U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that North Korea has a "tremendous" amount of chemical weapons. He added he recently discussed "at length" possible responses with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.
Since 2000, North Korea's chemical weapons have largely been hidden in the shadow of the country's nuclear weapons program. But even until the 1990s, the most feared of the North's weapons of mass destruction were its chemical ones. North Korea began developing chemical weapons in 1961, building manufacturing and storage facilities across the North.
The Defense Ministry here estimated in its 2012 White Paper that North Korea has between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and ranks No. 3 in the world after the U.S. and Russia in terms of the size of its chemical arsenal.
Hagel warned that a failure by Washington to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilian rebels could prompt North Korea and Iran to consider using such weapons. Rocked by a civil war over the last two-and-a-half years, Syrian government forces launched a rocket against civilian rebels last month, which appear to have contained deadly sarin nerve gas. The attack killed around 1,300 people, including some 400 children.
Only five countries including North Korea and Syria have yet to sign the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1997 and prohibits the use of such weapons.
In a report on North Korea early this year, the Pentagon said the North has a "wide range" of chemical weapons, including nerve agents, vesicants, blood agents and choking agents and that they can be mounted on artillery shells or ballistic missiles. North Korea could lob these projectiles across the border at South Korea and hand-deliver them via human infiltrators.
A 2004 report by a U.S. research institute showed that just 10 kg of anthrax bacterium being scattered in Seoul would lead to 900,000 deaths within a 30 km radius.
North Korea has a wide array of WMDs at its disposal to wreak devastation on South Korea at any given moment. The government needs to consider an international forum to deal with the chemical weapons threat from the North, and take a close look at South Korea's defenses.