Punishing Kim Jong Un: Will He Retaliate With Chemical Weapons?

Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in a chemical incident exercise on April 16, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. Michael Mazza writes that the belief that North Korea has artillery pieces armed with chemical weapon shells near the DMZ, and within range of Seoul, is one reason the United States and South Korea believe military responses to Kim Jong Un’s provocations are so risky. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

North Korea has managed to outdo itself once again. According to Malaysian authorities, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam—estranged half-brother to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—was carried out with VX nerve agent.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but North Korea used a weapon of mass destruction in a major international airport.

Given North Korea's various responses since the assassination—including, potentially, an attempt to break into the morgue—it seems unlikely that Pyongyang wanted the murder weapon revealed. Its exposure provides two important reminders.

First, the North Korean threat is a multifaceted one. The Kim regime's nuclear and missile programs tend to absorb attention for understandable and justifiable reasons. But according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), North Korea likely has the world's third largest stockpile of chemical weapons.

The belief that North Korea has artillery pieces armed with CW shells near the DMZ, and within range of Seoul, is one reason the United States and South Korea believe military responses to Kim's provocations are so risky.

The size and status of its biological weapons program is more difficult to discern, but, again according to NTI, the North likely maintains a range of pathogen samples that it could weaponize should it choose to do so.

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The successful assassination, regardless of the means, is also a reminder that North Korea has a robust covert operations capability, which the Kim dynasty has repeatedly put to use over the years. Covert insertion of North Korean operatives is a threat that the South Korean security establishment has long recognized a need to counter.

Second, the use of VX demonstrates that, wish as we might to find some way of constructively engaging with Pyongyang, it is the regime itself rather than its weapons programs that is the problem.

Pyongyang has just proven itself willing to use a weapon of mass destruction on foreign soil; to entrust the use of that weapon to two non-agents trained in shopping malls; to obstruct a criminal investigation by authorities on foreign soil; and to take all of these actions in one of the few countries with which it has good relations and with the purpose of assassinating a man under the protection of North Korea's only formal ally.

That North Korea is willing to use VX should perhaps come as little surprise, given that it has long been suspected of testing its chemical weapons on political prisoners. Kim Jong Un and his familial predecessors have cared not a whit for the North Korean people. That they likewise care little for international norms is not exactly news.

The North Korean human rights disaster, the nuclear weapons program, the missile program, the chemical and biological weapons programs—these all share one thing in common. There's no hope for genuine peace on the Korean peninsula until the Kim regime is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Until policymakers in Washington and elsewhere accept that reality and tailor strategy accordingly, North Korea will remain a pestilence for which they seek a cure in vain.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.