Food Safety Magazine

FSM eDigest | November 21, 2017

North Korea Poses a Very Real Food Defense Threat

By Robert A. Norton, Ph.D.

North Korea Poses a Very Real Food Defense Threat

The rhetoric is not yet white hot but certainly heating up. North Korea wants nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. The U.S. is determined this will not happen. The potential threats are becoming more real with each passing day as new information is made public. North Korea has chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. All three could cause significant damage to the regional food supply (Korean peninsula, southern China, Japan, etc.) and, depending on decisions made in Pyongyang, on the world’s food supply.

The U.S. mainland is not immune. War with North Korea would be beyond ugly, beyond anything the world has experienced since World War II in terms of the devastation wrought. Multiple nations surrounding the Korean Peninsula possess scores of nuclear weapons. No one truly knows how the nuclear nations would respond, should North Korea send a missile toward Japan, South Korea or some U.S. territory like Guam.

So what are the facts, and what are the implications to the U.S. and world food supplies?

Nuclear Threats
Facts. North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests, each moving the country closer to being able to hit the U.S. mainland. Kim Jong Un’s purpose in this technology race is not to conduct conventional warfare but to marry missile technology to the country’s nuclear capabilities. The ultimate goal is to make the nation, in his mind, a legitimate member of the “Nuclear Club,” on par with other First World nations. Un views nuclear weapons as a means to ensure regime survival. In this sense, the missile program is essentially the same as with the nuclear program. To be an effective deterrent, nuclear weapons have to be deliverable to an enemy’s homeland. One that is not capable of delivery is a weapon of no consequence.

Implications. The effects of a nuclear weapon explosion over a large civilian population is well documented. Think Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens to hundreds of thousands of casualties would occur instantaneously. Effects would include those directly caused by the blast; the thermal radiation, which instantly incinerates people, animals and structures and causes innumerable secondary fires; and the ionizing radiation, which kills in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years, depending on the dosage and the residual radiation (“fallout”), the effects of which persist for long periods of time.

The design of the North Korean nuclear weapons is similar to designs used by the Pakistanis (no coincidence). This is important because they are different from designs used by the U.S. This is significant because North Korean nuclear weapons are “dirtier,” meaning the fallout effects are particularly problematic. The “dirty” aspect of a nuclear weapon detonation creates persistent problems in the food chain because plants and animals, upon which our food supply depends, take up radionuclides (the radioactive byproducts of the explosion).

Putting this in perspective, think of a nuclear war as a nuclear accident (e.g., Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, etc.) on steroids. Radioactive fallout would be dispersed by winds around the world. The World Health Organization states:   

“Of immediate concern is iodine-131, it is distributed over a wide area, found in water and on crops and is rapidly transferred from contaminated feed into milk. However, iodine-131 has a relatively short half-live and will decay within a few weeks. In contrast, radioactive caesium which can also be detected early on, is longer-lived (Cs-134 has a half life of about 2 years and Cs-137 has a half life of about 30 years) and can remain in the environment for a long-time. Radioactive caesium is also relatively rapidly transferred from feed to milk. Uptake of caesium into food is also of long term concern. Other radioisotopes that could be of long-term concern if released, are strontium and plutonium. Strontium-90 has a half life of about 29 years, and plutonium has a much longer half life than that (Pu-238: 88 years, Pu-239: 24100 years, Pu-240: 6564 years).”[1]

Response strategies. An open-air nuclear weapon explosion, regardless of its origin, could grossly contaminate the food production and processing environment. Food corporations would need to understand clearly where the fallout was carried and make business decisions based on the models and nuclide test results, which would likely become mandatory to protect the food supply. The government would play a huge role in this response, but could not be solely depended upon, given they do not have sole loyalty to any company.

Food corporations would have to find non-government based expertise in order to focus on corporate specific priorities. Since these types of experts (food chemists, radiation safety personnel, etc.) are not overly abundant, it would seem prudent at this time, these subject matter experts (SMEs) should be put on retainer sooner, rather than later. These SMEs will not come cheap, particularly during an actual crisis, when their services will be open to the highest bidder, unless arranged ahead of time. Beyond anything else, retention of these experts now should be considered an investment for the future.

