Last Updated: December, 2015
Although the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is party to both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Geneva Protocol, it is suspected of maintaining an ongoing biological weapons (BW) program.
According to North Korean defectors and assessments by U.S.and South Korean governments, North Korea began acquiring a biological weapons capability as early as the 1960s under the orders of Kim Il Sung.  Unlike its chemical weapons (CW) program, Pyongyang is believed to have built its biological program indigenously.  The 2012 white paper from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) assesses that North Korea is able to indigenously produce Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Variola major (Smallpox), Francisella tularensis (Rabbit Fever), and Bunyaviridae Hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever).  Due to DPRK’s strict control of information, there is no reliable information on which organization is now responsible for developing biological weapons. However, in 1997, KPA Colonel Ju-Hwal Choi, defected and testified that the Germ Research Institute of the Armed Forces Ministry is the lead organization for developing biological weapons. 
Open sources provide a wide range of estimates on the state of North Korea’s biological weapons capabilities, from possession of a rudimentary biological warfare program to deployed biological weapons. However, the most recent estimates appear to conclude that the DPRK possesses a range of pathogen samples that could be weaponized, and the technical capabilities to do so, rather than deployed, ready-to-use biological weapons.
Biological weapons programs are by their nature very difficult to verify. Barring further information from Pyongyang, researchers can only estimate which causative agents might be included in North Korea’s inventory. The status of the BW program has been based in part on defector testimony, which has led to varying accounts of North Korea’s capabilities. Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments suggests that the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) inventory might include the causative agents: Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Clostridium botulinum (Botulism), Vibrio cholera(Cholera), Bunyaviridae Hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever), Yersinia pestis (Justinianic Plague), Variola (Smallpox), Salmonella typhi (Typhoid Fever) and Coquillettidia fuscopennata (Yellow Fever).  However, parliamentary audit documents of the MND assert that North Korea has developed more than 13 kinds of biological agents. In addition to those mentioned by Jane’s, they include: causative agents of Dysentery, Brucellosis (Crimean Fever), Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), Rickettsia prowazekii (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), and T-2 mycotoxins (Alimentary Toxic Aleukia). 
U.S. government assessments have frequently asserted that the DPRK possesses significant biological weapons capabilities — although U.S. estimates are not always internally consistent and more recently threat assessments have tended to be downgraded. The U.S. State Department’s 2014 report, “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” states that “North Korea may still consider the use of biological weapons as an option, contrary to the BWC.”  South Korea’s most recent Ministry of National Defense White Paper (2012) asserts “North Korea likely has the capability to produce[…] anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever viruses.” 
The debate in the early 2000s was especially conflicted, with some arguing that Pyongyang only had samples of BW agents, while others believed they held full weaponized stocks of agents. In March 2002 General Thomas A. Schwartz, Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), testified before the U.S. Senate that, “… North Korea has the capability to develop, produce and weaponize biological warfare agents.”  In May 2002, John R. Bolton, then U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, described the DPRK’s biological weapons program as “a dedicated, national-level effort to achieve a BW capability,” and claimed that it “has developed and produced, and may have weaponized, BW agents in violation of the [Biological and Toxin Weapons] Convention.” Bolton further noted that the:
- “leadership in Pyongyang has spent large sums of money to acquire the resources, including a biotechnology infrastructure, capable of producing infectious agents, toxins, and other crude biological weapons. It likely has the capability to produce sufficient quantities of biological agents for military purposes within weeks of deciding to do so, and has a variety of means at its disposal for delivering these deadly weapons.” 
In 2006, the South Korean MND stated, “Pyongyang has been producing poison gas and biological weapons since the 1980s. It is believed that… North Korea is able to produce biological weapons such as the bacteria of anthrax, smallpox, and cholera.”  These types of assessments then took a cautious turn. The Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis’s 2010 report to Congress on WMD acquisition delivered a much more muted message than previous reports, stating only: “North Korea has a biotechnology infrastructure that could support the production of various BW agents.” 
