North Korea Adds Anthrax to its Despot’s Cabinet of Wonders

Intelligence

For the last Daily Intel of 2017, it only makes sense to discuss one of the most inescapable national security topics of the year: North Korea.

We began 2017 knowing the Democratic People’s Republic possessed both nuclear weapons technology and long-range, though not necessarily intercontinental, missile technology. No one suspected that they had enough of the puzzle pieces to deliver a nuclear warhead via ICBM with any reliability. We end the year knowing that not only has the DPRK developed an intercontinental ballistic missile theoretically capable of reaching everywhere in the continental United States, but they can probably build a nuke to fit on it, too. We’re not really sure how powerful a nuke, but does that even matter?

north korea’s anthrax surprise

To put a big cherry on top of the whole mess, we now have learned it’s likely North Korea has developed anthrax. Seriously.

Yes, the country that has been rapidly developing its nuclear technology, and that used VX nerve agent to assassinate its ruling despot’s half-brother, now has Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium whose spores can cause fever, lesions, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, and death. This same bacteria gripped the U.S. by the mailbox in late 2001. Letters laced with spores were mailed to two Democratic senators, an attack that killed 5 people, sickened another 17, and forever altered the way the U.S. government screens its mail.

According to an unnamed South Korean intelligence officer who spoke with a Korean television station earlier this week, one of the several DPRK soldiers to defect this year has tested positive for anthrax antibodies. This means the soldier was either exposed to anthrax and developed a natural resistance, or he was vaccinated for it. Neither scenario is good for the rest of the world.

It’s tempting to say that we were looking for weapons of mass destruction in 2003, and we invaded the wrong country. I won’t go that far, but it’s tempting. But what to make of this?

Kim’s insurance policy

Certainly, anthrax spores in the hands of just a few covert operatives could weaken untold numbers of Koreans, both military and civilian. Such an attack would be an interesting precursor to an attack. It’s hard to fight back when you’re dying of anthrax infection, and unlike the U.S., the South Korean military does not have a compulsory anthrax vaccination program, at least that they’ve disclosed publicly.

But as we’ve seen with other military capabilities, having the means, and even the will to employ those means, does not necessarily mean that those means will be employed. In fact, while there have been plenty of cross-border incidents, including the 2015 exchange of artillery volleys following a landmine incident along the DMZ, the North Koreans have, as I said to a friend the other day, largely acted like my labrador: they’ll bark and snarl to keep you out of their yard, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll actually bite.

They certainly explore the limits of what the U.S. would consider appropriate behavior to observe reactions. The U.S. has recently done something similar. But it doesn’t seem like they actually have much interest in following through with the bravado.

I remain convinced that Kim Jong-un is acting rationally. Every capability he acquires, and subsequently lets us know he has, is designed to deter aggression. He talks about reunification to stir the patriotic spirit of his people, who he happens to be starving to death. As long as he convinces them that their plight is the fault of his enemies, they will not rise against him. As long as he convinces us that he can make any invasion a very deadly exercise for the South Korean civilian population, he maintains an insurance policy.

So I’ll sleep well tonight, convinced that an anthrax attack isn’t actually looming on the horizon. But I might recommend we vaccinate our Olympic team. Just in case.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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