North Korea's Nuclear Program Distracts Us From Kim Jong Un's Bigger Threats

A man in Seoul watches a broadcast of Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech. Getty

As pressure mounts between the U.S. and North Korea, there's good reason to worry. U.S. intelligence agencies have underestimated Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, and President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un have relentlessly traded insults in recent months, increasing tension between the two countries.

But the regime isn't suicidal; Kim's missile tests and big rhetoric are the equivalent of a magician distracting onlookers. We should worry instead about much more subtle North Korean threats.

First, North Korea is an increasing cybersecurity threat. Reports suggest that North Korea was behind the WannaCry ransomware cyberattack that essentially shut down Britain's national health care system for a brief period. North Korea has also successfully hacked South Korea's military, and stolen war plans for targeting Kim's regime in case of war. In the U.S., North Korea was accused in 2014 of hacking the Sony Corporation, but it has also targeted the New York Federal Reserve.

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI, issued a public warning of ongoing cyberattacks directed at critical infrastructure in the U.S. While North Korea is not currently implicated in the infrastructure attacks, this is certainly a future possibility. U.S. intelligence told a Senate committee last year that Pyongyang "remains capable of launching disruptive or destructive cyber attacks to support its political objectives." And South Korea has claimed that North Korea has "developed a 6,800 strong unit of trained cyberwarfare experts." In fact, in 2016, North Korean hackers accessed classified joint U.S.-South Korea military plan.

The U.S. accused North Korea in 2014 of being behind the Sony Pictures hack. Getty

Second, the assassination of Kim's half-brother with VX nerve agent in Malaysia should remind us that North Korea has had an active chemical weapons development program since the 1950s. North Korea is one of only six countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and South Korea has consistently reported that North Korea has a large chemical weapons stockpile. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. nonprofit, has also claimed that North Korea "is thought to be the among the world's largest possessor of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United State and Russia."

Finally, North Korea also has an active biological weapons program, of which anthrax, forms of the plague and possibly even hemorrhagic fevers are a part. According to the Harvard University Belfer Center, North Korea has worked with 13 different types of pathogens.

The anonymity of these actions, too, is worrying. Cyber-threats and chemical and biological weapons development all provide the possibility of plausible deniability of any attack. With nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, everyone knows when one is tested or fired. But cyber-, chemical or biological attacks can be subtle and sneaky, and can cause death and destruction without a clear suspect to blame.

A cyberattack that took out all or part of the electrical grid of another country could cause widespread chaos and destruction. A chemical weapons attack, while nowhere near as damaging as a nuclear or large-scale cyberattack, could be deployed with some level of anonymity in almost any location with minimal resources. What if, instead of using VX in an assassination, they had released it into the airport? What if, instead of using a chemical weapon to kill Kim's step-brother, the attackers had infected him with a form of the plague and let him board a plane? Who would be able to identify the source of the infection, the "patient zero"?

The international community is partially to blame for the potential threat of North Korea's more subtle but no less damaging threats. A lack of international political will to deal with these types of threats abounds. The United Nations Security Council, for example, has repeatedly failed to approve sanctions against the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons, and, in November, the Security Council also allowed the joint U.N.-Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons investigative effort in Syria to expire.

North Korea poses a threat, not because it has nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, but because the world is dazzled and distracted by North Korea's nuclear magic tricks. With every nuclear test, every missile launch, every statement of fiery rhetoric, North Korea is showing that one hand is full of apocalyptic dangers. Our concern should not be what the North Korean magician is willing to show us, but why he is willing to show to us.

We should remember to pay attention to what is up his other sleeve.

Christina Cliff is assistant professor of political science and security studies at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., where she teaches courses on global security & diplomacy and weapons of mass destruction.