As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their summit in Vietnam, the narrow focus on nuclear weapons obscured a major danger: Kim holds the whip in a three-ring circus of weapons of mass destruction. The other two rings, adjacent and in many ways more frightening, feature chemical weapons and — above all — biological threats.
The North Koreans are suspected by U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies of holding substantial amounts of a variety of biological agents including smallpox, botulism, typhoid and anthrax.
In 2015, the North Korean media showed Kim touring a biological plant. A former Pentagon official in charge of countering such programs told reporters that North Korean bio-weapons were “advanced, underestimated and highly lethal.”
I remember that, as the U.S. military prepared for the Gulf War in the early 1990s, most of us in uniform took a series of a dozen shots we were informed might reduce the effect of anthrax should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launch a biological weapons attack. These weapons have some advantages over nuclear weapons in terms of spreading terror: They can easily be smuggled across borders, and their use can be very hard to attribute, unlike a nuclear weapon with an obvious origin.
The final ring of the WMD circus — chemical weapons — is equally disturbing.
In 2017, two North Korean agents allegedly killed Kim’s half-brother at a Malaysian airport using the nerve agent VX. The North Korean military routinely uses simulated chemical weapons in drills and exercises, and could easily incorporate nerve agents into artillery barrages of Seoul from just over the border. South Korean intelligence agencies say the North may have as much as 5,000 tons of chemical agents, possibly including ricin, mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide and the nerve agent tabun. North Korea is one of just three nations that have refused to sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
Would Kim dare such an attack? There might be some strategic sense. He knows that deploying a nuclear weapon would be signing his own death warrant. But he might be able to create a far more ambiguous situation in which he could consider using some biological or chemical element. And while U.S. and South Korean forces are trained to operate after such an attack, the civilians on the peninsula are essentially undefended — including the families of 28,000 U.S. servicemen stationed there.
In preparing for this threat, Washington has considerable work to do. It should start by increasing intelligence collection specifically regarding chemical and biological threats, working in concert with the South Korean allies. At home, there needs to be more research and development of technological counters to known agents. This will require a far higher level of interagency cooperation between the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. American troops need more exercises that simulate operating in the lethal environment of a chemical or biological attack.
Above all, the U.S. must bring greater global attention to the threat.
This means international pressure on North Korea to sign global agreements banning such weapons; making those weapons part of the agenda alongside nukes in summit negotiations; and pressuring Russia and China to persuade Kim to rid himself of any stockpiles before sanctions can be fully lifted.
The chances of Kim quickly surrendering his entire nuclear arsenal are roughly the same as that of Mexico paying for Trump’s beautiful wall. Still, pursuing a diplomatic conclusion — not Trump’s loose talk of “fire and fury” — to the standoff on the Korean Peninsula is the path forward. But the U.S. shouldn’t forget to put other weapons of mass destruction on the table as well.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.
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