SEOUL—North Korea leader Kim Jong Un’s kid sister Kim Yo Jong is brandishing the threat of germ warfare in retaliation for balloon launches from South Korea that she blames for spreading COVID-19 in the North.
Kim Yo Jong, in a speech carried on North Korean state TV, said, after having considered “various counteraction plans, our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”
Her remark suggests she and her brother are not only fed up with defectors from North Korea launching balloons from the South carrying anti-North propaganda but are determined to respond in kind. The logical answer to her claim that the South is sending the dread disease to the North, it’s feared, would be for North Korea to inflict diseases on the South.
“If the enemy persists in such dangerous deeds as fomenting the inroads of virus into our Republic,” Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency quotes her as saying, “we will respond to it by not only exterminating the virus but also wiping out the south (sic) Korean authorities.”
The fact that North Korean TV showed Kim Yo Jong making a speech was a sure sign of the seriousness of the message. Previously, when expressing her brother’s views more boldly than he might want to do publicly, she was quoted in reports, not live on TV.
Kim Yo Jong, whose only title is vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, ranks at or near the top of the regime’s hierarchy. Were the hefty Kim Jong Un, 38, whose health is always open to question, to die or be incapacitated, 34-year-old Yo Jong would inevitably be a leading possibility to succeed him.
None of which means she’s about to take over soon or has the power to do anything Kim Jong Un hasn’t ordered. She spoke before a meeting convened by the party’s central committee at which he “solemnly declared the victory in the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign for exterminating the novel coronavirus.”
North Korean TV quoted her as saying her brother led the anti-virus campaign even though he himself had come down with the bug. “He was battling a fever but could not rest because he was worried about the people,” she was quoted as saying.
Kim Yo Jong’s call for vengeance against the South was a reminder that North Korea has focused on both biological and chemical warfare as weapons of mass destruction in addition to the nuclear program that it says is needed for self-defense.
“The North has the ability to produce traditional infectious biological warfare agents or toxins and biological weapons,” said a study produced two years ago by the Federation of American Scientists. “If North Korea did choose to employ biological weapons, it probably could use agents like anthrax, plague, or yellow fever against water and food supplies in the South's rear area.”
Kim Yo Jong may have to wait, however, before the North can actually wage biological warfare. The non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington has estimated that North Korea “possesses a range of pathogen samples that could be weaponized, and the technical capabilities to do so, rather than deployed, ready-to-use biological weapons.”
Nonetheless, “Kim Yo Jong’s threats are not hollow statements,” Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international relations at Seoul’s Ewha University, told The Daily Beast. He believed, however, before resorting to weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans “might fire at leaflet balloons and could even try to shell what they believe to be launch sites in South Korea.”
Kim Yo Jong’s claims “about the coronavirus entering the country via the southern border,” he said, “are more about domestic propaganda than military escalation.”
David Maxwell, retired army colonel, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told The Daily Beast “a biological warfare attack is a possibility” but asked, “To what end?”
The North “certainly would not claim it as that could invite retaliation,” he said. While it “should never be discounted,” he argued, “I do not see how a biological attack would support current objectives of the regime.”
Steve Tharpe, a retired U.S. army officer here, told The Daily Beast that “biological agents are much harder to control than nukes and chemical agents” and require “great care in employment to avoid unintentional harm to the North Korean army and/or population.”
In fact, North Korea is more likely at first to show its anger over the leaflets by conducting a seventh underground nuclear test—its first since September 2017.
“When North Korea conducts their next nuclear test, they will say in their public releases that this is necessary in order to protect themselves from the aggressive and provocative behavior of the South,” Bruce Bechtol, author of numerous books and articles on North Korea’s military leadership, told The Daily Beast. The North would claim the test was “purely a necessary defensive measure in order to upgrade their ‘deterrent.’”
Evans Revere, a retired senior U.S. diplomat who specialized in North Korean issues, told The Daily Beast that the North “has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons” but attributed Kim Yo Jong’s “threats to the usual bluster from Pyongyang.”
Nonetheless, “Experience also tells us that we need to keep a watchful eye just in case the North Koreans decide to do something foolish.”
Bruce Bennett, Korea expert at RAND, doubted if Kim Yo Jong “understands much about biological weapons” She needs to know, he said, “that the U.S. threat to eliminate the North Korean regime if it uses nuclear weapons could be extended to include eliminating the North Korean regime if it uses biological weapons.”
Kim Yo Jong, however, may be losing patience.
“We can no longer overlook the uninterrupted influx of rubbish from South Korea,” she said. The fact that COVID-19 was first reported near the line between the two Koreas “pushed us to suspect the despicable ones in South Korea,” she explained. “It is quite natural for us to consider strange objects as vehicles of the malignant pandemic disease.”
South Korea, under a law enacted while the liberal Moon Jae-in was president, forbids defectors from launching the balloons over the North, but authorities haven't been enforcing it much since the inauguration of Moon’s successor, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, in May.
The unification ministry, responsible for South Korea’s dealings with the North, said Kim Yo Jong’s claims were not only “groundless” but “immensely rude and threatening.” The South, said a spokesman, was “ready for all possibilities.”