Nuclear Weapons aren’t the only threat from North Korea

BY FAIKA KABIR

Stephen Biegun, the newly appointed Special Representative for North Korea will visit East Asia next week to to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea, with his counterparts in China, Japan and South Korea. As Washington tries to mitigate the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang, the communist state also has other hybrid means to threaten US security i.e. chemical weapons and cyber-attack capabilities.
North Korean nuclear stockpile could prove to be a major distraction from a much bigger issue. In contemporary hybrid warfare, cyber attacks and chemical weapons are substantive threats. Even though these capabilities lack nuclear inhalation capacity for devastating destruction, but these threats are real.
Since early 2000s North Korea has invested immensely in cyber operations against its Western adversaries. On 6th September, the U.S. Justice Department filed a criminal complaint against Park Jin Hyuk, a North Korean intelligence operative, for his role in 2014 cyber-attacks on Sony. He has also been found linked to the WannaCry Ransomware cyber heist last year, that shut down hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, including those at hospitals.
North Korean cyber-spies carry out low-cost, but high-impact deniable attacks around the world, to disrupt their western adversaries and to steal money. Financial institutions are also at great risk of theft, as Pyongyang bleeds funds from them to support its military and nuclear ambitions.
Although DPRK denies having any other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) like chemical and biological weapons, reports from South Korea and the United States claim that it does. North Korea is a realist state that believes in realpolitik i.e. politics run on power. They firmly believe in the acquisition of maximum power to subdue or defeat their adversaries. After the Korean War, the North developed a dual-use chemical industry that had both economic and military capacity. Due to heavy cost of nuclear weapon development, the state opted for a less cheaper way of deterrence, which includes chemical and biological weapons.
North Korea hasn’t joined the Chemical Weapons Convention that could help to keep check and control the state’s chemical trade. The treaty requires countries not to use, produce, stockpile or retain any kind of destructive chemical weapons. In 2017, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia with a nerve agent – an attack that was speculated to have come from the North Korean government. The incident proved that not only did DPRK has the capacity to develop these weapons, but that it is also willing to use them to achieve political objectives, if politically expedient.
It has also been found out in a 2018 leaked UN report that North Korea had sold equipment to Bashar Assad in Syria, to produce chemical weapons.
Although a nuclear bomb poses much more devastating threat of complete destruction, which could singularly annihilate global order, but rogue states like North Korea do not see nuclear war as the only option to terrorize its opponents. To acquire power and influence North Korea has other cheaper tools at its disposal too. Unlike nuclear strikes, cyber-attacks are anonymous, cheaper and could be used to obtain funds.
Similarly, military stockpiling of chemical weapons like nerve agents, mustard gas, methylisocyanate cloud etc. could be used for a terrorist attack. Apart from their use for military purposes, chemical weapons can also be used to take out rivals – even in foreign countries.
Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remains a priority, but before the imminent threat of North Korea can truly be considered eliminated, President Trump must also be prepared to confront North Korea on other weapons and capabilities.
Developing an escalation policy that determines when a cyber-attack could be considered an act of war, can reduce the risk of cyber threats. Currently, we are heavily relying on technology, therefore, hacking, malware and cyber-attacks can not only affect bank accounts, but they can also be used to shut down water supply, power transmission and different control systems. Pentagon needs to greatly invest in cyber security for critical infrastructure, and for the protection of its financial systems and power grids.
Also to reduce the risk of North Korean use of chemical weapons, the United States must urge Kim Jong Un to join the arm control treaty of Chemical Weapons Convention, so the existing chemical weapon stockpile could be disposed and extensive verification measures such as on-site inspections could be conducted for sustainable peace.

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