Smallpox and North Korea

A patient being inoculated against smallpox in 1802, in a satirical cartoon. James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Biological weapons are both terrifying and elusive. On the one hand, the Soviet Union made long-term investments in bioweapons research during the Cold War, as Ken Alibek’s tell-all book Biohazard makes clear. On the other hand, these diseases have proved difficult to weaponize, and the problem of blowback has made them unlikely to be used by any state. Despite the allegations that Iraq was weaponizing diseases under Saddam Hussein, no large-scale biological weapons program was discovered after the U.S. and British invasion. Now there are new allegations being made about North Korea.

Given that North Korea’s leader had his own brother murdered, and is moving forward rapidly to expand the range of his nuclear weapons, it’s not difficult to imagine that he might be fascinated with biological weaponry. But is there any solid evidence for a North Korean program? Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons development can take place on a constrained budget and without difficult procurement or testing issues. As such, these programs are hard to detect. Nonetheless, Joby Warrick has an article in the Washing Post that points out that in 2015 the North Korean leader had his photograph taken in a facility “jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes, and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.” Perhaps even more disturbing, North Korean soldiers who have defected have allegedly had antibodies to smallpox, although these defectors mostly escaped decades ago.

Warrick’s article is worth reading in depth. How do we judge such a threat? On the one hand, were a virus such as smallpox ever released it would be truly a global catastrophe. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge no state has used biological weapons since World War Two. Since that time, however, many Cassandras have warned that enemies were developing biological weapons. The United States has a long history of allegations against enemies that lead to war, only to be discredited afterwards, The U.S. warship Maine was quite possibly sunk by a coal fire, not the Spanish, but its explosion was used to justify the Spanish-American war. It’s unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were even present on August 4, 1964 for the alleged second Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first incident led to a single bullet hole in a U.S. vessel. Nonetheless, these “events” were manipulated to form the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the U.S. Congress. In turn, President Johnson then used Congress’s authorization to massively expand the U.S. war in Vietnam. As it turns out, the U.S. intelligence services had completely misread the situation in that nation. The Bush administration alleged that Saddam Hussein was creating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but none were found after the U.S.-British invasion. If we included smaller conflicts -such as the contra war, which was based on a myriad of allegations against Nicaragua in the 1980s- this list of false or questionable justifications for war would become lengthy. Given this background, how seriously should we fear this new potential threat?

Sadly, biological weapons programs are by their nature easy to conceal, and difficult to evaluate. As a result, this is one potential nightmare associated with North Korea that is profoundly difficult to place in a broader context. We simply don’t have sufficient information yet to know the true scale of the danger.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

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