Is North Korea’s Covid-19 Vaccine Program a Dangerous Ruse?

North Korea recently surprised the world by announcing it is developing a Covid-19 vaccine, joining a high-stakes race to show off its scientific chops. But experts increasingly believe the famously secretive Kim Jong Un could also have a more nefarious goal in mind: Using the humanitarian crisis to beef up his biological weapons arsenal.

North Korea “could use this legitimate vaccine aspiration as a way to enhance their biotechnology capability,” says Andrew Weber, who was assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs during the Obama administration. ”They could buy equipment from Western or Chinese sources that would be necessary for their vaccine effort, and then next year they could turn around and use it to produce biological weapons.”

The pandemic, he and other experts say, presents a unique opportunity for the regime, whose imports are normally hampered by international sanctions.

“Anything coronavirus-related is going to be viewed as humanitarian and humanitarian things are not prohibited by sanctions,” says Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at the RAND Corporation. “You have to get item by item approval, but there have been lots of humanitarian shipments going” into North Korea. “Lots of stuff could be flowing in that.”

North Korean leader Kim Jon Un inspects a military drill in February.
North Korean leader Kim Jon Un inspects a military drill in February.

The fears highlight a longstanding concern in the biotech world, where much of the technology and knowledge is inherently dual-use—as good for killing as for healing. The fermenters used to manufacture certain vaccines, for example, can also be used to produce anthrax. Genetic modification builds vaccines, as well as novel, lethal pathogens. Aerosolized drug delivery can send a medicine deeper into the lungs—or shoot a deadly agent through a ventilation system.

Of the 16 countries suspected of having bio arms—including Russia, China and Iran, all of which are pursuing coronavirus vaccine research—Weber has always been most worried about North Korea, which has a history of ignoring international weapons agreements and blurring the line between military and civilian research. “I think they’re more likely to use a biological weapon against us than a nuclear weapon,” he says. “They could easily … launch a bio attack in New York City if they choose to. … You’d only need small amounts to kill thousands, tens of thousands of people.”

Clockwise: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Clockwise: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Now, he believes Covid-19 is a chance for North Korea to build newer, better technology—and perhaps even to learn how to develop a coronavirus-like disease that would resist a vaccine.

Bennett agrees. “North Korea could be looking for something that nobody else has a vaccine to counter, so they would be doing vaccine work in part to understand how the vaccines could be working on the Covid virus, and what they could do to make something more effective,” he says.

That makes this a moment to take North Korea’s biotech sector seriously, rather than dismiss the vaccine bid as mere agitprop from the “hermit kingdom,” say these North Korea watchers. It’s easy to find recent reports describing North Korea’s “dilapidated” health care system, which has to import vaccines for basic illnesses. But Kee Park, a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and the director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association, insists that, despite their country’s poverty, North Korean scientists are capable of the advanced genetic modification necessary to create a Covid-19 vaccine.

“People dismiss North Korea, say, ‘Oh, they can’t do that.’ But look where it got us with the [nuclear] weapons program,” says Park, who has traveled to North Korea over 20 times and attended North Korean medical conferences. “They surprised everyone. Dismissing out of hand I think is a mistake.”

While Park doesn’t think that bioweapons are the goal in this case, Weber points out that it’s impossible to know.

“That’s the beauty of biological weapons,” says Obama’s former adviser. “They can hide it within a legitimate biotechnology sector.” The world might not find out what North Korea has been using its Covid-19 research for until it’s too late.

North Korea’s secrecy makes it hard to know anything definitive about the state of its bioweapons program.

According to North Korean defectors and U.S. intelligence analyses, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has had a bio-arms operation since the 1960s. As early as 1993, Russian intelligence reported that North Korea was conducting military research with anthrax, cholera, bubonic plague and smallpox. In 2002, former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, then serving as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said ”the U.S. government believes that
North Korea has one of the most robust offensive bioweapons programs on Earth.”

Around 2010, while Weber was serving as U.S. bioweapons chief for President Barack Obama, he says new intelligence confirmed just how advanced the North Korean program was—”and also, how vulnerable our forces and the South Korean population was to a covert biological weapons attack.”

The administration was so concerned that in 2011, it launched a program of exercises with South Korea to plan for an outbreak on the peninsula, practicing quarantining and disease tracking and improving connections between South Korea’s CDC and military, Weber recalls. “I think the result of those exercises was South Korea doing a great job of handling the coronavirus pandemic.”

Some argue that the apparently advanced state of North Korea’s bioweapons program means that technology gained from Covid-19 isn’t really going to change anything.

“That horse is out the barn door,” says Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, recalling the 2015 state-released photos of Kim, DPRK’s now-36-year-old leader, touring a glossy, newly completed biotechnical complex.

“It had brand new, fancy imported equipment, everything you would need to make anthrax except for the safety equipment, which has been seen at other facilities,” Pollack says. “They would seem to have no fatal difficulty overcoming export controls and sanctions that forbid dual-use technology from going into the country. … We’re so far past the ability to control this stuff.”

One scholar concluded, based on the 2015 photo op, that North Korea had obtained the equipment by evading sanctions through front companies and money laundering, or on the black market.

But those dodges might not even be necessary in the Covid-19 era, Weber maintains, if export control restrictions are relaxed for the global health crisis.

Typically, shipments of biotech equipment to North Korea are restricted according to United Nations sanctions rules. If a country wants to allow one of its companies to sell technology to North Korea for humanitarian reasons, the request goes through a humanitarian exemption process, managed by a specific U.N. committee, says Peter Harrell, who was deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs from 2012 to 2014.

People wearing masks in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, July 3, 2020.
People wearing masks in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, July 3, 2020.

