North Korean Chemical Plant Might Fuel Weapons Effort

A South Korean soldier participates in a chemical weapons response drill in Seoul last November. A massive expansion of North Korea's premier chemical complex is likely to benefit the nation's chemical weapons production efforts, concludes a new expert analysis.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 11, 2014, 7:10 a.m.

A massive con­struc­tion ef­fort by North Korea to ex­pand a chem­ic­al-pro­cessing com­plex might be fuel­ing a weapons pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

For the last eight years, Py­ongy­ang has been work­ing on a “ma­jor ef­fort to mod­ern­ize” the Nam­hung Youth Chem­ic­al Com­plex, the ex­pert web­site 38 North said in an im­age ana­lys­is pub­lished on Thursday. First con­struc­ted in the 1970s, the com­plex pro­duces much of the isol­ated coun­try’s fer­til­izers, in­sect­icides and herb­i­cides.

But ac­cord­ing to Ja­pan­ese and South Korean of­fi­cials — as well as North Korean de­fect­ors — the site also plays a role in the gen­er­a­tion of chem­ic­al-war­fare ma­ter­i­als.

The fa­cil­ity’s mod­ern­iz­a­tion “has the po­ten­tial to ma­ter­i­ally im­prove the quant­ity and qual­ity of the North Korean chem­ic­al weapons in­vent­ory,” wrote North Korean de­fense ex­pert Joseph Ber­mudez.

Though it is dif­fi­cult to de­term­ine what spe­cif­ic chem­ic­al-weapon func­tions the Nam­hung com­plex per­forms, it ap­pears the site pro­duces chem­ic­al weapon pre­curs­ors that are then trans­por­ted else­where for mix­ing and pour­ing in­to mu­ni­tions, ac­cord­ing to the 38 North ana­lys­is. The as­sess­ment is based on sur­veil­lance satel­lite pho­to­graphs, in­clud­ing some taken as re­cently as Decem­ber, as well as pub­lished North Korean pro­pa­ganda im­ages.

Ber­mudez points spe­cific­ally to the con­struc­tion of an an­thra­cite coal gas­i­fic­a­tion fa­cil­ity as be­ing likely to be­ne­fit North Korea’s chem­ic­al-weapons pro­gram. An­thra­cite coal — of which North Korea has sig­ni­fic­ant de­pos­its — is an in­gredi­ent used to make carbide. That sub­stance, in turn, is needed in the pro­duc­tion of mus­tard agent, ac­cord­ing to a 2003 ana­lys­is by the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies. An­thra­cite gas­i­fic­a­tion is also used to pro­duce fer­til­izer.

Since 2011, the an­thra­cite gas­i­fic­a­tion plant has had at least two pro­cessing lines, said 38 North, a pro­ject of the U.S.-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity.

Between 2006 and 2013, roughly 106 fa­cil­it­ies and in­dus­tri­al struc­tures were built at the chem­ic­al com­plex, “an un­pre­ced­en­ted en­deavor dur­ing a polit­ic­ally tur­bu­lent and eco­nom­ic­ally con­strained peri­od,” Ber­mudez said.

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