“Microbes by ton”, that is how a Washington Post story describes the bioweapons threat from North Korea, the rogue regime that has recently acquired Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and has declared itself a nuclear power after claimed detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
But if the assessments of US and Asian intelligence officials are true, as the Washington Post and other stories on the subject in the global media quote, then a whole new chapter in North Korean threat to the world is about to begin, in extension of its regular warnings of launching nuclear attacks.
“North Korea is moving steadily to acquire the essential machinery that could potentially be used for an advanced bioweapons program, from factories that can produce microbes by the ton, to laboratories specializing in genetic modification,” the Post story writes.
There have long been speculation about North Korea developing weapons of biological warfare, after the country established in 1980s a biological weapons programme under Kim Il-Sung, current dictator Kim Jong-un’s father, but it never went beyond pathogens like smallpox and anthrax and even now there is no hard evidence to prove it.
But the way North Korea is moving these days, sending its scientists abroad to study advanced microbiology and acquiring machinery that can be used to produce biological weapons at large scale, analysts says “North Korea could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so.”
And the most horrible part of it, the intelligence agencies spying on North Korea may not find if North Korea actually has started producing biological weapons at military scale as they suspect North Korea is using civilian factories to conceal its programme. “If it started tomorrow we might not know it, unless we’re lucky enough to have an informant who happens to be in just the right place,” the Post story writes quoting an official.
Experts say genetic engineering to produce even more virulent strains of microbes or germs is another scientific breakthrough that North Korea might have been trying. According to a study, North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program, released in October by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, North Korean and Chinese scientists jointly published a research paper in 2016 on producing new species of bacteria through genetic engineering.
Though the research paper writes that it is “it is highly unlikely that the typing of these genomes will provide know-how for biological weapons development effort,” the Post story says it is evidence of North Korea’s ambition to acquire cutting edge genetic and microbiological sciences. The ambition raises a valid doubt that it may be used to create even more potent germs, especially when North Korea’s proven ability and credentials to carry out such advanced scientific research have been limited so far. Attempts to produce such super-germs is not new and met with mixed success during the cold war era.
An analysis by Amplyfi, an artificial intelligence company, on North Korean efforts to acquire advanced genetic and biotech capabilities, in fact, has shown that search on topics like “gene expression” and “nucleic acid sequence” from North Korea has gone up voluminously in the last two years.
The Post report writes quoting Amplyfi co-founder Chris Ganje “There are worrying indicators of unintended support and it is obvious that the international community and larger institutions need to be cautious in providing seemingly benign academic scientific education and training to North Korea,” as to circumvent international monitoring, North Korea is trying to gain technological insights from academic institutions, NGOs and private organizations.
South Korea has warned in past that it may launch biological attack thorough its special operations forces (SOF), a Rand Corporation paper, The Challenge of North Korean Biological Weapons, says.
The paper that details submission before the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the United States House of Representatives in October 2013 writes, “Indeed, North Korea special forces are a likely means for delivering North Korean biological weapons. 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 United States.”