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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Associated Press March 5, 2017

Stopping North Korea in its tracks

China can help this country, which has been a rogue nation for far too long, join the mainstream

North Korea may have found a new use for its large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, which are meant to attack South Korean and US troops in case of another war.

Malaysian police have said that a chemical weapon — the toxic VX nerve agent — was used to kill the estranged half-brother of Pyongyang’s absolute leader at the Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13. If North Korea’s involvement is confirmed, this would be an unusual and extremely high-profile use of its chemicals in an assassination.

Largest Stockpiles

North Korea is not a signatory to the international Chemical Weapons Convention. It has been producing chemical weapons since the 1980s and is now estimated to have as many as 5,000 tonnes, according to a biennial South Korean defence white paper.

Its stockpile, one of the world’s largest, reportedly has 25 types of agents, including sarin, mustard, tabun and hydrogen cyanide. It also is thought to have nerve agents such as VX allegedly used by two women — one Vietnamese and the other Indonesian — to kill the North Korean leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam.

North Korea also has 12-13 types of biological weapons, says Lee Illwoo, a Seoul-based commentator on military issues. It can likely produce anthrax, smallpox and plague, the South Korean defence paper said. If war breaks out, North Korea would likely target Seoul’s defences with chemical and biological weapons dropped from aircraft or delivered via missiles, artillery and grenades, experts say.

New Sophistication

VX, which Malaysian police said was detected in Kim Jong Nam’s eyes and face, was used by Saddam Hussein’s forces in a 1988 poison gas attack on Halabja in northern Iraq that killed thousands.

If North Korea really did use VX to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, it would show a new level of sophistication in its handling and use of chemical weapons, said Kim Dae Young, a military expert at South Korea’s Korea Defence and Security Forum. “They probably conducted a lot of tests to come up with a perfect amount that would kill Kim Jong Nam, but not harm the assailants or anyone else nearby in a crowded airport,” Kim said.

Heavy Production

Making chemical weapons isn’t extremely difficult, and North Korea likely uses chemical fertilizer plants to manufacture its weapons, according to South Korean experts.

The military information website GlobalSecurity.org claims that North Korea has at least eight industrial facilities that can produce chemical agents. “The biggest weakness of chemical weapons is that their effectiveness expires soon and new supplies need to be made constantly, so North Korea maintaining a stockpile of up to 5,000 tonnes indicates a very strong production capability,” said Kim, the analyst.

Some defectors from North Korea have said that the authoritarian country tested chemical agents on political prisoners. North Korea is also thought to have some 17 microbiological labs to nurture and produce germs to be used as weapons.

North Korea argues that such places are meant to study how to prevent epidemic diseases. But analyst Lee says that the North has already placed those germs in storage facilities in military units, which means Pyongyang intends to use them as weapons.

UN Sanctions

Since 1993, the United Nations has imposed many sanctions on North Korea because of its illegal weapons programmes and other violations of international norms.

The latest sanctions came in December 2016, in response to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in preceding September. The latest sanctions targeted North Korea’s currency revenues by placing a cap on coal exports, cutting them by at least 62%. Coal is mainly exported to China.

China is the Key

On February 18, China announced that it has suspended North Korean coal imports. Since China is Pyongyang’s biggest enabler, this is likely to hit North Korea hard.

US President Donald Trump has claimed that China has “total control over North Korea”. “China should solve that problem,” he said. “And if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.”

China also knows the impact of a North Korean implosion — regional economic chaos, huge flows of refugees into its relatively poor northeast, which already has a sizeable ethnic Korean minority — are far bigger problems for it.

So, it isn’t surprising that China has started tightening things for North Korea. If China continues on this path, there is still hope for North Koreans.

An isolated nation

North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was born in 1945 following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, when Korea was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Consequent to the failure of reunification efforts, in 1948 two separate governments, the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, were formed.

An invasion of South Korea by North Korea led to the Korean War from 1950-1953. When a United Nations force led by the United States defended South Korea and made significant advances into North Korea, China intervened on behalf of North Korea.

Since then, the United States has maintained a strong presence in South Korea, and China is seen as a supporter of North Korea. Both the Koreas are separated by the heavily fortified Korean Demilitarised Zone.

Axis of Evil

North Korea is a highly centralised, one-party republic, though it calls itself a self-reliant socialist state and formally holds elections. Political power has revolved around Kim Il-sung and his family. Kim Il-sung was the supreme leader of North Korea for 46 years from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. He was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il, who ruled from 1994-2011, and his son Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader since 2011. The family runs a totalitarian dictatorship and keeps the country isolated from the world. Anyone can be executed if wanted by Kim Jong-un.

“Under the rule of Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries. All basic freedoms have been severely restricted under the Kim family’s political dynasty. A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labour. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom,” states the Human Rights Watch.

The United States had categorised North Korea as a ?Rouge State’, along with Iran, Sudan and Syria, and when this term was replaced by ?Axis of Evil’, North Korea continued to form a part of it.

North Korea ranks 208th in the world in gross domestic product, or less than $2,000 per person, behind Haiti and just ahead of Rwanda, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Copyright 2017, Associated Press