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Indo-Pacific partners prepare for bioweapons threats

Felix Kim

Indo-Pacific Allies and Partners remain alert to the threat of biological and chemical weapons, with a recent report citing North Korea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as Iran and Russia, as countries of concern. In response, like-minded nations are reinforcing military preparedness to protect civilians in the event of an attack from state or nonstate actors and working to implement verification of the United Nations’ Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

“When one looks at the capabilities today for developing biological weapons, the equipment is much more readily available, the know-how is much more available,” Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. and author of “Bioterror in the 21st Century: Emerging Threats in a New Global Environment,” told FORUM. “One of the limiting factors that we’ve all seen though is generally the terrorists who have expressed interest have had a hard time acquiring a suitable pathogen. But it doesn’t mean we’re going to be lucky forever.”

Republic of Korea and U.S. Soldiers train in a simulated chemical weapons site during Operation Centurion Blitz in Dongducheon, South Korea, in January 2023. VIDEO CREDIT: PVT. ASHLEY XIE/U.S. ARMY

Threats stem from accelerating scientific progress, the vast expansion of unregulated laboratories and states’ investment in bioweapons, according to the 2023 Biodefense Posture Review (BPR), published by the U.S. Defense Department in August.

North Korea, for example, is pursuing pathogens that cause highly infectious or contagious diseases such as anthrax and plague, as well as lethal toxins such as botulinum toxin, the review stated.

“At a very, very high level between the South Korean government and the U.S. government, there is concern about the use of biological weapons,” Gerstein said, characterizing a possible attack as a biological agent being distributed over a densely populated metropolitan area such as Seoul or Tokyo.

Seoul and Washington together are addressing the threat of biological and chemical weapons, including through joint exercises in June and October 2023, according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The exercises strengthened cross-level laboratory capabilities and enhanced interoperability. Each included personnel from the Republic of Korea Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Command, and the U.S. Army’s 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives Command and 1st Area Medical Laboratory.

The BWC, which took effect in 1975, prohibits the use of all biological weapons and has been ratified by more than 180 U.N. member states. However, the convention lacks a system of formal verification, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The U.S. has identified North Korea and Russia as possessing materials in violation of the BWC.

The Philippines, meanwhile, is working to enhance BWC compliance and verification, according to Jesus S. Domingo, undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Affairs at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

The nation sent a delegation to the ninth BWC review conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in late 2022 and established the CBRN Center of Excellence in Southeast Asia in Manila in 2018, Domingo wrote in The Korea Times newspaper in March 2023.

The Philippines also has hosted bilateral CBRN training and capacity-building initiatives with partners including Australia, the European Union and the U.S.

Felix Kim is a FORUM correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea.

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