North Korea Wants To Hit the U.S. With an Anthrax-Tipped Missile: Report

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North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifts off at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang on August 29. KCNA via KNS / STR / South Korea

Updated | The North Korean regime has started tests with a view to loading intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with anthrax, according to regional media reports.

Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported Tuesday that Pyongyang had undertaken heat and pressure resistance tests, citing an intelligence source in South Korea.

The spy source told the newspaper that Kim Jong Un’s regime is testing whether the biological agent can withstand temperatures of more than 7,000 degrees, the temperature that such a missile would face when coming back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Anthrax contaminates the body when spores enter it, multiplying and spreading an illness that could be fatal. Weaponized anthrax mostly infects humans through inhalation, which is the deadliest form of transmission. Skin infections of anthrax are less deadly. Inhalation anthrax has an overall death rate of 80 percent.

The source said that North Korea was likely looking to load its range of ICBMs with anthrax, as its nuclear-tipped missiles cannot yet reach the U.S. mainland.

On Monday, the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy, which warned North Korea was “pursuing chemical and biological weapons which could also be delivered by missile.”

It read: “North Korea—a country that starves its own people—has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that could threaten our homeland.”

Washington and Seoul have carried out joint military drills simulating and combating an attack of a biological nature. U.S. troops stationed in South Korea have been vaccinated against anthrax for over a decade, according to the newspaper.

Tensions have continued to rise between North Korea, its regional rivals and the United States. President Donald Trump has engaged in bellicose rhetoric with the North Korean leader, who has referred to him as a “dotard.”

Both have threatened military action against the other, and fears of a conflict breaking out have risen, particularly in nearby Japan and South Korea. 

In November, Kim Jong-un said a ballistic missile launch demonstrated his regime's ability to strike anywhere in U.S. territory with a nuclear-loaded missile, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the hermit kingdom's state news outlet. His claims are yet to be verified.

Trump's National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said earlier this month that North Korea was the "greatest immediate threat to the U.S." In reaction to North Korea missile tests and threats, the U.S. has engaged in a major joint military exercise this month with the South Korean army that involved more than 12,000 personnel.

It is not only Trump railing against the North Korean despot. The international community, including its only diplomatic ally in China, have rounded on the regime to impose the strongest sanctions on Pyongyang yet.

No country has recognized North Korea as a nuclear power despite its claim to have nuclear capabilities. Russia and China, while condemning Kim's missile launches, have attempted also to rein in the North Korean leader through dialogue. Both proposed an agreement whereby North Korea stops missile tests, and Washington and Seoul halt all military exercises, which North Korea deems provocative.

To combat any attack from its neighbor, with which South Korea technically remains at war, South Korean scientists have been working to train artificial intelligence that can detect anthrax at fast speeds.

Researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology announced in August the creation of an algorithm that has the ability to study bacterial spores and identify the biological agent in just seconds, instead of a day, using microscopic images.

North Korea has used chemical agents in the past to conduct attacks and assassinations, such as the February 2016 assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam using a VX agent at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

This story has been updated with background on the political tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.