What to make of Kim Yo Jong’s twisted COVID ‘revenge’ threat against South Korea

SEOUL — The little sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong, is threatening germ warfare in retaliation for balloon launches from South Korea which she accuses of spreading COVID-19 in the North.

Kim Yo Jong, in a speech broadcast on North Korean state television, said that after considering “various countermeasure plans, our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory measure.”

Her remark suggests that she and her brother are not only fed up with defectors from North Korea launching balloons from the South carrying anti-North propaganda, but are determined to respond in the same way. The logical answer to his claim that the South is sending the dreaded disease to the North, it is feared, would be for North Korea to inflict disease on the South.

“If the enemy persists in such dangerous acts as fomenting incursions of the virus into our Republic,” the Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang quotes her as saying, “we will respond to it not only by exterminating the virus but also by wiping out the south (sic) Korean authorities.

The fact that North Korean television showed Kim Yo Jong giving a speech was a sure sign of the seriousness of the message. Previously, when she voiced her brother’s views more boldly than he would like publicly, she was quoted in news reports, not live on television.

Kim Yo Jong, whose only title is deputy department director of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, ranks at or near the top of the regime’s hierarchy. Should burly Kim Jong Un, 38, whose health is still in question, die or be incapacitated, Yo Jong, 34, would inevitably be a high-profile possibility to succeed him.

None of this means she’s about to take over soon or that she has the power to do anything Kim Jong Un didn’t order. She spoke at a meeting convened by the party’s central committee in which it “solemnly declared the victory of the anti-epidemic campaign of maximum urgency for the extermination of the new coronavirus”.

North Korean television quoted her as saying her brother led the anti-virus campaign even though he contracted the virus himself. “He was battling a fever but couldn’t rest because he was worried about people,” she reportedly said.

Kim Yo Jong’s call for revenge against the South recalled that North Korea has focused on biological and chemical warfare as weapons of mass destruction in addition to the nuclear program which it says is necessary for the self-defense.

“Kim Yo Jong’s threats are not empty statements.”

“The North has the capacity to produce traditional infectious biological warfare agents or toxins and biological weapons,” said a study two years ago by the Federation of American Scientists. “If North Korea chose to employ biological weapons, it could likely use agents like anthrax, plague, or yellow fever against water and food supplies in the southern rear area.”

However, Kim Yo Jong may have to wait before the North can actually wage biological warfare. The non-profit organization Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington estimated that North Korea “possesses a range of pathogen samples that could be weaponized, and the technical capabilities to do so, rather than biological weapons. deployed and ready to use”.

Nonetheless, “Kim Yo Jong’s threats are not empty statements,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international relations at Ewha University in Seoul, told The Daily Beast. He thought, however, that before resorting to weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans “could fire on leaflet balloons and could even try to bomb what they believe to be launch sites in South Korea.”

Kim Yo Jong’s claims “about the coronavirus entering the country via the southern border,” he said, “are more domestic propaganda than military escalation.”

Retired Army Colonel David Maxwell, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told The Daily Beast “a biological warfare attack is a possibility” but asked, “For what purpose?”

The North “certainly wouldn’t claim it because it could invite retaliation,” he said. While it “should never be dismissed”, he argued, “I fail to see how a biological attack would support the regime’s current goals”.

Steve Tharpe, a retired US Army officer here, told The Daily Beast that “biological agents are much more difficult to control than nuclear weapons and chemical agents” and require “great caution in their employment. to avoid inadvertently harming the North Korean military and/or people”. ”

In fact, North Korea is more likely to show its anger at the leaflets by conducting a seventh underground nuclear test, its first since September 2017.

“When North Korea conducts its next nuclear test, it will say in its public statements that it is necessary to protect itself from the aggressive and provocative behavior of the South,” said Bruce Bechtol, author of numerous books and articles on the North’s military. -Korean. leadership, told the Daily Beast. The North would claim the test was “purely a necessary defensive measure in order to enhance their ‘deterrence’.”

Evans Revere, a retired senior US diplomat who specializes in North Korean issues, told The Daily Beast that the North “has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons”, but attributed Kim Yo Jong’s “threats to bluster usual in Pyongyang”.

Nevertheless, “experience also tells us that we have to keep a watchful eye in case the North Koreans decide to do something stupid.”

Bruce Bennett, a Korean expert at RAND, doubted that Kim Yo Jong “understands much about biological weapons”. She needs to know, he said, “that the American threat of eliminating the North Korean regime if it uses nuclear weapons could be extended to include eliminating the North Korean regime if it uses biological weapons.

Kim Yo Jong, however, may be losing patience.

“We can no longer ignore the uninterrupted influx of trash from South Korea,” she said. The fact that COVID-19 was first reported near the line between the two Koreas “made us suspect the dastardly ones in South Korea”, she explained. “It is quite natural for us to regard strange objects as vehicles of malignant pandemic disease.”

South Korea, under a law passed when liberal Moon Jae-in was president, bars defectors from launching the balloons over the North, but authorities have not enforced it much since the inauguration of Moon’s successor, conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, in May.

The Unification Ministry, responsible for South Korea’s relations with the North, said Kim Yo Jong’s claims were not only “baseless”, but “tremendously crude and threatening”. The South, a spokesperson said, was “ready for all possibilities.”

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