The threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, missiles and satellites have recently received well-deserved attention. But there is more — North Korea has other dangerous, stealthy weapons, biological agents that can be used anonymously.
We were attacked in 2001 with one such stealthy biological weapon — anthrax. It killed a few innocent Americans and resulted in a billion-dollar cleanup. The FBI needed four years to identify the terrorist — an American scientist, if they got it right.
Anthrax is limited in effect — those who inhale the spores may die without antibiotics, but are unlikely to infect others. Far more dangerous are contagious pathogens — infectious agents that spread naturally from person to person. Their death toll increases exponentially as the disease spreads. Imagine a flu — influenza — that kills half of those infected!
Discussions of biological weapons usually address how hard it is to “weaponize” the pathogens. For military use, weaponization is a requirement — agents must have predictable effects; they must be safe to store, easy to deploy, and subject to tight command control.
This was once achieved on a huge scale by the USSR, in the largest and most dangerous bio-weapons program in history — Biopreparat. Missile warheads containing anthrax, plague, and smallpox were ready to be aimed at our cities. The Soviets planned to first attack with nuclear weapons, followed by biological weapons against the weakened survivors.
It was a huge industrial undertaking. Terrorists or terrorist countries like North Korea can get by with a lot less. They need only infect a few people and then let nature take its course. They will want to test first, but a dictatorship that kills its own officials with antiaircraft guns will have no qualms about human testing.
Modern advances have enabled the development of amazingly lethal organisms — even “doomsday bugs.” For example, in 2001, Australian scientists added the mouse gene for interleukin 4, a natural immune system mediator, into a close relative of smallpox — the mousepox virus. It killed even vaccinated mice – a surprising and chilling result. Something similar could almost certainly be done with smallpox, one of the most dangerous pathogens. The Australian research was published — no doubt the North Koreans are aware of it.
That sort of genetic engineering sounds hard, but it needn’t be. Today, hobbyists do genetic engineering at “biohacker spaces” in many cities. Reagants and lab equipment are supplied. If they design a DNA or RNA sequence, it can be ordered online from genetic syntheses companies, as my daughter did a decade ago as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins.
If undergraduates can design and use genetic material, then North Korea has the capability. It would be a mistake to underestimate them — just look at their missile program.
North Korea began a biological weapons program in the 1960s and is believed to be able to produce smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, and a number of other pathogens suitable for bioweapons. These may already be on missiles aimed at South Korea and Japan.
Worse, North Korean intelligence agents may have them, ready to strike in the U.S. North Korea’s intelligence agency has a long history of operating in free countries. Their killers of ruler Kim Jong Un’s half brother in a Malaysian airport could have as easily used smallpox. That attack may have been meant to send two messages to us: they are willing to use nerve gas, and they can deliver chemical or biological weapons in foreign countries.
If genetically modified vaccine-resistant smallpox suddenly appears in a few U.S. cities, we will probably have a catastrophe on our hands. We also may not know who is at fault, reducing the value of our deterrents.
The U.S. has spent tens of billions to prepare for a biological attack, but the advantage is strongly to the attacker. The threat is real, the consequences unpredictable, and prevention is difficult.