How Covid-19 could give Kim Jong Un a weapon from the end of the world

Some countries are also governed by The rules of the Australia Group, whose 41 members, including the United States, Britain and Japan, agreed to control exports that could be used for biological weapons. (China is not a member of the forum but has its own similar controls).

When it comes to export controls, “a lot depends on the end user in North Korea and the purpose … [the equipment is] it’s going to be used for, “says Weber. And some might see the Covid-19 as a time to lower the bar.” The humanitarian impulses are so strong due to the pandemic that they will nullify any concerns about indirectly contributing to the illegal biological weapons program. from North Korea, “he says.” This is a perfect opportunity to import technology. ”

Harrell is more skeptical. “I think, at the end of the day, if the US had any concerns that the equipment could be used for biological weapons, it would veto approval [in the U.N. sanctions committee], even in the face of some criticism, “he says.

Kim’s regime could also be looking for more than just equipment. the The Covid-19 vaccine race, in which laboratories around the world are experimenting with new vaccine technologies at a speed never seen before, is an opportunity for North Korean scientists, who often read and replicate Western medical studies , gain valuable knowledge.

“There are traditional vaccines and then there are some new technologies that are emerging like mRNA vaccines,” says Weber. “[North Korea] It could follow not only traditional approaches, but also some of the more modern approaches that employ genetic sequencing. … I’m not saying that the driver is not a legitimate interest in having a vaccine, but [bioweapons are] a collateral benefit. “

Most rogue regimes aim to reflect the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, says Bennett, where the goal was “to develop weapons for which there is no counter … no vaccine, no treatment.” Today, he fears, “North Korea might be looking [a pathogen] that no one else has a vaccine to counter. So they would be doing vaccine work in part to understand how Covid virus vaccines might work and what they could do to do something more effective. ”

Scientist Robert Duane Shelton, who studied science and technology in North Korea, says a Covid-19-like virus could be an end-of-the-world weapon for a small country. “It is cheap to do. It could break free against your enemies, and since you know what the virus is, you could have developed the vaccine a long time ago and even immunize your army and perhaps your entire population against it. ”

North Korea could have Many other reasons to search for a Covid-19 vaccine.

In interviews, analysts widely agreed that although it is impossible to know for sure, North Korea has likely seen Covid-19 cases but did not experience a major outbreak. (Publicly, the country insisted there were no cases until earlier this week, when state media said a defector who returned from South Korea was showing symptoms similar to those of Covid-19.) This situation was due to the extreme measures the state took very early to contain the virus, from closing its borders to quarantining more than 25,000 people.

But North Korea still needs a vaccine, both to reopen its struggling economy and to protect its people from an outbreak that could devastate the country. Instead of relying on foreign countries to disburse precious and potentially expensive doses, why not try making one? (North Korea’s official state ideology, Juche, means “self-sufficiency”). “North Korea’s strategy is clear,” says Harvard Medical School’s Park. “They recognize if there is a major outbreak, [their] hospitals are not equipped to handle a surge. “

“Guns shouldn’t be our first thought here,” says Pollack. “It is about the economy. It is about following through on Kim Jong Un’s promises to boost the economy, which is in a sorry state at the moment. “

Another possible objective: profit. Margaret Kosal, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, points to North Korea’s story of creating counterfeit drugs to sell in developing countries, drugs that generally resemble real ones but don’t necessarily work. North Koreans “are some of the best at drug counterfeiting,” she says. “They were some of the first producers of fake Viagra.”

Andrei Lankov, a Korean studies specialist and director of the Korea Risk Group, says he doesn’t think a functional vaccine will come out of North Korea, his biotech industry simply doesn’t have the talent and resources. The vaccine announcement, he believes, is mainly about Kim looking strong and powerful.

“Recently, they have done a lot of things that were reasonably irrational just because the leader said it should be done,” he says.