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The Journal Gazette

Monday, December 11, 2017 1:00 am

N. Korea's advances in biotech alarm US

Regime's capabilities seen as rising threat

Joby Warrick | Washington Post

Five months before North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, U.S. intelligence officials sent a report to Congress warning that secret work also was underway on a biological weapon. The communist regime, which had long ago acquired the pathogens that cause smallpox and anthrax, had assembled teams of scientists but seemed to be lacking in certain technical skills, the report said.

“Pyongyang's resources presently include a rudimentary biotechnology infrastructure,” the report by the director of national intelligence explained.

A decade later, the technical hurdles appear to be falling away. North Korea is moving steadily to acquire the essential machinery that could potentially be used for an advanced bioweapons program, from factories that can produce microbes by the ton to laboratories specializing in genetic modification, according to U.S. and Asian intelligence officials and weapons experts. Meanwhile, leader Kim Jong Un's government also is dispatching its scientists abroad to seek advanced degrees in microbiology, while offering to sell biotechnology services to the developing world.

The gains have alarmed U.S. analysts, who say North Korea – which has doggedly pursued weapons of mass destruction of every other variety – could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so. Such a move could give the regime yet another fearsome weapon with which to threaten neighbors or U.S. troops in a future conflict, officials and analysts say.

Current and former U.S. officials with access to classified files say they have seen no hard evidence so far that Kim has ordered production of actual weapons, beyond samples and prototypes. And they can only speculate about the reasons.

“That the North Koreans have (biological) agents is known, by various means,” said one knowledgeable U.S. official who, like several others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity regarding sensitive military assessments. “The lingering question is, why have they acquired the materials and developed the science, but not yet produced weapons?”

But the official, like others interviewed, also acknowledged that spy agencies might not detect a change in North Korea's program because the new capabilities are imbedded within civilian factories ostensibly engaged in making agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

“If it started tomorrow we might not know it,” the official said, “unless we're lucky enough to have an informant who happens to be in just the right place.”

In a country that is famously secretive, it is perhaps the most carefully guarded secret of all. North Korea consistently denies having a biological warfare program of any kind, and it has worked diligently to keep all evidence of weapons research hidden from sight.

Yet in 2015, the country's leader took it upon himself to partially roll back the curtain. On June 6 of that year, Kim commandeered a crew of North Korean cameramen for a visit to the newly named Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute, a sprawling, two-story facility on the grounds of what used to a vitamin factory.

State-run news media described the institute as a factory for making biological pesticides – mainly, live bacteria that can kill the worms and caterpillars that threaten North Korea's cabbage crop. But to U.S. analysts studying the video, the images provided an unexpected jolt: On display inside the military-run facility were rooms jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.

Many of the machines were banned from sale to North Korea under international sanctions because of their possible use in a bioweapons program.

Although overshadowed by Pyongyang's nuclear and chemical weapons, the threat of biological attack from North Korea is regarded as sufficiently serious that the Pentagon routinely vaccinates all South Korea-bound troops for exposure to anthrax and smallpox.

“It's a presumption that they have it and will use it,” said a retired military officer who oversaw troops on the peninsula.