by Stephen Bryen
The latest news from North Korea is disturbing on two accounts: the first is that the North Korean soldier who defected on December 23rd and yet unidentified has been found to have anthrax antibodies in his blood. The second news is that North Korea reportedly is testing the survival of anthrax spores in temperatures greater than 7000 degrees so that anthrax can remain potent after the material reenters the atmosphere.
The North Korean soldier was probably treated in some way after exposure to anthrax which would explain the presence of anthrax antibodies in his bloodstream.
Alternatively he could have been given an anthrax vaccination. “Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed (AVA) protects against cutaneous and inhalation anthrax.” The only authorized anthrax vaccine in the United States is called BioThrax. Usually it is administered in five doses along with antibiotics. But anthrax vaccines go back to the 1870’s and Louis Pasteur and his rival Jean-Joseph-Henri Toussaint. They were using a weak dose of anthrax to build up immunity but their efforts to develop a vaccine came before there were antibiotics to mitigate the effects of anthrax. All anthrax vaccines create anthrax antibodies to resist the bacillus.
We don’t have any further information about the soldier, in what way he was infected or how he may have been treated in North Korea, but it is likely that he will be carefully interrogated by South Korean doctors to find out what he can tell us.
Anthrax antibodies are generated mainly be various types of compounds that can generate what are called monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies have been approved to treat cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory diseases, macular degeneration, transplant rejection, multiple sclerosis and viral infection. A specific monoclonal antibody called raxibacumab which is under development for treatment of inhaled anthrax has been approved in the United States by the FDA. As we understand the approved treatment scenario, raxibacumad is used if more standard treatments including antibiotics such as levofloxacin fail to work effectively. In South Korea raxibacumab is used if antibiotics fail to provide a full cure. It isn’t clear if North Korea also has raxibacumub, or has copied it. Perhaps some of this may become clear from the investigation.
It is possible to contract anthrax from natural sources. In Korea a number of farm animals and some soil areas can transmit the anthrax bacillus to workers. The fact that North Korea uses its army for agricultural planting and harvesting and that soldiers typically scavenge for food means that infection from these sources is possible.
But the various leaks about North Korea’s biological weapons program, coming from Western intelligence sources points more strongly to the possibility that North Korean troops working on these projects face the risk of infection. North Korea also has a well-developed pharmaceutical industry. One company, PyongSu “runs ten pharmacies in Pyongyang and Pyongsong that provide ‘over 400 types of medicines, covering 85% of common diseases’ and distributes products from 13 different countries while possessing exclusive agreements with three multinationals – two of which were signed in 2014.” It is seeking a humanitarian exemption from UN sanctions.
North Korea has been involved for decades in the illicit sale of methamphetamines, which it manufactures. North Korea also counterfeits popular drugs such as Viagra, which is sold abroad, mainly in southeast Asian countries (including China), in South Korea and in the Middle East. Larry Wortzel writes that “North Korean diplomats, workers, and officials have been caught selling opiates-including heroin, amphetamines, and rohypnol (known as the “date rape drug)-in Japan, China, Russia, Taiwan, Egypt, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and South Korea.” North Korea also copies typical drug products that are sold under the table to the elites in that country. Locally referred to as “UN Drugs” the most popular of these are pain pills (opioids), drugs to treat digestive problems and drugs for tuberculosis. Drugs are also smuggled in from China.
We can say that North Korea has a fairly large pharma manufacturing industry and the country is seriously planning the use of biological pathogens in warfare.
What would such a war look like?
So far at least no one has actually developed any doctrine for the use of pathogens in warfare. When training manuals on the use of chemical and bio-warfare were found in Iraq they contained extensive instructions on how to use chemical weapons ranging on the battlefield. But the captured manuals were silent on the use of bio-weapons –no instructions were found on how to handle them, protective measures for the troops or where they might most usefully support Iraq’s military objectives.
While germs have been used in warfare for more than 2,000 years (spreading plague and infestation by throwing dead animal carcases over defender’s walls or putting poison in water supplies), most of these sorts of attacks were against defenders in closed-in towns or forts. No one has used biological weapons in combat precisely because such pathogens are too difficult to handle, tend to be persistent meaning that conquered territory is heavily infected and consequently presents serious problems for the “victors.” But, above all else, bio-weapons are inefficient in war zones. A pathogen that kills in days or weeks is not nearly as good as a chemical weapon that kills in minutes or hours.
