Did North Korea just hint a biological or chemical weapons strike is coming?
Through a telescope atop Mount Dora, a hill on the South Korean edge of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, you see the blackened ruin of the liaison office that Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, ordered blown up in June 2020.
The rubble looks like a smudge in the special economic zone where South Korean enterprises manufactured light products with North Korean labor in a deal between the two Koreas. The abandoned zone recedes into the white cardboard-looking buildings of Kaesong, capital of a kingdom that preceded the rise of the Chosun dynasty in Seoul in the late 14th century. North Korean troops captured Kaesong when they invaded the South in June 1950 and have held it ever since.
Kim Jong Un had to have given Yo Jong the authority to blow up the liaison office, built by South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. at a cost of about $10 million. She could not have had it destroyed on her own. She serves as a mouthpiece for her brother, making statements on his behalf when he would rather not attach his name to them.
The destruction of the liaison office was a bitter disappointment to Moon Jae-in, the South Korean liberal who spent his entire five-year presidency, which ended in May, in a quest for reconciliation with the North. He believed he was on his way to success when he met Kim Jong Un at the truce village of Panmunjom, on the line between the two Koreas, in April 2018, and he and the North Koreans agreed a liaison office would be a great place for officials from North and South to hash out their problems.
Kim, however, refused to see Moon after the failure in Hanoi of his second summit with Donald Trump in February 2019. He blamed Moon for authorizing joint military exercises with American and South Korean troops even though they were conducted on computers, not on the ground (field exercises will start soon). What better way to show the North’s disgust with Moon than to blow up what he had prized as a substantive, visible step toward reconciliation at last?
Lately, Kim Yo Jong has flexed her power again — not in action but in words that are particularly disturbing. She’s now raising the threat level in revenge for North Korean defectors launching balloons that are wafting propaganda over the North. That’s how, she says, COVID-19 got into North Korea after the North had been denying a single case since closing its borders entirely in early 2020 after the pandemic was first reported in Wuhan, China.
“Our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one,” she warned in a speech carried live on North Korean TV. “If the enemy persists in such dangerous deeds as fomenting the inroads of virus into our republic,” according to the English-language translation put out by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, “we will respond to it by not only exterminating the virus but also wiping out the South Korean authorities.”
In the Korean-language version, as translated by NK News, a website in Seoul, she resorted to foul language that’s still more intimidating. “If the enemies continue to conduct dangerous shit that might bring virus into DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], we will answer that by exterminating not only those viruses but also South Korean authorities, those little bastards,” NK News quotes her as saying. Worse still, “We are already reviewing various response measures. It has to be a very strong, retaliatory response.”
What is Kim Yo Jong implying? She doesn’t go into specifics, but the answer must be something other than missiles laden with nuclear warheads, as the North has been threatening for years. Is she suggesting wreaking vengeance against the sources of the disease by inflicting disease in return?
Kim holds the relatively secondary title of vice department director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, but obviously she speaks with her brother’s authority. For the first time, Kim Jong Un, through his sister, may be hinting that biological or chemical weapons might annihilate those responsible for the leaflet barrage that Moon, as president, made illegal but that his successor, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, apparently does not mind.
Kim Jong Un is no more likely to wage biological or chemical warfare against the South anymore than he’s going to order a nuclear strike. The North hasn’t staged an underground nuclear test since September 2017, and Kim evidently has delayed a seventh test. While waiting for whatever he might do next, however, one can’t ignore his sister’s words against what we know about the North’s biological and chemical programs.
“North Korea certainly has the capability of striking with bio or chemical weapons,” Robert Collins, author of books and studies on power struggles in North Korea, including its weapons programs, told me in an email exchange.
Collins, having made a career in Korea first in the army and then as a civilian intelligence analyst with the U.S. Forces Korea command, outlined the history of North Korea’s biological and chemical weapons programs. “North Korea began researching germ warfare weapons in the 1960s by establishing a germ weapons research organization under the National Defense Science institute,” he said. “In 1966, the North bought snake venom from China and Vietnam. In 1968, the North obtained anthrax, bubonic plague [and] cholera from Japan to conduct research.”
The North’s Microbiology Research Institute at the Korean People’s Army Medical College began researching biological weapons in 1970, and by the 1980s the North “had completed its bioweapons testing on humans,” said Collins. By now the North has developed “bioweapons culture strains including anthrax, bubonic plague, smallpox and yellow fever. North Korea’s top scientists have developed ten types of bioweapons.”
But how could North Korea begin to engage in actual biowarfare, as hinted by Kim Yo Jong? According to Collins, North Korean cyber hackers have hacked into South Korean chemical plants more than 2,000 times. “These hackers have also hacked into South Korea’s Chemical Accident Response Information system for the purpose of understanding where the South’s chemical plants are located and how much damage would result locally if they were subject to explosions.”
South Korean military analysts, said Collins, “see this as part of North Korea’s chemical warfare strategy.” Against this background, he concludes, “Kim Yo Jong’s logic in her threats against South Korea becomes somewhat clearer.”
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.