North Korea might have just revealed that it has the capability to produce massive quantities of biological weapons.
On June 6, a North Korean scientist defected to Finland with 15 gigabytes of electronic evidence that he claims documents how the country is testing chemical and biological agents on its own citizens.
That same day, North Korea's state media released photos of Kim Jong-un touring what it described as a pesticide factory called the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute — but experts tell VICE News that this same facility is likely meant to produce massive quantities of weaponized anthrax.
Kim touring the Pyongyang Bio-Institute in June. The photos show fermenters and bioreactors. (Photos via Rodong Sinmun)
Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, first discovered the significance of the photos. She provided VICE News with an advance copy of her analysis of the images, released today, in which she concludes that, "given North Korea's known history of interest in biological weapons, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Institute is intended to produce military-size batches of anthrax."
The multi-million dollar facility is ostensibly intended to produce bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria commonly used for pesticides.
'They messed up.'
"If you're a biological weapons expert, and see a facility for bio-pesticide, you immediately ask yourself: what kind?" Hanham said. "Then when you see packages of Bt, you should know that it's a close cousin of anthrax — it's produced the exact same way."
The Pyongyang Bio-Institute was constructed between 2010 and 2011 and is run by Korean People's Army Unit 810. Pictures of the equipment published by North Korean press reveal nearly all the necessary components of a biological weapons program: incubators to grow bacteria, ventilation hoods to safely handle biohazards, fermenters and bioreactors used to grow bacteria, and a spray dryer to transform spores into a fine powder.
"They messed up," Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News. "If you're a technical expert, it's clear looking at this facility that it can be used for biological warfare, particularly anthrax. The science is not in dispute."
An independent expert on North Korean military capabilities confirmed to VICE News that the photos most likely show an operational biological weapons facility.
Kim Jong-un peers into a Level II safety cabinet. (Photo via Rodong Sinmun)
Pesticide production is "an old and well-used cover for a biological weapons program," Hanham explained. Iraq and the USSR both created dual-use facilities that were used to make pesticides and biological weapons.
Hanham noted that even if the facility is used to produce the pesticide, "in one day it could be converted to an anthrax facility. All you have to do is sterilize the equipment."
The facility might have been developed with help from a foreign agricultural aid organization. In 2005, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Chinese equipment, the UK non-profit CABI helped North Korea establish a pilot facility at the country's Plant Protection Institute, located nine miles away from the alleged bioweapons facility, where it trained North Korean scientists in the production of Bt pesticide. The institute "was likely a training ground in preparation for the large-scale facility that Kim Jong-un toured," Hanham writes in her report.
"Teaching how to make Bt is essentially the same as teaching how to make anthrax," she said.
She stressed that she does not think that CABI knowingly aided the development of North Korea's bioweapons program. CABI did not respond to requests from VICE News for comment.
"The problem here is you have tech that can be used for civilian and military purposes," Wit explained. "It's clear that more vigilance is necessary in the future."
A spray dryer that creates a vortex to dry the bacteria spores into a fine powder. (Photo via Rodong Sinmun)
Experts told VICE News that the Pyongyang Bio-Institute likely represents the most revealing glimpse into North Korea's bioweapons capabilities that has been made public — but noted that it remains unclear how the facility fits into North Korea's overall program.
"It's similar to their nuclear weapons programs," Wit said. "We can't prove they are doing it, but looking at the facilities, we can make a judgment. That's what this is about."
"Very little is known about the origin of capability of North Korea's biological program," said Hanham.
Though many experts believe that the country acquired a sample of anthrax and other epidemiological bacteria from Japan in 1968, it's impossible to verify that it has actually developed a stockpile of the toxic agent. A South Korean governmentwhite paper published in 2012 suggested that North Korea is capable of producing a variety of biological weapons, "including anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever virus."
It's also difficult to assess to what degree North Korea might be in violation of international protocols that regulate the equipment used to make biological weapons, such asthe Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which it is a signatory. But the production of anthrax is not technically banned — the US and its allies regularly produce anthrax for research purposes. A violation occurs only if the agent is stockpiled and intended for military use.
A group of 41 countries known as the Australia Group also regulates the export of equipment that can be used to make biological agents.
"There's a very complicated network of rules and regulations around bio-weapons," Hanham said. "It's very hard for me to say definitely if a violation has occurred. We don't know where all this equipment came from, and when it arrived in North Korea."
Nevertheless, she insists the size of the facility should be cause for serious alarm.
"It's not the biggest in the world, but it's still pretty large," she said. "I've never seen images like these published before."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro