Documenting Chemical Weapons Facilities Along the DPRK’s Northern Frontier
As documented on this website, recent changes in the DPRK have prompted renewed assertions by Chinese think-tank intellectuals that now is the time for North Korea to back away from the “military-first” policy which had so distinguished – some might even say marred — Kim Jong-Il’s reign. While the public justification for this recommendation in China is invariably either described as a.) North Korea’s nuclear weapons provoke the U.S. and/or b) economic development needs to come first, there are in fact much more local and pragmatic reasons for China to encourage North Korea to reduce its arms production and proliferation. Among the most significant aspects of that production, all the more potent for so rarely being openly discussed in China, are North Korea’s chemical weapons.
Today’s post describes the possibility of local threats to China’s security posed by North Korean chemical weapons production near the frontier. This is the first in a series of posts by Jende Huang, SinoNK’s Border Security Analyst. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
Documenting Chemical Weapons Facilities Along the DPRK’s Northern Frontier
by Jende Huang
How concerned should the Chinese government be about the number of DPRK chemical production facilities so close to the shared border?
As reported late in 2009, the Chinese military had detected Sarin gas drifting toward Dandong twice (in November 2008 and February 2009, respectively). The Sinuiju Chemical Fibre Complex sits across the Yalu River perhaps only a mile or so from Dandong, and is a ready suspect as the source of the gas.
A 2009 report by the International Crisis Group on the DPRK’s biological and chemical weapons (see references) does not list Sinuiju as a location for chemical weapons development or storage. However, over a decade ago, the Federation of American Scientists noted its belief that the Chemical Fibre Complex was a chemical weapons producing facility.
In an interesting side note, North Korea’s ongoing endeavors to secure international funding and assistance for environmental cleanup (about which Peter Hayes at Nautilus remains the foremost scholarly authority) have resulted in some uncomfortable interactions with the UN. The United Nations Environmental Program has had some experience with the Chemical Fibre Complex. As part of the implementation of the Montreal Protocol, the UNEP was in Sinuiju to assist the North Koreans with phasing out of CTC (the use of which can deplete the ozone layer) in the facility. However, the UNEP almost inadvertently became proliferators of dual-use technology; $400,000 USD of equipment that had been ordered by the agency for use in the Complex was ultimately “deemed to fall under the dual-use restrictions of the International Chemical Weapons Convention and had been detained at the Chinese port.” This equipment, which could not be brought into the DPRK, was quickly sold off for $50,000USD.
The 2009 ICG report lists four chemical weapons sites on the border with China. Specific names of facilities are not provided, but location and types of facilities are noted:
a) Ch’ongsu (chem plant)
b) Manp’o (chem plant)
c) Kanggye (CW production and R&D)
d) Haksong-ri (dual use chem plant)
A 2004 International Institute for Strategic Studies dossier notes five “major North Korean civilian chemical production facilities” that sit on the border with China:
e) Sinuiju Chemical Fibre Complex
f) Chongsu Chemical Complex
g) Manpo Chemical Factory
h) Hyesan Chemical Factory
i) Aoji-ri Chemical Complex.
In looking at the reports as a whole, it appears that there are an aggragate of six chemical facilities along the border. The IISS report, in other words, adds two civilian locations to the ICG’s list of four suspected chemical weapon sites. Overlap sites are in Chougsu, Manpo, as well as the Aoji-ri Chemical Complex, which, according to NTI, is located near a mine in Haksong-ri.
Approximately 40 kilometers from the Chinese border town Ji’an, the chemical weapon site in Kanggye is of particular interest. The ICG report, citing an “internal third country government memorandum made available to Crisis Group,” states that the DPRK’s main chemical weapons “research facility is co-located with a production plant in Kanggye City, Chagang Province.” According to the Chosun Ilbo, “the Bio-chemical research center affiliated with the military is located next to the Kanggye plant,” quoting a North Korean defector. “The toxic gases produced at the research center are loaded onto warheads manufactured at the plant.”
Both the report and the defector quoted above are referring to the Kanggye General Tractor Plant No 26, the apparent center of the DPRK’s weapons production, which includes chemical weapons. Accompanied by Kim Jong-Un, the late Kim Jong-Il’s most recent field guidance tour to the Tractor Plant was on 7 April 2011. At that time, KCNA reported, they then visited the Kanggye Koryo Medicine Factory. Though it wasn’t stated how close the Tractor Plant and Medicine Factory are, it’s probable that the latter is the research center spoken of by the defector and ICG report. After all, if the Kims were already inspecting a weapons factory, it would make sense for them visit the adjacent facility producing the banned chemicals.
Wikimapia gives a location for the Tractor Plant at 40°57’34″N 126°36’33″E. If accurate, potential locations for the Medicine Factory include:
-Квартал Наммун (Nammun Quarter 40°57’42″N 126°36’9″E) to the north
-Квартал Сокхён (Sokha Quarter 40°57’18″N 126°36’0″E) to the west
-The set of buildings on the north bank of the river/dam that the Wikimapia identifies as part of the Tractor Factory
With a major chemical weapons research facility and plant some 40 kilometers from the border with China, as well as several other sites sitting across the river from Chinese populations, Beijing has plenty of cause for concern. The two releases of sarin gas by Dandong suggests either there were two separate problems at their facility which led to the respective releases, or the North Koreans thought they have fixed the problem after the November 2008 release, only to see it reoccur after trying to restart the process in February 2009.
Safety lapses can of course occur in any nation, and in the DPRK, safety protocols potentially take a backseat to production goals and party loyalties. Though the Chinese government may continue to loudly expound on about the strength of the Sino-DPRK friendship, Beijing should be wary of being put in a difficult position. With the Chinese public protesting domestic chemical factories (as in Dalian in August 2011) and being restive about nuclear pollution from Japan, the reaction could be much more severe if people were sickened or died from chemicals wafting in across the border from the DPRK.
International Crisis Group. North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs Crisis Group Asia Report N°167. 2009. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/north-east-asia/north-korea/167-north-koreas-chemical-and-biological-weapons-programs.aspx
International Institute for Strategic Studies. North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) Programmes in North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A Net Assesment. 2004. http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/north-korean-dossier/north-koreas-weapons-programmes-a-net-asses/north-koreas-chemical-and-weapons-cbw-prog
Nautilus Institute at RMIT. Enduring Legacies: Economic Dimensions Of Restoring North Korea’s Environment. 1994. http://rmit.nautilus.org/publications/north-korea-environment.html
United Nations Environment Programme. Project Proposal: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Montreal, Quebec Canada.: Executive Committee of the Multilateral Fund, 2009. http://www.multilateralfund.org/sites/59/Document%20Library2/1/5929.pdf