interviewed 16 Aug,” Korea Herald, August 17, 1991, pp. 1, 3.

[11] Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense), p. 17; Defense White Paper 2010, (Seoul: ROK Ministry of National Defense), p. 35; Kwon Yang Joo, “Critical Need to Devise Measures to Terminate North Korea’s Chemical Weapons which are as Detrimental as the Nuclear Weapons,” Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, October 7, 2010, www.kida.re.kr; and Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, U.S. Army Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Statement for the Record, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee, January 11, 2007‎.

[12] “Nuclear, Chemical, Biological Warfare Research Detailed;” and Yi Chung Kuk. Kin Seinichi no Kaku to Guntai [Kim Chong-il’s Nuclear Weapons and Army], (Tokyo: Kodansha), 1994, pp. 101-110.

[13] Gordon, Michael and Schmitt, Eric. “Syria Uses Scud Missiles in New Effort to Push Back Rebels,” New York Times, December 12, 2012; Yori, Yanover. “The Syrian army has already used a small amount of chemical weapons in a battle near Baba Amr,” Jewish Press, December 9, 2012; and Eshel, David. “Syria’s Chemical Weapons Proliferation Hydra,” Defense Update, September 23, 2007.

[14] UN Panel of Experts. Note by the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council, S/2013/337, June 11, 2013, p. 28; Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense), p. 17; Japan: Recent Security Developments, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, Hearing Held on July 27, 2010, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), 2010, p. 67; and “Gov’t Report on Seized NK Containers Presented to UNSC,” Donga Ilbo, December 16, 2009.

[15] Demick, Barbara. “North Korea tried to ship gas masks to Syria, report says,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2013; UN Panel of Experts. Note by the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council, S/2013/337, June 11, 2013, p. 28; “Greece Seizes N. Korea Chemical Weapons Suits: Diplomats,” Agence France Presse, November 17, 2011; and Michinobu Yanagisawa. “N. Korea tried to ship WMD reagent in 2009,” Yomiuri Shimbun, January 6, 2012.

[16] Yori, Yanover. “The Syrian army has already used a small amount of chemical weapons in a battle near Baba Amr,” Jewish Press, December 9, 2012.

[17] Demick, Barbara. “North Korea tried to ship gas masks to Syria, report says,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2013; and “N.Korea ‘Exporting Chemical Weapons Parts to Syria’,” Chosun Ilbo, June 17, 2013.

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9 Responses to “North Korea’s Chemical Warfare Capabilities”

  1. […] considerably more advanced than what the Iranians have. It likely has a robust supply of the same chemical weapons that Syria has been pressured to give up. And there are enough territorial disputes between North […]

  2. […] considerably more advanced than what the Iranians have. It likely has a robust supply of the same chemical weapons that Syria has been pressured to give up. And there are enough territorial disputes between North […]

  3. […] considerably more advanced than what the Iranians have. It likely has a robust supply of the same chemical weapons that Syria has been pressured to give up. And there are enough territorial disputes between North […]

  4. […] considerably more advanced than what the Iranians have. It likely has a robust supply of the same chemical weapons that Syria has been pressured to give up. And there are enough territorial disputes between North […]

  5. […] considerably more advanced than what the Iranians have. It likely has a robust supply of the same chemical weapons that Syria has been pressured to give up. And there are enough territorial disputes between North […]

  6. […] considerably more advanced than what the Iranians have. It likely has a robust supply of the same chemical weapons that Syria has been pressured to give up. And there are enough territorial disputes between North […]

  7. […] 'The available body of evidence reveals that the DPRK produces and possesses the capability to effectively employ throughout the Korean peninsula, significant quantities and varieties of chemical weapons.' […]

  8. […] reports by 38 North cite the testimony of former prison guards, now defectors, who used to work at detention facilities […]

  9. […] obvinění se objevila v nejnovější zprávě na respektovaných internetových stránkách 38 North, které patří americko-korejskému institutu při Univerzitě Johnse Hopkinse v […]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.