Even with the country’s almost closed borders, North Korea has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. North Korea‘s Red Cross deployed 43,000 volunteers to help communities prevent coronavirus outbreaks this month amid fears the country had its first recorded case. The move came two weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un placed the city of Kaesong in lockdown over the suspected coronavirus infection. An emergency was declared after a man who defected to South Korea in 2017 returned to the North displaying COVID-19 symptoms.
While the country grapples with a health crisis internally, experts have warned that the global pandemic could also make North Korea more threatening.
Kim’s country recently announced it has plans to develop a coronavirus vaccine, but they could also have a more sinister plan in mind according to analysts.
Andrew Weber, who was assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs under ex-US President Barack Obama’s administration said that aid and equipment from Western countries to develop a weapon.
He said that North Korea “could use this legitimate vaccine aspiration as a way to enhance their biotechnology capability”.
Mr Weber added: ”They could buy equipment from Western or Chinese sources that would be necessary for their vaccine effort, and then next year they could turn around and use it to produce biological weapons.”
The pandemic, he and other experts say, presents a unique opportunity for the regime, whose imports are normally hampered by international sanctions.
Bruce Bennett, a defence researcher at the RAND Corporation highlighted how North Korea could get around sanctions.
He said: “Anything coronavirus-related is going to be viewed as humanitarian and humanitarian things are not prohibited by sanctions.
“You have to get item by item approval, but there have been lots of humanitarian shipments going into North Korea. Lots of stuff could be flowing in that.”
There are currently 16 countries which are suspected of holding bio-weapons, including the likes of Iran, Russia and China – countries also pursuing a COVID-19 vaccine.
But Mr Weber expressed more concern about North Korea in his interview with Politico last month.
He continued: “I think they’re more likely to use a biological weapon against us than a nuclear weapon.
“They could easily launch a bio attack in New York City if they choose to. You’d only need small amounts to kill thousands, tens of thousands of people.”
Mr Bennett echoed these warnings: “North Korea could be looking for something that nobody else has a vaccine to counter, so they would be doing vaccine work in part to understand how the vaccines could be working on the Covid virus, and what they could do to make something more effective.”
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North Korea’s attention for now will be directed at Kim Jong-un’s health amid reports he is in a coma.
South Korean officials have claimed Kim Jong-un has been in a coma for months as some suggest the leader could be replaced by his adviser and sister Kim Yo-jong.
Former aid to the South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, Chang Song-min said this week: “I assess him to be in a coma, but his life has not ended.
“A complete succession structure has not been formed, so Kim Yo-jong is being brought to the fore as the vacuum cannot be maintained for a prolonged period.”