Biological Threats
Facts. The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs recently released a report on the North Korean Biological Weapons Program.[2] Much is not publicly known about the North Korean biologicals weapons program, so the report makes some educated assumptions. The program is considered as active and substantial, but not on the scale witnessed in the former Soviet Union. From other sources and without going into details of delivery, putting pathogens in missiles is unlikely. Bioweapons are tricky, because they are labile (can be killed or neutralized) and tend to be burned up in explosions. Other delivery methods, such as aerosolization, transmission by people, animals (zoonotic) or vectors (e.g. flies, mosquitoes, etc.) are considered more likely. The report references earlier unclassified reports by South Korea and others in which a total of 13 agents were listed, including Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Clostridium botulinum (botulism), Vibrio cholerae (cholera), Bunyaviridae hantavirus (Korean hemorrhagic fever), Yersinia pestis (plague), Variola (smallpox), Salmonella typhi (typhoid fever), Coquillettidia fuscopennata (yellow fever), Shigella (dysentery), Brucella (brucellosis), Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Rickettsia prowazekii (typhus fever) and T-2 mycotoxin (Alimentary Toxic Aleukia).

Many of these pathogens could be used to intentionally contaminate the food supply, particularly if North Korean agents successfully penetrate food processing industries and gain access to process concentration points, for example, where ingredients are dispersed into other food products. Concentration points are magnification points. Normal food processing protocols would neutralize most if not all of these agents, but fresh, nonprocessed foods could become vulnerable. Some pathogens (e.g., Variola, the virus responsible for smallpox) need only get a foothold in the human population, after which human-to-human transmission would rapidly spread the disease. Some pathogens have a relatively short viability period in the environment, where others are far more persistent.

Beyond the suspected biological weapons, North Korea, like many countries (including the U.S.), has facilities considered “Dual Use,” meaning they could be used for both military and civilian purposes. Of particular concern is the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute, which some experts consider capable of producing anthrax. Though strongly denied by North Korea, the facility has the equipment and capacity to create biological weapons. The nation is aggressively pursuing agricultural self-sufficiency, admirable as a stated goal, but made more suspect because of the emphasis on “biopesticides.”

The ambiguity surrounding the dual-use potential of biopesticide facilities could be used to North Korea’s advantage. For example, the date of Kim Jong-Un’s visit to the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute, which is run by the Korean People’s Army Unit 810, could be interpreted as strategic messaging. The visit took place only 10 days after the U.S. Forces Korea’s accidental import of live anthrax samples into a South Korean air base was publicized.[3] It is plausible that North Korea intended to signal its biological weapons capability to the United States and South Korea by showing its leader praising the military-run Bio-technical Institute. Furthermore, the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute has been recently alleged to be responsible for the implementation of the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother.[4]

Implications. North Korea has biological capabilities that are clearly dual use. Having the capacity to produce pathogens in large quantities is only the first step, because a means to deliver the pathogens is also required. North Korea has the capabilities, including a substantial unmanned aircraft system (UAS) program that could be used to aerially disperse pathogens.

The virus causing smallpox is the most pressing concern, since few people in the U.S. beyond the military have been vaccinated. North Korea is believed to possess the virus and is capable of propagating it on an apocalyptic scale. That being said, biological weapons are tricky because once released, they can bite back the sender, particularly if the unintended victims have not been vaccinated. Whether North Korea has vaccinated the civilian population is an open question. If North Koreans have not been vaccinated, it is doubtful the rogue nation would be able to vaccinate rapidly enough to prevent a simultaneous outbreak in their own civilian population. Fortunately, smallpox is not a foodborne pathogen, but others such as anthrax can be made to be so. If war between North Korea and the U.S., North Korea would likely consider the U.S. food supply a target.

Response strategies. Searching for unknown pathogens being used as biological weapons is, in many respects, no different from searching for any foodborne pathogens. Any competent microbiological laboratory used to handle human pathogens could successfully isolate and identify bioweapon pathogens. The problem is that you have to have some idea what to look for. Were a biological attack to occur, the government would be expected to identify the agent(s) within hours or a day or two. Biotechnology complicated this paradigm, because hybrid pathogens could be weaponized and delivered. The Soviet Union’s biological weapons agency, Biopreparat, attempted and sometimes succeed in the 1970s to create chimeras combining the pathogenic effects of several agents. These bioengineered pathogens could look like one agent and act like another, making diagnosis more difficult. North Korea is thought to have obtained access to former Biopreparat microbiological experts and “weaponeers” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, meaning it is likely they have the technological capability to produce pathogenic chimeras.

