At his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, U.S. President Donald Trump could be aiming to rid the isolated country of its massive chemical and biological weapons stockpile, according to U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty — a move that suggests a push to go beyond the long-standing focus on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
“We had broad-ranging discussions on the topic, and it extended beyond denuclearization to the topics of chemical and biological weapons as well,” Hagerty said during a telephone conference Thursday with reporters following the two-day summit between Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the U.S. president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Hagerty was part of the presidential delegation attending the summit.
“The president’s intention is to see all of these weapons of mass destruction eliminated from the Korean Peninsula, and the strategy remains the same in terms of complete, verifiable and irreversible aspects of denuclearization,” he said.
Hagerty’s comments hint that Trump and his team may be discussing the removal of Pyongyang’s chemical and biological weapons in preparation for the upcoming summit with Kim expected in May or June.
A separate statement released by the White House after the conclusion of the summit appeared to expand the scope of what might be discussed to potentially include shorter-range ballistic missiles that could strike Japan.
“President Trump and Prime Minister Abe confirmed their commitment to achieving the permanent and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea,” the statement said. “They also reaffirmed that North Korea needs to abandon all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”
Ahead of his summit with Trump, Abe expressed concern that the mercurial leader might strike a deal to eliminate long-range ballistic missiles but let the North keep its shorter-range arsenal, which includes an estimated 200 to 300 medium-range Nodong missiles, which can fly about 1,300 km (800 miles) and thus strike much of Japan.
Abe told the Diet on April 9 that getting rid of only intercontinental ballistic missiles, which experts believe can reach the U.S. mainland, “has no meaning for Japan.”
In April last year, the prime minister warned an Upper House security committee that North Korea might already possess the ability to strike Japan using ballistic missiles armed with deadly chemical weapons like sarin.
“Abe seems to have pulled off a diplomatic coup, getting Trump to harden his demands on North Korean disarmament,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review and a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation, wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Raising the issue won’t mean North Korea would necessarily oblige. But Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert and lecturer at Troy University in Seoul who has written extensively on the North’s chemical and biological weapons program, said any move to tackle the issue could be useful during the Kim-Trump summit.
“I’ve been telling people for a while getting North Korea to sign the CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) should be a shorter term goal,” Pinkston said.
The CWC is an arms control treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. North Korea is one of just three states that has neither signed nor acceded to the treaty.
As for Abe’s role in gaining Trump’s understanding on shorter-range missiles as well as chemical and biological weapons, Sebastian Maslow, a research fellow at the University of Tokyo, was doubtful the Japanese leader should be credited for it.
“Though a core security interest for Japan, I am not sure this can directly be traced back to Abe’s influence,” Maslow said.
“It is likely that the upcoming talks will address the entire spectrum of WMDs,” he said. “Abandonment of these arms might even be a convenient tool for the North to demonstrate commitment and progress in the course of the talks, but I remain doubtful that the North will agree to abandon its entire arsenal before credible security guarantees are offered by the U.S. and both sides agree on a formula for independent oversight of this process.
“As previous episodes have shown, these stages in diplomatic talks are likely to create more distrust and have often served as cause for derailing the diplomatic process,” he added.
Maslow said concrete results on long-range missiles and nuclear weapons “are the only benchmark of success Trump would be able to sell to his domestic audience” as a diplomatic win after the talks.
“The statement as such may as well be read as a service to Abe, who may have got some commitments from Trump on his approach to the DPRK,” Maslow said. “But this has not changed the overall mood in Japan that Abe is largely isolated and out of sync in the current round of DPRK diplomacy.”
Although assessing the stockpiles of North Korea is notoriously difficult, the rogue state is thought to be among the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons — ranking third after the U.S. and Russia, according to the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. It is believed to have some 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical agents, including nerve agents sarin and VX, NTI said.
It is also assumed to have 13 types of biological agents, including smallpox, anthrax and the plague, in its possession, according to the South Korean government.
In February last year, Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated using VX at the international airport in Kuala Lumpur. The killing is widely believed to have been ordered by North Korea, claims that it has rejected.
Media reports in February citing a leaked report from the U.N. Panel of Experts also suggested North Korea had supplied the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad with equipment that can be used in the production of chemical weapons, including acid-resistant tiles, valves and thermometers.