Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Gitte du Plessis — Cultivating Catastrophe: Why Does North Korea Still Pursue Biological Weapons?


Gitte du Plessis

Gitte du Plessis earned her PhD in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and is now a post-doctoral researcher at the RELATE Centre of Excellence in the department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland. She is currently completing a monograph titled Microbial Geopolitics: Living with Danger and the Limits of Security, and has begun a new project that focuses on non-human forces in Arctic geopolitics.

In the deadly game of sabre rattling, biological weapons are out of vogue. As I have explored elsewhere, the idea of pathogens as weapons of mass destruction had its heyday in the last century, when countries such as Britain, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, Israel, South Africa, and Iraq all had offensive bioweapons programs. Overwhelmingly, the pursuit of biological weapons has been futile and a waste of resources. The problem with weaponizing pathogens is that pathogens resist weaponization. Microbes are living beings, which sets them distinctively apart from chemical or nuclear weapons. Nobody, thus far, has been able to control microbes enough to actually train them. Microbes don’t respond to discipline, threat or punishment, they don’t understand human commands, and their modes of conduct are so radically different from human modes of conduct that mastering contagion in the interest of war has proved close to impossible. Hence, the history of the use of biological weapons is sketchy and everything but glorious – a series of failed attempts at microbial control. Infectious pathogens are lethal, and they pose a threat to human lives, but overwhelmingly, the lives that have been lost to biological weapons are of lab workers, test animals, test humans and civilians killed by pathogens from programmes that were supposed to protect them. The laboratory is deadly in itself, and the weapon rarely makes it to the battlefield in a decisive way.

For these reasons, most global powers have turned their attention to other kinds of weapons. The United States now only conducts research on biological weapons for defense purposes. Contemporary innovations in high-tech weaponry are focused on drones, robots, and artificial intelligence, while low-tech innovation is turning to everyday items such as cars or improvised explosive devices made out of surplus electronic and military components. In comparison to the effectiveness of these sorts of weapons, pursuing biological weapons is a strategic blunder.

So why is the North Korean regime still investing in the capabilities of biological weapons? A recent report from the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs titled North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The Known and Unknown, details how North Korea is in possession of 13 different biological agents that can be weaponized, and that they likely have the capability to weaponize at least anthrax and smallpox within a matter of days. The easy explanation is that North Korea is still living in the last century. I think something else is going on. 

Compared to other international powers, characteristics of North Korea make the regime more likely to attempt collaboration with pathogens. Only great powers are heavily invested in global order. The disordering properties of biological weapons are alluring to North Korea, because the regime thrives and depends on global disorder. The way in which pathogens are unknowable and uncontrollable suits the North Korean regime, whose tactic is to be exactly this kind of presence in international relations, in the hopes that others are discouraged from messing with them. Other nations gave up on biological weapons as they realized that the destruction caused by pathogens cannot be mastered to the point where a nation can direct pathogenic destruction only at the enemy, without significant risk to itself. Pathogens are finicky, and easily turn back on the disperser. According to an expert interview cited in the report from the Belfer Center, North Korea considers human vectors as one way of dispersing their biological weapons. This kind of sacrifice is currently unthinkable to other nations given the relative security of most great powers and their allies, but not to North Korea, who values the survival of the regime via deterrence over North Korean lives. This means that the self-destructive elements of pursuing biological weapons are tolerable to North Korea. 

North Korea’s pursuit of biological weapons receives little attention. The international community focuses primarily on the security threat of North Korea’s nuclear program. Unlike the threat of biological weapons, the nuclear threat can be managed and to some extent controlled with conventional and nuclear deterrence strategies. This is not to suggest that nuclear weapons are safe, however the international order has normalized the rules of nuclear competition, and despite concern of nuclear proliferation, nuclear technologies mostly comply with these rules. While the pursuit of biological weapons is a strategic blunder from the perspective of a user of those weapons, being the enemy of a power that nonetheless pursues them is a strategic headache. Biological weapons are a last resort, and it makes sense to use them for a crumbling power with nothing to loose, as a last dash against a global order that refuses to accept its existence. This means that biological weapons cannot be controlled with war, because destruction of North Korea is an incentive to turn to these kinds of weapons. We could for example imagine North Korea infecting its own fleeing refugees as a kind of second strike in an already lost war. 

Because North Korea is an outlier resonating with global disorder, their pursuit of biological weapons makes sense. While the United States and North Korea are equal enemies in the power play of nuclear deterrence, the uncertainty of the North Korean biological weapons program gives North Korea an edge. Biological weapons destabilize the world of international relations in different ways than the seemingly rational world of nuclear weapons. 

In the West, we are accustomed to the strategy of destroying everything that is dangerous. We spray to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika, we kill wolves if they dare to attack humans, ISIS must be eradicated, and so on. This logic does not work with North Korea. North Korea has managed to corral itself in a way that requires us to cohabitate with the uncertainty and danger that constitutes the regime. This position is the best North Korea can hope for, and the pursuit of biological weapons aids them in defending it vigorously. 



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