Food industry microbiology personnel are urged to familiarize themselves with potential biological weapon agents,[5] including culturing and identification methodologies. In time of war, these people would be on the front lines of defense, alongside public health officials. The food and water supplies of the U.S. and our allies are a potential target for the North Korean military. If North Korea goes to war, the U.S and our allies will be targets for “total war,” meaning North Korea would be unconstrained and unrestricted in the kinds of weapons used, the territory or populations targeted, and the objectives pursued. Again, agricultural areas and food corporations would be likely targets alongside population centers.

Chemical Weapon Threats
Facts. North Korea has significant industrial capacity to produce large amounts of chemical weapons under the guise of other legitimate production programs, such as the production of pesticides. A 2016 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies indicates the military “…probably held between 3,000 and 3,500 metric tons of chemical warfare material, likely including 400 to 1,000 metric tons of sarin nerve agent in artillery shells. The rest could have been binary agents that would have become dangerous when mixed together.”[6

Another report by The Crisis Group states, “In recent years, there have been several reports of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] importing dual-use CW [chemical weapon] precursors, apparently because it ‘lacks a certain number of indigenous precursors.’ Several shipments have been intercepted before reaching the DPRK. Over the last decade, several South Korean firms exported sodium cyanide, a precursor for sarin (a nerve agent), to North Korea through China…”[7] Additionally, the report indicates, “In 2006, the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]’s unclassified assessment was that: “North Korea has had a longstanding CW program. North Korea’s chemical warfare capabilities probably include the ability to produce bulk quantities of nerve, blister, choking, and blood agents. We assess Pyongyang possesses a sizeable stockpile of agents.”[7]

Implications. It is important to note that the agents listed here are primarily battlefield weapons that can be delivered by missiles, aircraft or other means, but are not likely to be encountered by international food corporations, except possibly in the form of affected agriculture production areas. If this were to happen, affected livestock would perish, causing a carcass-disposal problem. North Korea would be expected to utilize a combination of chemical agents in a chemical weapons attack, including those of short duration effect (i.e., nerve agents) and persistent agents (e.g., mustard). Remediation of a large chemical weapons event affecting agricultural areas would be beyond the capabilities of even the largest food corporations.

Response strategies. Food corporations would be entirely dependent upon a military/government cleanup response and would likely lose access to agriculture/food processing facilities for months to years, perhaps even permanently in some cases. Although unlikely in the U.S., this scenario is remotely conceivable in South Korea and surrounding countries. Although it is a low probability even there, the effects of such an attack on the economy and trade are almost beyond measure. 

More likely would be a scenario involving industrial chemicals and sabotage. It is likely that North Korea has agents and sleeper cells spread throughout Asia as well as the technological knowledge to exploit advantage, using improvised weapons by way of locally available industrial chemicals. This improvised chemical weapons capability, combined with the ability to place knowledgeable adversaries within the food industries, should be considered by the food industry as a real threat to both brand quality and personnel safety. Any corporation unlucky enough to be targeted by North Korea would likely experience both a devastating effect on personnel, and an equally serious economic effect, given consumers would likely turn away from food products originating with the company because of contamination concerns. To be effective, a concerted effort at brand remediation would need to be initiated immediately, perhaps even before the contamination was cleaned up.

Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group ( He is a long-time consultant to the U.S. military and federal and state law enforcement agencies and is editor of Bob Norton’s Food Defense Blog ( He can be reached at or at 334.844.7562.  

4. Interestingly, the article accompanying the video report indicates that VX nerve agent can be used to attack people, by contaminating the water and or food supplies or via aerosol spray.

DISCLAIMER: Dr. Norton and production of this article were supported by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and the Hatch program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The article represents the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect official policy or statutory related opinion of the Federal Government, National Institute of Food and Agriculture and/or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

Categories: Management: Food Defense, International