On July 12, 2015, the North Korean permanent representative to the UN accused the U.S. of the intention to use biological weapons against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in case a war begins on the Korean Peninsula. This statement was made in the context of a disclosed case, in which anthrax spores were mailed from the U.S. to South Korea.
Let us recall the details. On May 27, American military personnel stationed in South Korea received a notification from the Pentagon, informing that samples of anthrax, which had been delivered to the Osan Air Force Base, were alive. In accordance with shipping instructions, only dead anthrax agents are allowed for shipment. Although the immediate reaction forces destroyed them, information about the incident got leaked to public.
At first, military officials tried to calm the population asserting that the experiment with anthrax had been allegedly conducted “for the first time” and that the incident in which 22 people had been exposed to live anthrax bacteria did not pose a threat to citizens. A press release published on May 29 stated that American military personnel had intended to conduct “test drills, which had never taken place in South Korea and were dedicated to the protection against chemical and biological agents and that the scheduled drills had been suspended because the investigation was underway.”
However, this incident attracted attention of South Korean public and triggered public uproar, especially, when the South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo on the same day (May 29) published the information that Americans had been conducting experiments with anthrax in the territory of South Korea since September 1998, and that the test drills with the use of anthrax had begun a long time before this incident. Though experiments with anthrax had been continuing for 17 years, the US military personnel never notified the government of South Korea of that because they believed that bacteria was dead and that received containers contained “test” spores.
On July 12, South Korea and the U.S. formed a joint working group to investigate the incident. The group’s objective was both to inspect the US Osan Air Force Base in the town of Osan, Gyeonggi province where the anthrax spores had been accidentally delivered to and to review the Jupiter Program, devoted to the studies of biological warfare carried out by American military personnel in South Korea.
It was discovered in the course of investigation that over the last 12 years 86 laboratories in the U.S. as well as 7 laboratories of foreign states had received live anthrax spores. The samples were extracted from the biological weapons and dispatched from the laboratory in Dugway, Utah. United States Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work disclosed this information during a briefing dedicated to the completion of the investigation, which took place on July 24, 2015. As Work noted, the problem arose because there had been no common safety standard regulating handling of hazardous samples. However, the Pentagon assumed full responsibility for the incident, apologized and confirmed that military personnel of the USA and allied countries are not at risk.
The author believes that the incident has nothing to do with secret experiments. It just that the US Army turned out to be not a 100% “negligence-proof,” though conspiracy theorists stigmatize only Russia for its slovenliness, while argue that nothing happens “by accident” in the US. However, it is a known fact that high level of secrecy often disguises the same high level of slovenliness.
Anyway, authorities of the Republic of Korea stated that they “do not classify the actions of the US Armed Forces as violating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by South Korea,” but Korean public organizations demand for the control and supervision to be tightened.
North Korea, on the other hand, acts in this situation as a child, who, having been burnt once, dreads fire. The belief that during the Korean war of 1950-53 bacteriological weapons were used against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China is an important element of its propaganda program and North Korea does not treat the issue of the prevention of epidemics lightly. Just recall those stern quarantine measures introduced in 2015 at the outbreak of Ebola virus disease.
This is why the DPRK sent a formal request to the Security Council to investigate the incident concerning the shipping of samples of anthrax to a laboratory in South Korea. “The United States do not only possess deadly weapons of mass destruction outlawed by the Biological Weapons Convention, but they also attempt to apply them in the course of real military operations against the DPRK on the Korean Peninsula,” the permanent representative of Pyongyang to the United Nations Ja Song Nam wrote in his letter to the UN Security Council. And the National Defense Commission (NDC) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea demanded the U.S. to remove from South Korea their nuclear and biological weapons, which are supposedly deployed throughout the country, including at the military base in Osan.
The response of the U.S. was almost instant (which could be, of course, just a coincidence): “some data suggesting that the DPRK is involved in development of bacteriological weapons have been received.” It turns out that an employee of James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies Melissa Hanham, having analyzed photographs of the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute published in North Korean press, shared her conclusions with journalists in Washington stating that North Korea is preparing “to manufacture anthrax spores there for military purposes.”
The response of the DPRK to such a statement was predictable. On July 12, state-run newspaper Minju Choson defined these allegations as “an unjustifiable act of provocation” and noted that such “absurd accusations against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea once again show the reluctance of the United States to abandon their attempts to degrade reputation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the eyes of the international community.” According to Minju Choson, the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute is preeminently engaged in manufacture of biochemical products for plant production, animal husbandry and other branches of the agricultural sector and the forest industry.
On July 13, North Korea invited the US President Barack Obama to come to Pyongyang to see for himself whether the country has biological weapons and whether human rights are violated in the country. According to the Yonhap News Agency, National Defense Commission (NDC) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea published a statement where it says that President Obama and all American congressional representatives and Secretaries of State will be given an opportunity to see “the mysterious Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute.”
However, it is highly unlikely that this story will have a continuation. As is usually happens after each new scandal involving North Korea, precaution measures will be reinforced and yet another unconfirmed accusation against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will stick in memory, extending the list of horror stories about the regime of Kim Jong-un.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.