Understanding North Korea's Biological Weapons Potential


There have been several stories recently published regarding the biological weapons capabilities possessed by the totalitarian regime of North Korea. Thus far, most of the media attention has been to situate this development, for good reason, in a general national security and defense context. However, biological weapons are a difference in kind when it comes to the tools of warfare and merit special attention because of their unique characteristics. Some of these characteristics include potential for contagiousness, induction of societal panic, and the need for special public health and medical preparedness.

To those in the field, it is no surprise that North Korea possesses biological weapons. Though they are a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), it matters little as the former Soviet Union operated an extensive biowarfare program despite being a party to the convention -- and they have demonstrated their prowess with deploying chemical agents such as VX in order to kill. 

The latest news surrounds the fact that a North Korean defector has antibodies to anthrax in his bloodstream. These antibodies are likely the result of prior vaccination which is somewhat routine for many militaries, including our own. It has also been reported that South Korea has purchased a small stockpile of anthrax vaccine (though this purchase seems to be linked to fears over the 2015 accidental shipment of live anthrax spores to Osan Air Base). 

Concern is focused on a "pesticide" factory (Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute) that may be a clandestine dual-use facility capable of producing large amounts of biological weapons that are rumored to be capable of being mounted on missiles (in the case of anthrax). Smallpox -- a disease vanquished from the planet to which many are susceptible due to suspension of the vaccination program -- has also been mentioned as a potential possession of North Korea. 

In the coming weeks, it will be important for those in the reach of North Korea to fortify and prepare hospitals and healthcare providers to recognize, diagnose, and treat conditions such as anthrax and smallpox. Such infectious disease emergency preparations were recently tested with South Korea's experience with MERS and hopefully improvements that will impact biodefense capacities were made. The US has made major gains in preparedness since the 2001 anthrax attacks but any biological attack -- particularly in today's political and societal context -- would be severely disruptive and stress the nations hospitals (especially given the current influenza season) as well as the biomedical enterprise that will be tasked with development vaccines and treatments.

It can be assumed that South Korean and American troops in the region are vaccinated against anthrax and smallpox.  Effective vaccines, both stockpiled in large numbers in the US, exist for both these agents and anthrax can be treated with several different antibiotics as well as with antibody-based treatments. 

A biological attack would unleash global pandemonium and the natural human response will be to panic, flee, and possibly shun the victims in fear of contagion (despite the fact that anthrax -- the most likely candidate weapon -- is not contagious). This is, in many ways, the opposite response to many other disasters. The use of smallpox would cross a line that, to many, is more serious than the use of a nuclear weapon and I suspect (and hope) would be met with a fierce response.

Biological weapons are not a fanciful threat and preparing for them is an important component of national security -- a core function of government. Whether or not North Korea possesses or will use such weapons, it is nevertheless important that the general public, politicians, and healthcare providers are apprised of the very real and dangerous threat they pose. 

What are the Barriers to Bioweapons? A review of Sonia Ben Ouargham-Gormley's Important Book

Rapid advances in science which have simplified the skill set needed to perform what once were sophisticated experiments coupled with the ubiquity of biological agents in the environment comprise the standard narrative regarding the risk of of biological weapons development. The threat of these banned weapons as assessed through the lens of the standard narrative led to the dire prediction in 2008 by The WMD Commission that an attack using, most likely, a biological weapon would occur by 2013. 

This is a narrative I have presented countless times when lecturing on the topic. I do add in that a lot of tacit knowledge, an identification made by Kathleen Vogel in her book, is needed as biological weapons manufacturing, even on small scales, is not as easy as making crystal meth. Almost invariably, I am asked by an audience member why, if this process is so easy,  a large-scale biological attack has not occurred. I don't usually give an answer that I myself find satisfactory.

However, I never appreciated how potentially limiting the "standard narrative" is to how the world approaches counter threat activities and how I answer the above question. George Mason University's Sonia Ben Ouargham-Gormley's 2014 book Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development convincingly illustrates how a new conceptualization -- inductively derived from the experiences of the US, Soviet, Iraq, South African, and Aum Shinrikyo biological weapons programs -- of the risk provides a new path to positively augment current counter threat activities and answers the question frequently posed to me.

Throughout this book Professor Ben Ouargham-Gormley challenges the premise that the formative stage of a bioweapons program is the most crucial to the acquisition of biological weapons capacity. She argues that the formative stage, which involves the acquisition of biological material and technology, is not nearly as important as the sustenance phase of a program in which the actual production, scale-up, and viable weaponization occur. Nuclear counterproliferation, she further argues, is much more suited to a focus on the formative stage and this paradigm is not wholly applicable to the biological realm.

As she writes,“in the bioweapons field, expertise and knowledge—and the conditions under which scientific work occurs—are significantly greater barriers to weapons development than are procurement of biomaterials, scientific documents, and equipment.”

