US must avoid Soviet-era disarmament mistakes with North Korea’s bioweapons

US must avoid Soviet-era disarmament mistakes with North Korea’s bioweapons
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As talks with North Korea move forward to address that country’s nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration would be wise to develop a strategy of cooperation with the Kim regime to reduce potential threats posed by bioweapons. In this regard, the administration should learn not only from disarmament successes of the past, but also from our most notable failures.

A case in point is the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR). Launched in 1991 in response to the fall of the Soviet Union, the program sought to secure nuclear and other deadly weapons stored in former Soviet states, so they don’t fall into enemy hands. CTR was remarkably successful in reducing the former Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons proliferation threat, but it achieved mixed results in its attempts to eliminate the threat posed by bioweapons.


Most regrettable, the program did not deal effectively with the reduction of scientific know-how. In fact, in some cases the CTR helped former Soviet bioweapons scientists retain their bioweapons expertise instead of eliminating it. Learning from this experience is important. Here are some “do’s and don'ts” that the U.S. should follow in its bio-engagement with North Korea.

Do engage as many facilities as possible.

The contours of the North Korean bioweapons program are unknown. Much of the available data about the program’s structure are derived from scant intelligence estimates, most a decade old. American, Russian, and South Korean intelligence reports also vary in their assessments of the program’s achievements. At times it is described as rudimentary and primarily engaged in defensive research, other times it is said to have produced a variety of biological agents and delivery systems.

The truth is we don’t know. Therefore, a key objective of any cooperative project with North Korea must clarify the structure of its bioweapons program. This can happen by engaging as many facilities as possible, as was the case under the CTR program in the early 1990s, when the composition of the Soviet bioweapons program was still a mystery.

It is possible that the Kim regime will decide to open for cooperation facilities that were never involved in bioweapons work. This is still useful data. Understanding which facilities were never part of the program will make it easier to identify those that were.

Don’t adopt a cookie-cutter approach to bioengagement.

Probably the greatest failure of the CTR program was its adoption of a one-size-fits-all approach that did not take into account the particular circumstances of the facilities and individuals engaged. For example, the CTR usually provided former Soviet facilities with biosafety equipment, which was much needed, as scientists sometimes worked with dangerous agents with no ventilation system to prevent the spread of disease should a laboratory accident occur.

This kind of assistance, however, had its drawbacks. It favored reliance on safety technology and reduced the need to maintain the stringent hands-on laboratory practices taught in Soviet times that successfully prevented accidents. In addition, recurrent power outages rendered biosafety technology unusable. The state of utilities in North Korea is abysmal, so the Trump administration should consider supporting local safety practices, at least initially, rather than providing technology that may be used properly.

The cookie-cutter approach of the CTR program in the former Soviet Union had more serious consequences when applied to bioweapons know-how. Typically, the CTR program provided grants to former bioweapons scientists to work on projects that usually involved pathogens they had studied during Soviet times. The main goal of this approach was to ensure that scientists remained in their former facilities, instead of selling their expertise to other states or terrorist groups. 

This approach made much sense in the initial stages, when little was known about how many scientists were involved and how they organized their work. Soon, however, the flaws became apparent. By paying scientists to stay in their former facilities and work on pathogens previously used in bioweapons work, the program encouraged the preservation of scientific teams and their bioweapons expertise instead of eliminating it.  

If a program like CTR is developed in North Korea, two main objectives are important. First, it should promote the decay of specialized bioweapons knowledge by breaking-up the research teams and not allow support for work involving bioweapons pathogens. Secondly, it should help scientists exit the bioweapons field by offering other options, such as retirement packages, or positions within a university or pharmaceutical company, but in areas unrelated to bioweapons agents.

Without strategies to help scientists exit the bioweapons field and efforts to erode their expertise, a bio-engagement program in North Korea risks maintaining a bioweapons threat and possibly allowing resumption of the program in the future.

Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is associate professor at the George Mason University in the Biodefense Program, Schar School of Policy and Government. She is the author of “Barriers to Bioweapons: the Challenge of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development” (Cornell University Press, 2014).