Some countries are also governed by the rules of the Australia Group, whose 41 members, including the U.S., Britain and Japan, have all agreed to control exports that could be used for biological weapons. (China is not a member of the forum but has its own similar controls.)

When it comes to export controls, “a lot depends on the end user in North Korea and the purpose … [the equipment is] going to be used for,” says Weber. And some might see the Covid-19 as a time to lower the bar. “The humanitarian impulses are so strong due to the pandemic that it will override any concern about indirectly contributing to North Korea’s illegal bioweapons program,” he says. “This is a perfect opportunity to import technology.”

Harrell is more skeptical. “I think at the end of the day if the U.S. had any concern that the equipment might be used for bioweapons, the U.S. would veto the approval [in the U.N. sanctions committee], even in the face of some criticism,” he says.

Kim’s regime could be also looking for more than just equipment. The Covid-19 vaccine race—in which laboratories around the world are experimenting with brand new vaccine technologies at a speed never seen before—is an opportunity for North Korean scientists, who often read Western medical studies and replicate them, to gain precious knowledge.

“There are traditional vaccines and then there are some new technologies that are coming on like the mRNA vaccines,” Weber says. “[North Korea] could pursue not just the traditional approaches, but some of the more modern approaches that employ genetic sequencing. … I’m not saying that the driver isn’t a legitimate interest in having a vaccine, but [bioweapons are] a collateral benefit.”

Most rogue regimes aim to mirror the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, says Bennett, where the aim was “to develop weapons for which there is no counter … no vaccine, no treatment.” Today, he fears, “North Korea could be looking for [a pathogen] that nobody else has a vaccine to counter. So they would be doing vaccine work in part to understand how the vaccines could be working on the Covid virus, and what they could do to make something more effective.”

Scientist Robert Duane Shelton, who has studied science and technology coming out of North Korea, says a Covid-19-like virus could be a doomsday weapon for a small country. “It’s inexpensive to make. It could be released against your enemies and, since you know what the virus is, you could have developed the vaccine long ago and even immunized your army and maybe your whole population against it.”

North Korea could have plenty of other motivations for pursuing a Covid-19 vaccine.

In interviews, analysts broadly agreed that, while it’s impossible to know for sure, North Korea has likely seen cases of Covid-19 but suffered no major outbreak. (Publicly, the country insisted it had no cases until earlier this week, when state media said a defector who returned from South Korea was displaying Covid-19-like symptoms.) This state of affairs would be due to the extreme measures the state took very early to contain the virus, from shutting down its borders to quarantining more than 25,000 people.

But North Korea still needs a vaccine—both to reopen its struggling economy and protect its people from an outbreak that could ravage the country. Rather than rely on foreign countries to shell out precious and potentially expensive doses, why not try to make one? (North Korea’s official state ideology, Juche, means “self-reliance.”) “The North Korean strategy is clear,” says Harvard Medical School’s Park. “They recognize if there is a major outbreak, [their] hospitals are not equipped to handle a surge.”

“Weapons should not be our first thought here,” says Pollack. “This is about the economy. This is about delivering on Kim Jong Un’s promises to boost the economy, which is in a sorry state right now.”

Another possible goal: profit. Margaret Kosal, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, points to North Korea’s history of creating counterfeit medications to sell in developing countries—medicines that generally look similar to the real thing but don’t necessarily work. The North Koreans “are so
me of the best at counterfeiting drugs,” she says. “They were some of the first producers of fake Viagra.”

Andrei Lankov, a specialist in Korean studies and director of Korea Risk Group, says he doesn’t think a working vaccine is going to come out of North Korea—its biotech industry just doesn’t have the talent and resources. The vaccine announcement, he believes, is mostly about Kim looking strong and powerful.

“Recently, they have done a lot of things which were reasonably irrational just because the leader said it should be done,” he says.

People watch a TV news program in Seoul, South Korea, reporting North Korea's firing of projectiles last August with a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
People watch a TV news program in Seoul, South Korea, reporting North Korea’s firing of projectiles last August with a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As for whether Kim could be using this as a chance to build up his country’s bioweapons program, Lankov doesn’t think so, stressing that what we know about North Korea’s bio arms operation is mostly “rumors” and that biological weapons are a poor substitute for nuclear ones. “Should they worry about this when they have a world-level nuclear program?” he asks. “If you have a motorcycle, why should you spend a lot of time building a bicycle?”

But others say that’s the whole point: Bioweapons are subtle, conferring plausible deniability in a way a nuclear attack never could. “North Korea has learned that a plausibly deniable attack is by far their preferred approach,” says Bennett.

“I think they retain [bioweapons] as a deterrent and also as a covert weapon,” says Weber. “So they could launch a biological attack, for example, during a mobilization in South Korea. If U.S. forces are flowing onto to peninsula, they could covertly release bioweapons and maybe use something … to slow down the flow.”

There’s another reason Covid-19 could be bad for biosecurity: “Our fumbling of the response just advertises to the world how vulnerable we are to biological attacks,” Weber says. “So countries that have been thinking about pursuing biological weapons or that have small programs might see the opportunity, and I would include non-state actors and terrorist groups in that.” At the same time, biotechnology is becoming cheaper and faster, allowing more players to co-opt it for military purposes. But if countries can perfect early warning systems and vaccine technology, he believes “countries pursuing biological weapons would decide it wasn’t worth it—that they won’t be effective because the defenses against them are so good.”

That also requires governments pay attention. In this year’s budget, the Department of Defense cut its chemical and biological defense program nearly 10 percent—at a time, Weber warns, “when the threat is blinking red.”