EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In parallel with its growing offensive nuclear capabilities, North Korea possesses fully operational, extensive arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. Pyongyang’s possession of these weapons, which are intact and ready for use, has serious implications, some of which pertain to Iran and Syria.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency recently estimated that North Korea might possess up to 60 nuclear warheads. There are different estimates as to the segmentation of this inventory in relation to various delivery systems, but it is clear that Pyongyang’s objective is to establish the capacity to bring the entire US within range of its ballistic-nuclear ordnance. South Korea and Japan are almost certainly completely covered.
Pyongyang has already achieved partial coverage of US territories. Last June, in a hearing before the US House Armed Services Committee, the head of the US Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James Syring, said: “The advancement and demonstration of technology of ballistic missiles from North Korea in the last six months have caused great concern to me and others. It is incumbent on us to assume that North Korea today can range the US with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead.”
This particular endeavor was likely assisted by Tehran. A February 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded, “Iran has likely exceeded North Korea’s ability to develop, test, and build ballistic missiles.” Tehran might be, and probably is, helpful to Pyongyang with respect to technological aspects of the nuclear sphere as well.
The nuclear component within the spectrum of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is evidently growing. The big question is whether the country’s despot, Kim Jong-un, will be the first person to use nuclear weapons since 1945.
Quite recently, Kim elected to employ a highly lethal chemical weapon, the nerve agent VX, for a political assassination. This weapon was used last February by two female operatives, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese, to murder Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia. The victim died shortly after being assaulted by the two women, who wiped VX on his face as he prepared to board a flight to the Chinese territory of Macau. Traces of VX were revealed on swabs taken from his eyes and face.
This deadly chemical agent was probably smuggled from North Korea to Malaysia, which in and of itself was an intriguing and risky move. Six of eight potential suspects were from Pyongyang’s Ministries of State Security and Foreign Affairs. The suspects flew from Kuala Lumpur on the day of the assassination, passing through Vladivostok on their way back to Pyongyang. South Korea’s request to detain four of the suspects was rejected by Russian officials on the grounds of lack of evidence.
It can be assumed that Kim Jong-un was in on the plot from its inception. Symbolically, at least, this political assassination by VX can be regarded as an indication of Pyongyang’s chemical weapons (CW) capabilities. Whether the regime intended it to or not, the assassination signaled the readiness, usability, and deployability of North Korea’s VX, which can be used for guerrilla warfare, chemical terrorism, or wide-scale chemical attack.