Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Experts Ponder Industry’s Place in Kim’s DPRK; South Korea Eyes Collaborations

Two years and a month before exchanging handshakes with President Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un included biotechnology among several core technologies to which he said North Korea would target future R&D efforts.

Addressing the 7th Party Congress on May 8, 2016, Kim stated that science and technology should “open the way to economic development” through development of biotech as well as IT, nanotech, new materials, alternative energy, space technology, and nuclear technology, according to a detailed analysis published in The Asia-Pacific Journal by Prof. Rüdiger Frank, Ph.D., of the University of Vienna.

The commitment to relationship-building expressed at the June 12 summit by the U.S. and North Korea—officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—creates arguably a new avenue for the DPRK to pursue economic development through biotech and other sciences and technologies. Trump and Kim signed a joint statement committing to “cooperate for the development of new U.S.-DPRK relations and for the promotion of peace, prosperity, and security of the Korean Peninsula and of the world.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, for Westerners and other outsiders to express with certainty what role biotech will play toward fulfilling those commitments within the DPRK, since the government has communicated only sketchy information about its biotech facilities and efforts, which include civilian as well as military applications.

“We—meaning the nations outside of North Korea—should be very careful about what medical and research equipment we do provide them,” Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a senior analyst for 38 North, a website that analyzes events in and around North Korea, told GEN.

“They have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness and their ability to use equipment destined for other uses in their WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program,” added Bermudez, who follows North Korean defense and intelligence affairs in his capacity as CEO and founder of KPA Associates LLC.

For example, one biotech site touted in numerous reports from the DPRK is the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute run by Korean People’s Army Unit 810. According to a 2015 report by 38 North, the Institute “can produce regular, military-sized batches of biological weapons, specifically anthrax.”

“The North Korean assertion that the plant is intended to produce insecticides is an old and well-used cover for a biological weapons program,” the report stated.

Publicly, however, the DPRK has emphasized the Institute’s civilian-focused facilities. The Institute was originally called the Aeguk Compound Microbe Center, “founded in June 1997 pursuant to Kim Jong Il’s orders for the creation of microbial fertilizers suitable for North Korea’s geographical conditions,” according to NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative), a nonprofit policy institute focused on reducing reliance on, and the threat of, nuclear weapons.

“Vitamin C Factory”

On August 9, 2013, the DPRK’s official news agency KCNA touted the opening of a “Vitamin C Factory” within the campus as being inspired by Kim’s father: “The factory helps make another achievement in carrying out the behests of leader Kim Jong Il, who worked heart and soul to improve the standard of people’s living, and will greatly contributing to promoting health of the people.”

Two years later in July 2015, Kim visited the Institute, leading to photos in state media of the DPRK leader speaking in front of gleaming, seemingly advanced bioprocessing equipment. 38 North asserted that the images “reveal that North Korea is not only maintaining a biological weapons capability, but also has an active, large-scale sanctions-busting effort to illicitly procure the equipment for the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute.”

John V. Parachini, director of The RAND Corporation’s Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center, told GEN: “The one thing you do get from photographs is that the regime is able to import some technologies that were believed to have been restricted. How they actually get used is really not clear.”

The summit, he said, offers potential for both positive and negative results. On the upside, he said, the nature of the U.S.-DPRK relationship has seemingly changed: The prospect of war seems less likely that it did several months ago.

“With that, maybe there’s a slight degree of greater transparency. With greater transparency, nations tend to be reluctant to leverage dual-use facilities for pernicious purposes,” Dr. Parachini said.

On the downside, he added, outsiders remain in the dark about what is occurring inside North Korea in general, and about its weapons programs in particular.

“That would include some dual-use technologies, particularly in the biotech area, where North Korea has been very eager to demonstrate to the world it's capabilities with missiles and with nuclear weapons—in contrast to its chemical weapons, biological weapons, where it has largely been opaque, and they, with very few exceptions, have said very little and shown very little,” Dr. Parachini said.

Even if it were to exhibit greater transparency, he said, biotech’s leading nations in Asia and the West will remain far ahead of the DPRK for years to come.

“They're economically behind, they’ve been under very robust sanctions, and their interaction with the outside world has been less, so the whole scientific freedom environment that leads to innovation, they've really denied themselves of that, as well as the international community has denied them for their transgressions,” Dr. Parachini observed.

Looking to South Korea

If the DPRK intends to advance its civilian biotech capabilities, one key to doing so will be opening itself up to collaborations with institutions and biotech businesses across the 38th parallel in South Korea.

South Korea—officially the Republic of Korea (ROK)—has grown into Asia’s fourth-largest biopharma cluster as ranked by GEN last year. The ROK is home to 230 biotech and 133 pharma companies, according to the Korean Biotech Database maintained by Venture Valuation and Biotechgate—while R&D spending reached $79.354 billion in 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  

“From now on, the DPRK and ROK have to collaborate on healthcare issues to turn DPRK people's health condition into normal level, similar to that of ROK, hopefully,” Seong Jun Yoo, Ph.D., managing director and senior analyst of Korea Bio-Economy Research Center at the Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization (KoreaBIO), told GEN. “Biotechnology will contribute to improve their (the DPRK’s) healthcare together with healthcare service including various medications and medical care of the advanced ROK system.”

One thing North Korea has shown observers, Bermudez said, is a penchant for developing a biotech workforce despite lagging in technology. In their high school years, students’ talents and political reliability are assessed by the ruling Korean Worker's Party, which places the students into specific career tracks, into colleges specializing in those fields, then into a field of work and study.

“If you take a country of approximately 24 million [a 2008 estimate by the DPRK’s Central Bureau of Statistics], you can each year bring in 100 in each field who are really the top of the top of the top of their areas,” Bermudez noted. “You can put them into environments that encourage them to excel at what they're doing. And they get rewarded. They are rewarded by the state for being successful. They have privileges that are far above those of the average citizen. And this encourages even more creativity and more dedication to their field.”

“You create a small but highly trained dedicated body in very narrow, specific fields. There's no reason not to believe that this is the same for the BW [biological weapons] program,” according to Bermudez.

“Capabilities Remain Limited”

Since 2000, he said, the DPRK has plowed resources into efforts toward mitigating some of their medical issues, including epidemics and public diseases: “They haven't been terribly successful. Their capabilities remain limited. They don’t have the ability to scale.”

With that said, Bermudez added, statements from defectors and officials from the U.S. and East Asian countries have reinforced that the DPRK has made moves toward pursuing a BW program—despite having ratified the Biological Weapons Convention in 1987.

“It is primarily defensive in nature. and they are dedicating resources to it,” Bermudez said. “Its technology is at the upper end of the middle, if I could describe that that well—the reason being that North Korea and its health system, and its medical system in general, is not capable of dealing with a BW attack, as is evidenced by their inability to handle the outbreaks, the epidemics, of bird flu, and of a whole slew of flus and other illnesses, including TB for the past 10–15 years.”

The effects of those illnesses have been aggravated by the famine of the 1990s, referred within the DPRK as “The Arduous March.” The DPRK government has claimed 225,000 to 235,000 people died during the famine, while former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Andrew Natsios estimated between 2.5 million and 3.5 million deaths in his 2001 book “The Great North Korean Famine: Famine, Politics, and Foreign Policy.”

“They understand that if they unleash a BW attack, that it can't be controlled, and it's probably more harmful to them than it would be to the South Koreans, the Japanese, or the United States—whose populations are much better vaccinated, and their health systems are far superior and more responsive to a medical emergency,” Bermudez added.

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