Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Biowar: Korea


I have always loved the Winter Olympics.

So I've been enjoying the games in PeyongChang this year. Or as much as I can given NBC's lackluster coverage, but that's a different can of tuna altogether. Regardless, I'm not usually thinking of biowarfare while watching downhill skiing, ski jumping, or figure skating.

It's certainly a possibility, though. After consulting with numerous military and national security officials, Yochi Dreazen wrote a long and dour piece for Vox detailing how much more horrendous open warfare on the Korean Peninsula would be compared to common perceptions. There were a number of surprising conclusions. One of the assessments that sat with me was the likely involvement of bioweapons.

Strategically, most military strategists regard nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as ordinance of last resort. The consensus of experts interviewed in the Dreazen article is, however, that North Korea has a "use them or lose them" mode of thinking after studying the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In other words, these weapons would be used at the onset of war...not towards the end. I've dwelt for decades on the terrifying prospects of nuclear war, but biowarfare is a mode of attack that I have not devoted as much thought to. They're rather messy as weapons go. You have little sphere of influence over them once they are deployed and that's why most military powers are reluctant to use them.

North Korea has no such compunctions.

It is believed that North Korea has stockpiles of weaponized anthrax, smallpox, yellow fever, hemorrhagic fever, and plague. Dreazen quotes Andrew Weber, formerly the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs:

“We would expect to see cocktails of fast-acting biological agents designed to stop troops in their tracks and regular infectious agents that would take more time to kill people...There would be a significant military impact, and a significant psychological one. It’s hard to overstate just how frightening these types of weapons are.”

What has my thoughts churning are the delivery methods for these weapons. As the article says, it doesn't take a missile, it just takes a backpack. It has long been thought that North Korea would be able to deploy teams of special ops covertly into the South at the onset of hostilities. Couple that with bioweapons (BW):

"North Korea has 200,000 special forces; even a handful of those special forces armed with BW would be enough to devastate South Korea. What is alarming about human vectors is that they do not need sophisticated training or technology to spread BW amongst the targets, and they are difficult to detect in advance of an attack. It is theoretically possible that North Korean sleeper agents disguised as cleaning and disinfection personnel could disperse BW agents with backpack sprayers. Another possibility is that North Korean agents will introduce BW into water supplies for major metropolitan areas."

Bacteria or viruses could also be dispersed by drones, causing mass fatalities with little expenditure of effort.

As mentioned previously, these aren't exactly precision weapons. Factors such as wind direction and human vectors all play a part in where the agents end up going. A neighboring nation like Japan could end up being hit with biological "shrapnel," if not direct hits from nuclear and conventional ordinance. Where once I speculated on whole regions of the world rendered unlivable by radiation, I'm now trying to envision swaths and stretches of landscape contaminated by contagion. Would there need to be an exclusion zone? Would we block off entire areas of the world?

At least it's rich material for writers. Any number of writers have dwelled upon such scenarios, most of them of the thriller-of-the-week variety, like Nelson DeMille or Richard Preston. Stephen King wrote perhaps the most recognizable book of them all with The Stand. The zombies of 28 Days Later and the ensuing sequel did not crawl out of the grave, but rather are products of biowarfare contagion. Speaking of such, I believe Max Brooks' World War Z begins in a lab in North Korea, no?

I still remain quite skeptical that hostilities will break out with North Korea and as existential threats go, we've got bigger problems. That being said, I'd be just fine leaving the concept of a post-biological warfare world as the purview of fiction writers.

UPDATE: George tells me that World War Z starts in China, not North Korea. Since he's actually read it and I haven't, I'll go with his version. Also, how could I forget 12 Monkeys? Such a good film.

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