But as the Japanese proved during their Manchurian campaign (1931-1932) and in China especially in the Battle of Changde (1943), bio-weapons of all types could be used to spread panic and fear and were ideal to attack towns and cities. In a similar fashion, the Russians used “Yellow Rain” (actually three types characterized as Yellow Chemie, Blue Chemie and Red Chemie) in Laos and Afghanistan, primarily against tribal people like the Hmong (mid-1970’s to mid-1980’s). The Russians also ran a substantial disinformation campaign to camouflage its illegal use of biological warfare agents.
In modern countries the use of toxins and pathogens in warfare presents very substantial defense problems. The vast majority of countries are ill prepared to handle chemical warfare let alone attacks using live pathogens.
For example the United States has no civilian program of self defense against chemical or biological attacks on its territory. While the U.S. does have stockpiles of potassium iodide pills for nuclear war survival (14 million pills were bought by the Department of Homeland Security), outside of the military there is no stockpile of antibiotics or vaccines. South Korea has a civil defense program which features some 19,000 shelters. But homeland security drills have been poorly supported, even by public schools and few people in South Korea even have gas masks. In Japan the government has been sponsoring “duck and cover” drills, but lack strong support for them. There are few supplies in case of a chemical or bio attack.
Countering a sophisticated chem-bio attack is complex. The Russians pioneered the idea of mixing “cocktails” of various chem bio agents so that defending against them is almost impossible. For example, the anthrax samples found in cadavers from the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak showed some four different anthrax bacteria strains, making immunization difficult through vaccines and treatment complex. The Russians no doubt learned from the Japanese who mixed all kinds of agents together; and after World War II the top Japanese scientists caught by the Russians traded their know-how for minimal jail terms. In a similar fashion, when Iraq used chemical and some biological weapons against the Kurdish village of Halabja, they used lethal cocktails that killed thousands and ever since have left a train of illnesses including cancers among the survivors and the children of victims.
It is already clear that North Korea has plans to put biological agents, especially anthrax in its long range ballistic missiles. But it is unlikely to stop there. Certainly the North Koreans are aware of the vulnerability of populations to such attacks and seek to exploit the lack of preparation of Western nations.
What should the U.S., South Korea and Japan do in response? The answer depends on three critical factors: (1) the degree of seriousness in confronting the problem; (2) implementing effective civil defense programs and (3) countermeasures.
Governments in the U.S., Japan and South Korea are “concerned” about North Korea and its nuclear and bio-weapons, but not enough to support the implementation of defensive measures. Japan continues to talk about missile defense but it is not investing in any major way to upgrade the few defenses it has. South Korea has U.S.-deployed THAAD and its own Patriot batteries, but the South Koreans surely know that Patriot is largely inadequate against ballistic missiles as demonstrated recently in Houthi-fired Iranian-made ballistic missiles in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, THAAD (itself never proven in real combat scenarios) does not protect vital parts of South Korea including its capital Seoul. In the United States the U.S. Congress just authorized some $4 billion for the Ground Based Interceptor, procurement of more THAAD interceptors and upgrades of Patriot and SM3’s. But when spread out, and some of it going to R&D this is really a small investment in a big problem.
In regard to civil defense, neither the U.S., South Korea or Japan have meaningful civil defense programs nor do they have much public support to finance a strong civil defense program. So long as this remains true, civilian populations will be at high risk should any attack ensue. Consequently planners have to be prepared for high levels of civilian casualties and the possibility of mass panic. Under such conditions, the chance for a massive response –particularly a nuclear war– will remain very high and perhaps unavoidable.
Regarding countermeasures, the North Koreans have to be persuaded that a chem-bio missile attack carries the same threat as a nuclear weapon attack and will be met with the same response. The U.S. can surely state that any direct attack on American territory will elicit a massive response against North Korea. The problem arises in just how the U.S. will act after an attack that hits South Korea or Japan. The President and his National Security Council need to determine if firmer American commitments to our allies are justified, and if they are to assess what is required of our allies to earn such commitments.