Characterizing the Risks of North Korean Chemical and Biological Weapons, Electromagnetic Pulse, and Cyber Threats

To secure the survival of its regime, dominate the Republic of Korea (ROK), and impose unification of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has amassed a variety of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — nuclear, chemical, and biological — to include nuclear and likely conventional capabilities that produce highly destructive or even lethal electromagnetic pulse. It also has diverse offensive cyber capabilities that it uses for covert and illegal purposes. The authors of a RAND report focus on how the North could use, and does use, these weapons and capabilities to affect peacetime relations on the peninsula and to prepare for a major war with the ROK, as well as the possible effects of their employment on the military, on civilians, and on critical infrastructure.

The authors present a theory of deterrence and suggest how the ROK-U.S. alliance could rein in North Korean efforts to augment or enhance its WMD and cyber capabilities and deter the North from attacking the ROK and beyond. Throughout, the authors acknowledge the uncertainties involved and argue that any effective action on the part of the ROK-U.S. alliance will require recognizing and managing those uncertainties.

Key Findings

  • North Korea appears to have amassed a substantial inventory of chemical weapons but an unknown quantity of biological weapons. Also, it has significant nuclear capabilities and a very active cyber hacker force.
  • North Korea uses its nuclear weapons, rather than other WMD, for peacetime deterrence, coercion, and influence. It has actively employed its cyber capabilities in peacetime to collect information, steal money, and cause damage.
  • North Korean provocations in peacetime have the key internal purpose of demonstrating the power of the North Korean regime in an attempt to counteract its many failings. They serve the key external purposes of deterring threats to the North Korean regime and seeking to demonstrate North Korean superiority over the ROK, supporting Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea is a peer of the United States.
  • North Korea seeks to exercise influence over both South Korea and the United States through its provocations, which pose a risk of escalation to war, including the potential use of WMD.
  • In wartime, North Korea would likely employ all of its WMD and cyber capabilities, including nuclear weapons, hoping to win the conflict and avoid regime destruction. Use of these weapons would substantially transform the nature of a major war in Korea and cause immense damage to ROK and U.S. military capabilities and civil society.


  • Deter any North Korean limited employment of WMD and cyber capabilities by enhancing the ability to detect and attribute North Korean attacks.
  • Develop strategies and capabilities for a nuclear conflict, including surveillance and warning approaches, counterforce operations, active defenses, passive defenses, recovery and reconstitution, and civil defense.
  • Deter conflict by conveying to North Korea the costs it will pay for any provocations.
  • Undermine the Kim family regime’s justification for escalation of peninsula confrontations by demonstrating that neither the ROK nor the United States is hostile toward North Korea and by implementing a “carrot and stick” strategy to avoid North Korea’s refusal to negotiate.
  • Make reasonable and even generous proposals to North Korea in order to break the North’s negotiation impasse and shift the onus to the North if it refuses proposed ROK-U.S. agreements.
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