Chemical Nightmares

Seoul's doomsday scenario begins at Shingye, a secret North Korean military base located 100 kilometers above the 38th parallel. Elite troops, acting on orders from strongman Kim Jong Il, arm hundreds of Scud missiles with chemical and biological weapons, then launch a massive first strike against South Korea--home to 37,000 American troops. The Scuds find their targets in less than three minutes; all but a few elude Patriot antimissile batteries protecting Seoul and its U.S. military bases. As warheads blanket the city with nerve gases and deadly bacteria, South Korea is plunged into turmoil unseen since Northern armies blitzed southward in 1950 to begin the Korean War. By all accounts, this modern-day rematch would be even more devastating. The South Korean military, one planning officer told NEWSWEEK, forecasts that 50 missiles carrying nerve gas would kill up to 38 percent of Seoul's 12 million inhabitants. Just 10 kilograms of anthrax bacteria--less than the payload of a single Scud--could unleash an epidemic that could cull half the population within a week.

These grim forecasts underscore a fundamental truth about the world's last cold-war frontier: chemical and biological agents--not atomic bombs--will be the terror weapons in any future conflict. Last week a new white paper issued by South Korea's Defense Ministry acknowledged that Seoul had previously "underestimated North Korea's chemical and biological threat" by a huge margin. The report boosted the calculation of Pyongyang's chemical and biological arsenal to a maximum of 5,000 tons, a fivefold increase over its 1998 tally, and warned that "10 different kinds of weapons, including anthrax," could be used by North Korean troops in a future war with the South. The conclusion: Seoul and Washington must "dramatically improve" their countermeasures against Pyongyang's new terror weapons.

The chemical-weapons buildup could damage a delicate Pyongyang-Washington rapprochement, a fragile relationship that may be the best chance in a decade to lower hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. Last week former Defense secretary William Perry, in a review of the Clinton administration's North Korea policy delivered before Congress, prescribed a "comprehensive normalization of relations" with the Stalinist regime--so long as it mothballs its nuclear and long-range-missile programs. Perry's failure to factor in chemical and biological weapons will weaken his case in the eyes of hawks on Capitol Hill. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, called Perry's approach "the screwiest policy I have ever seen with one of the weirdest regimes on the face of the earth."

The reckoning with the new chemical-weapons report has hardly begun. South Korean troops are undertrained for combat amid killer toxins. Unlike their American allies, they are not being inoculated against anthrax--Pyongyang's front-shelf biological weapon. Fewer than 1 in 10 South Koreans has access to a gas mask. The chemical-biological weapons threat could undermine support for President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy," an initiative to improve inter-Korean trade, travel and investment as a means to build a lasting peace. Until this decade, Pyongyang's chemical and biological warfare programs were small-time operations. When the collapse of the Soviet Union severed the pipeline for advanced military hardware, Pyongyang began its chemical- and biological-weapons buildup to counterbalance Seoul's superior weaponry. Pyongyang came to view nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as the means to retain influence in the region. "By having these weapons, the North is able to prevent itself from being slighted by... the United States, Russia, China and Japan," said North Korean defector Choi Ju-Hwai, a former People's Army colonel, in testimony before the U.S. Congress in late 1997. "It also gains the upper hand in political negotiations." Pyongyang has developed an arsenal of guns, bombs and missiles capable of delivering conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads. The Rodong 1 and 2, modified Russian Scuds, can strike deep into the South. The Taepodong, test-launched in August 1998, can reach beyond Japan. South Korea estimates that half the missiles and a third of the artillery pieces are equipped to fire chemical or biological warheads.

In response to the buildup, Seoul and Washington are revising their strategy. The South's defense white paper offers specific insights into Plan 5027--the allied blueprint for repelling a North Korean invasion. Priorities now "focus on countering sudden... chemical and biological attacks" against Seoul, it says, noting that "a breakdown of government functions in the capital would lead to a breakdown nationally." According to South Korean officers, Seoul soon will begin inoculating its 600,000 troops against anthrax and is looking for an effective smallpox vaccine for recruits too young to have been immunized.

Washington's approach is part stick, part carrot. Two years ago, when U.S. defense analysts first detected Pyongyang's chemical-weapons buildup, President Clinton reversed a Carter-era pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear adversaries; he said he might approve nuclear strikes targeting "rogue states" wielding weapons of mass destruction. The aim: convince Pyongyang that a pre-emptive chemical or biological attack would be suicidal. As for the carrot, in 1994 the United States agreed to provide two nuclear reactors if the North would shut down its own facility, a suspected source of fuel for nuclear weapons. This year it offered 500,000 tons in food aid for permission to inspect a potential nuclear lab in Kumchangri--which proved to be an empty hole in the ground. Speaking to Congress last week, Perry suggested that a "window of opportunity" exists for moderating Pyongyang's behavior through dialogue.

So far, Washington has focused on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. At some point, however, the emphasis must shift to the North's chemical and biological arsenals. According to defector Choi, Pyongyang's war strategy is to target chemical and biological attacks at American forces in Korea and Japan. "Kim Jong Il believes that if North Korea brings 20,000 American casualties, it could win a war," he said. That strategy doesn't sound farfetched. "When Americans see television footage of people dying from chemical weapons," a Seoul official told NEWSWEEK, "they may not want to send troops to such an ugly battleground." Given the nightmare scenario, who could blame them?