Even as North Korea’s armed forces continue to demonstrate a substantial qualitative disadvantage when compared to the militaries of both the United States and South Korea, the military threat from North Korea remains significant.
The threat posed by the North Korean military stems in part from its sheer size – with roughly 1.3 million active-duty personnel, as well as available reserve forces numbering over 7 million – but also from North Korea’s efforts to compensate for the qualitative deficiencies demonstrated by the Korean People’s Army (KPA). This has resulted in a North Korean focus on the development of asymmetric military capabilities, of which one of the most concerning is North Korea’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.
Why North Korea Has Chemical Weapons
North Korea has for decades pursued a military policy that emphasizes selective modernization of its military capabilities; in 1962, the DPRK promulgated a new defense policy know as the Four Point Military Guidelines, which included an instruction to focus military modernization efforts on those capabilities that provide it with the greatest strategic benefit at the lowest possible cost, in keeping with the country’s financial and resource constraints.
As the military balance on the Korean Peninsula began to swing in South Korea’s favor, this policy has manifested itself in North Korea’s pursuit of asymmetric military capabilities and, as the Department of Defense has assessed, North Korea increasingly invests its resources into those areas where it believes it may possess some relative advantage over its adversaries. This has included North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, its large Special Operations Force, and, increasingly, the DPRK’s growing cyber capabilities.
Chemical Weapons Strategy
Chemical weapons have also long been an element of this strategy. Much like North Korea’s approach to military modernization and its emphasis on certain military capabilities, chemical weapons are not a recent addition to the DPRK’s military toolkit. In fact, it has been reported that North Korea may have first received a sarin nerve agent from the Soviet Union and begun to develop chemical weapons as far back as the 1950s, establishing its first regular KPA chemical units and facilities for the production of chemical agents shortly thereafter.
North Korea has since then continued to develop chemical weapons. Today, its stockpile of chemical weapons is estimated to be somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons. Much of its stockpile and the focus of its chemical weapons production efforts is thought to be comprised of nerve agents such as Sarin and VX, while it also likely incorporates blister agents, blood agents, choking agents, and riot-control agents. North Korea is likely able to indigenously produce most types of chemical weapons, although it likely has to import some precursors to produce nerve agents. At maximum capacity, North Korea may be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons of chemical weapons.
North Korea has recently shown itself to be willing to make use of chemical weapons. In 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was killed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport with a VX nerve agent.
Possible delivery mechanisms for North Korea’s stockpile of chemical weapons include the DPRK’s growing ballistic missile arsenal – including its increasingly capable short-range ballistic missiles that have shown themselves to potentially have the ability to defeat regional ballistic missile defenses – as well as North Korea’s large conventional artillery force. Additionally, elements of North Korea’s 200,000 strong Special Operations Force could deploy chemical weapons following infiltration into South Korea.
In the event of a renewed military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea would likely seek to defeat and occupy South Korea quickly before additional U.S. reinforcements could be deployed to the peninsula. As part of this strategy, North Korea would almost certainly look to employ its full array of asymmetric military capabilities in order to both maximize the number of early casualties it is able to inflict on its adversaries and as a means to terrorize the South Korean populace. North Korea’s chemical weapons could be used both to inflict alarming numbers of casualties and to debilitate large South Korean cities and metropolitan areas. In addition, chemical weapons could be deployed against military targets such as ports and airfields in order to suppress activities at those sites, and could be used to lockdown certain areas of transit across the Korean Peninsula’s mountainous terrain.