The early January detonation of its fourth nuclear device by North Korea has stirred an already simmering pot. To continue the metaphor, when one adds in the apparently successful missile test (placing an object in earth orbit) and the reactive sanctions by the UN as well as the unilateral sanctions of some member states, the pot is now at a full boil. Now we learn that some Western analysts are admitting that Pyongyang may indeed have miniaturized its nuclear devices enough to fit atop its missiles of varying ranges.
Nations are worried – and rightfully so, for this adds yet another dimension to the arsenal of weapons at Kim Jong Un’s disposal. The conventional wisdom is that Kim would not dare to employ his nukes for fear of retaliation that would surely spell the end of his regime. It is a valid – though not 100 percent guaranteed – argument if one considers only larger, strategic weapons. Tactical nukes present another problem. Used properly, they can be localized such that collateral damage can be restricted to a much smaller area.
Might Kim use smaller – tactical – nuclear weapons at some point? The probability of that occurring is far greater than the likelihood of his using larger ones; however, assigning a precise value to the odds of either happening is extremely difficult. It is a worrisome development, one that analysts and pundits will be discussing for some time.
LOOK AT ALL WEAPONS
However, what few North Korea watchers ever mention are Pyongyang’s other weapons of mass destruction. They are perhaps missing the biggest likely threat from NK. I refer to its stockpiles of biological and chemical agents. Given the meaningless red line drawn by the U.S. with regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria – their use went unpunished – the North may conclude that using such tools of war – even though roundly condemned – is something it could get away with.
Delivery of non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction is easier than one might at first think
Delivery of non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction is easier than one might at first think. Take, for example, the small North Korean drones that have been found in the last several months crashed in the northern areas of South Korea. It would be easy to be scornful of such craft due to their small size and apparent flimsiness. But that would be failing to recognize the potential for the destruction and havoc that the drones could inflict.
Unfortunately, a short article on North Korean drones in a South Korean daily a few days ago did not receive the attention it deserved, even though the article itself was rather dismissive of their destructive possibilities. The South Korea Agency for Defense Development had tested the reconstructed drones that had crashed in South Korea. It determined that the North Korean drones were of low quality and could accommodate a payload of only about 900 grams – call it two pounds – and therefore were not capable of delivering any threatening weapons. That is conveniently reassuring – and it is frighteningly wrong.
MISSING THE POINT
The estimated payload is likely too low, and certainly the North could improve the design so that larger loads could be carried. However, just for the sake of argument, how much damage could two pounds of a biological or chemical agent do? A lot! Imagine that amount being dropped on a military group, or in the middle of a town – serious medical issues and panic would ensue.
It was gratifying to see that an article in NK News shows thinking along these same lines. Even so, that article quoted the chief of the South Korean Special Disaster Prevention Center as saying, “In the worst-case scenario, the UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, drones in other words) can be equipped with biological weapons.” Well, there is a significant problem with thinking that it would be the “worst-case scenario” – because that is exactly the case that should be expected. Such thinking needs to change: looking at it through Pyongyang’s eyes, it is the best-case scenario.
Another recent article decried the excessive hand wringing and posturing to increase the military budget in response to the latest crisis du jour. While the opinion that news about drones should not be used to whip the South Korean public into a panic or to substantiate unjustified defense spending is appropriate, the article also failed to grasp the significance of how drones can be used. In other words, once again, meaningful analysis was missing.
HITTING THE MARK
William Cohen, the U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, stated that a five-pound bag of anthrax could possibly kill half the population of Washington, D.C. Two pounds therefore might wipe out 100,000 people in Seoul. To be sure, the dispersal conditions would have to be ideal, but you get the idea. Pandemonium would result and medical facilities would be overwhelmed. Although military members might have time to garb themselves with protective gear, that sort of defense is not available to civilians.
As for two pounds of sarin gas, according to the World Health Organization, a pinprick-sized droplet would kill a human. Now consider the chemical agent VX, which is 10 times more lethal. They would truly wreak havoc in any metropolitan area. That earlier cavalier dismissal of North Korea’s so-called flimsy drones that easily avoid radar detection doesn’t seem so reassuring now, does it?
Machine guns and the like will not bring down drones due to the fact that they are such small targets
North Korea uses asymmetrical warfare for two reasons. This first is due to the fact that Pyongyang is so outclassed in conventional methodology that it must resort to other ways of achieving superiority. The second is because the West does such a poor job of preparing for the unusual or unconventional. Machine guns and the like will not bring down drones due to the fact that they are such small targets. The proof is that it has already been tried by the South Korean military with no apparent success.
WHO IS READY?
No one can prepare for every eventuality, for there are by far too many potentialities and the North is so resourceful. However, having said that, it is clear that we must do better. First is to brainstorm what things are possible – even “weird” stuff – without regard for what is likely. The ponderers must be free to explore their imaginations, for only in this manner can all possible contingencies be identified. Only after – after – all potentialities have been listed, are they organized by degree of probability. It is at this point that preparation for the most likely or most damaging can begin.
It is time to start examining, putting the best minds to work regarding possibilities, and developing ways to counter and neutralize such asymmetrical threats. Some may call it out-of-the-box thinking, and others might refer to it as creative problem solving. In reality, it is only due diligence on the part of those who are responsible for the defense of South Korea.
Featured image: North Korean drone at 727 parade, 2013
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