The quick retort to her might be that the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001, the almost monthly reports of someone home-brewing the assassination tool ricin, and the continual "white powder incidents" demonstrate that the threat of biological weapons at any scale is dangerous enough to provoke calamity and fear. Additionally, Project Bacchus, in which 1 kilogram of an anthrax simulant was made from off-the-shelf materials in a 2 year US government project shows what is possible. These points are definitely true but miss the point of this work as they are not the exact subject of the book nor the intended focus of much of our preparedness activities, the large breadth and scope of which are aimed at larger scale use of biological weapons. Similarly, it is not that her thesis is that no large scale bioweapon production could ever occur, but that it is most likely to occur in a certain contexts.

Professor Ben Ouargham-Gormley provides ample evidence for her thesis from several known biological weapons programs, concretizing that even in the most adept programs difficulties arose because of suboptimal organizational and managerial practices. The book heavily documents such practices and provides much evidence, as well as many important anecdotes involving Soviet bioweapons scientists as well as the infamous Iraqi scientists Dr. Germ and "Chemical Sally".

My understanding of the topic has been greatly deepened by this work and this scholarly treatment of a vital national security issue is a welcome addition to the field.

Living Weapons: A Scholarly Analysis of Biodefense

In many ways the field of biodefense is young and still developing a robust amount of scholarly materials from which the foundations of the discipline will develop and new work flourish. There are, however, several books which, in my estimation, are worthy of being described as foundational in their approach.  I read almost everything in this field and usually find my knowledge deepened and better integrated by the process so each latest book is progressively less impactful. George Mason University's Gregory Koblentz's Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (2011) is one such book that bucks the trend in a good way and is a book that I highly recommend to those in the field.

Koblentz's book is a comprehensive overview of the field of biological weapons that is not a mere cataloging of the pathogens and the history. The book provides extensive analysis of the field and is especially illuminating when it comes to the problem of intelligence gathering in this realm. This, to me, was the chief value of the book.

Using the historical examples of biological weapons programs in the Soviet Union, Iraq, and South Africa Koblentz meticulously analyzes what western intelligence knew and what they did not and why. The book includes important tables that basically score intelligence agencies on whether they correctly identified a biological weapons production facility or not. 

The other aspect of this book is a very in-depth critique of the intelligence shortcomings that led to the mistaken conclusions regarding Iraq's post-Desert Storm biological weapons capabilities and intentions. Koblentz approaches this task not with a partisan aim but to better understand the nuances of infamous informer Curveball's revelations in order to improve intelligence capabilities in the future (in 2003 just 6 analysts in the CIA were devoted to biological warfare). His ideas for intelligence improvements are reflected in some of the newly released recommendations for the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense

For those wanting an intellectually rigorous overview of a fascinating field that provides a foundation for a viable path forward, Living Weapons is a great addition to one's library.




Preparing Minds for Bioterrorism

I often give interviews to the press on various infectious disease topics and a few months ago I was talking to a journalist and referenced the anthrax attacks of 2001. The journalist replied, “Oh yeah, the anthrax 'scare' back then.” I replied, “it wasn’t a ‘scare’ it was an attack in which 22 people were infected and 5 murdered via spores being sent through the US Postal System.”

That 14 years have now passed since the Amerithrax attacks means that those horrific times have faded from people’s memory and that’s not a good thing because the threat remains.

With that context in mind, my colleagues and I wrote a clinical review paper with the aim of refreshing clinician’s minds with new information on these important infectious diseases (anthrax, plague, botulism, tularemia, and smallpox). We were ecstatic when the most prestigious medical journal in the world, The New England Journal of Medicine, accepted it for publication.

The subtext of the entire update is that it is vitally important for clinicians—the front-line defense against these pathogens—is armed with the knowledge necessary to recognize and treat these diseases as well as know when to sound the alarm.

As my hero Louis Pasteur famously said, “chance favors the prepared mind” and our hope is that our paper will prepared the minds of those crucial to protecting this nation from another bioattack.



The "Laptop of Doom" & the Threat of Bioterrorism

Commenting on the ongoing Ebola outbreak, I often note that all the novel medications and vaccines being put in trials are the result of a recognition, post-anthrax, that Ebola could be a potential bioweapon. Almost 13 years have passed since Amerithrax and many have forgotten about the sense of alarm and calamity that gripped the nation in October of 2001. 

The specter of bioterrorism is in the headlines again with the revelation that a laptop found in Syria contained information about using plague as bioweapon. 

Unlike anthrax, plague--caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis--can be transmissible from person-to-person.

Plague, like anthrax and Ebola, is also classified in the highest priority category (A) and has a long history of use as a bioweapon that stretches back to the times of The Black Death, when a Tartar commander catapulted plague-stricken corpses into the city of Caffa.

In the modern era, the bioweapons programs of the Soviets (and the US) also sought to weaponize plague. One fact that would delimit plague's effectiveness, however, is the fact that it is easily treatable with antibiotics and, upon exposure, prompt administration of antibiotics can abort infection. 

The lesson I draw from the discovery of this laptop is that, despite an absence from the headlines, the threat of bioterrorism is itself not absent.