Senior United States defense officials, serving and retired, are quietly expressing their concern that while the recent focus on the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons programs is warranted, Pyongyang has other military capabilities, mostly forgotten in the current debate, that could kill millions of people.
Largely ignored is the North Korean arsenal, including artillery, chemical weapons, almost certainly biological weapons, short-range missiles and radioactive materials that could be turned into weapons. These weapons, under the right conditions, would inflict severe damage should hostilities resume on the Korean Peninsula, defense officials say.
One senior official at the Pentagon said: “While the world continues to figure out what to do when it comes to North Korea’s medium and long-range missiles that could be armed with miniaturized nuclear warheads either now or in the very near future, we all seem to forget about the weapons North Korea already has that could do massive damage and spark a second Korean War if Kim Jong-un miscalculated or deliberately decided to strike.” The officials spoke on condition that we preserve their anonymity.
“What I really fear most is that one day Kim decides to launch a surprise attack on Seoul, Tokyo or American forces stationed in Asia, if North Korea ever felt its existence or leadership was threatened in an existential way, or a crisis built to a head. At that point, we won’t be worrying about just nuclear weapons but lots of different weapons that could kill a lot of people, millions even. We need to be ready.”
While the possibility of a North Korean strike was remote for the time being, what worries military officials is the focus on nuclear weapons rather than the capabilities North Korea has already perfected. Officials said this misdirected focus, combined with the unpredictable nature of the regime in Pyongyang – shown by the recent murder of Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam – meant the world should be prepared for North Korea to do just about anything.
“Here is a scenario that should frighten all of Asia,” said a former Pentagon official. “Suppose, in the future, we return to a state of escalating tension, just like in 2012. North Korea feels boxed in, seeing US military exercises on its borders, escalating sanctions. And even China, in this scenario, is applying intense pressure to rein in its southern neighbor. Pyongyang’s rhetoric reaches a fever pitch and a North Korean soldier takes it upon himself, from his guard post, to start firing at his counterparts across the DMZ with small arms.”
Suppose, the former official said, the North Korean soldier killed or wounded several South Korean soldiers. “South Korea ups the ante and fires mortar rounds at North Korean positions. North Korea then unleashes an artillery barrage at Seoul. While Pyongyang’s artillery is old and not exactly in the best state, multiple rounds land in the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, killing several hundred people.”
The result could be mass panic in one of the world’s biggest cities, the former official said. A parallel from history might be the flight of up to 600,000 people from the Indian city of Surat in 1994 after reports of 5,000 cases of plague in the city, of which only 167 cases were confirmed. A small strike by North Korea could disrupt the lives of millions of Koreans, the former official said. “Imagine millions of people clogging highways, mass transit, airports, all looking for a way out. Then imagine if North Korea hit downtown Seoul with long-range artillery or missiles and took down a few skyscrapers. It would be several 9/11 events compressed into one big event.”
It would be hell on earth, the former official said. US and South Korean counter-strikes would wipe out the North Korean artillery but the exchange would potentially herald the start of a greater conflict.
That scenario is scary enough, but imagine what would happen if North Korea bombarded South Korea with chemical or biological weapons. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea may have between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical agents. The NTI believes North Korea has deadly nerve agents, such as sarin and VX.
The NTI and US defense and intelligence experts we interviewed believe North Korea has the vehicles to deliver chemical weapons, including artillery guns, rockets fired from multiple launchers or singly, guided missiles, aircraft and unconventional methods of delivery.
Weapons of mass intimidation
It is almost certain that North Korea has biological weapons, although there is some debate about their true capabilities. Even a relatively small attack with biological weapons could kill large numbers of people and create mass panic.
An authority on North Korea, Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corporation, described how North Korea could mount an attack with biological weapons. “North Korean special forces are a likely means for delivering North Korean biological weapons,” Bennett said in 2013. “North Korea has some 200,000 special forces, a small fraction of which could deliver devastating biological attacks against South Korea, Japan and even the US. North Korea could use biological agents in isolation, perhaps as an escalated provocation in which it seeks to infect a limited number of people, or it could use biological agents as the leading edge of an invasion of [South Korea], hoping for thousands or even more infections to weaken [South Korean] defenses and will to fight.”
The experts we interviewed for this report consider it unlikely that North Korea would ever strike out of the blue. The North Korean armed forces understand that if they attacked US allies, its military bases in Asia or the US itself, it would unleash sufficient US military might to crush North Korea. The cost in lives would be high. As one former official of the US State Department asked several months ago: “How many people would die in such a conflict?”
The danger is such that the administration of US President Donald Trump should face it in two ways. The US should beef up the military capabilities of its allies threatened by North Korea, for example by strengthening anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan. At the same time, Washington should begin a dialogue with Pyongyang, and soon.