Of particular concern, as the United States and Russia are pressured to eliminate their stocks of variola virus (the causative agent of smallpox), is the status of North Korea’s own inventory. According to a May 1994 Defense Intelligence Agency report which cited an anonymous source, Russia supplied variola virus to North Korea and Iraq sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  If true, this would violate Pyongyang’s commitments as a State Party to the BTWC, to which it acceded in March1987. However, North Korean soldiers who defected to South Korea in the 1990s had antibodies from recent smallpox vaccines.  Because North Korea did not participate in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) smallpox eradication program, it is unknown whether it had any stocks of the variola virus, or if it did, whether the stocks were destroyed. 
North Korea has demonstrated it may possess significant biotechnology expertise despite its poor industrial sector; for example, the country’s scientists reportedly developed a Hepatitis-B vaccine in 1999.  However, it is less clear whether North Korea is capable of weaponizing BW agents. Jane’s Intelligence Group notes that North Korean scientists used microencapsulation to protect Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) cells from UV light, which would be the first step in preparing such an agent for weaponization. 
Also, while the DPRK possesses considerable capabilities to deliver CW agents, it is unclear whether comparable munitions are available to deliver BW agents. Although the DPRK has advanced missile technology, the fragile nature of biological agents complicates the task of using missiles as a means of delivery and dispersal. While the ROK government has estimated that half of the DPRK’s long-range missiles and 30 percent of its artillery pieces are capable of delivering chemical or biological warheads, it is not known whether biological payloads would survive and be effectively dispersed by these missiles. 
While North Korea has been implicated in WMD proliferation, it is unclear whether its illicit cooperative activities extend to BW. Reports of BW proliferation to Iran exist, but remain unverified. It is known that North Korean military personnel signed a military cooperation agreement with Cuba and visited a “genetic-bioengineering institute” in the 1990s. However, this can be seen largely as circumstantial evidence. 
Asserting that poisonous gas and bacteria had been used against North Korean and Chinese forces during the Korean War, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung ordered the establishment of a biological weapons program in the early 1960s.  The country subsequently established the program within the Academy of National Defense. However, results from this program were unremarkable. An estimated 10 to 13 different types of pathogens were investigated during the early development process, including the causative agents of anthrax, cholera, plague, smallpox, and yellow fever.  Between 2003 and 2004, and in 2009, defectors alleged that the College for Army Doctors and Military Officers and Kim Il-sung University Medical College conducted human testing on political prisoners, which matched reports from the 1970s. However, such assertions are difficult to verify. 
Via entities in Japan and elsewhere, North Korea imported cultures of the causative agents for anthrax, plague and cholera. Actual production of BW agents, including the causative bacteria for cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and anthrax is believed to have begun in the early 1980s. Unlike the DPRK’s development of chemical weapons, its biological weapons development has been mostly indigenous. 
Although efforts to strengthen international and national export controls and the implementation of sanctions on Pyongyang have limited the DPRK’s ability to import dual-use equipment and supplies, the country has proven resourceful in securing materials from abroad. In 2006, for example, Japanese authorities discovered that the DPRK had obtained a freeze dryer—which could be used to freeze-dry pathogens—from a Tokyo-based trading company in 2002.  The DPRK also has sufficient stocks of growth media, including agar, peptone, and yeast extract from breweries, to support a BW program. 
Recent Developments and Current Status
Within the past decade, North Korea is suspected of having researched Avian Influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), but this research was most likely undertaken solely to produce vaccines and test kits.  However, natural outbreaks in recent years have strained the public health system so much that North Korea has needed external assistance.
On 6 June 2015, state media showed Kim Jong Un touring the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute, ostensibly for creating biopesticides. Further imagery analyses of the facility and site construction showed that it has dual-use capabillity, and could be used to manufacture large batches of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax). 
- Conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017
- Not party to the CWC and believed to possess 2,500-5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons
- Active exporter of ballistic missile components, technology, and design data
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.