US officials believe the North Korean regime has likely obtained the machinery needed to create biological weapons – potentially using bacteria and viruses to attack its enemies.
The country's notorious leader, Kim Jong-un, is now sending potential scientists abroad to study "advanced degrees" in microbiology to fill in the technical blanks that have dogged bioweapon development in past years, reported The Washington Post Sunday (10 December).
Citing US and Asian intelligence officials, the newspaper said that North Korea could now be toying with genetic modification, however noted there was little consensus on whether Jong-un had officially ordered production of actual weapons beyond small samples.
Like its work on nuclear capabilities, North Korea is known to keep its warfare programmes a secret from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence agencies.
Yet according to the Post, US officials were alarmed following a June report from the North's state media, which ran a segment about Jong-un visiting a fully-stocked biotechnical institute in the capital city of Pyongyang. It was for pesticides, it said.
But to the men and women watching from Washington DC, and other governments around the world, the news report was a cause for concern. Despite heavy sanctions, the regime had seemingly acquired industrial-scale tech which could be used to grow live microbes in bulk.
"That the North Koreans have [biological] agents is known, by various means," one senior US official familiar told The Washington Post, adding: "The lingering question is, why have they acquired the materials and developed the science, but not yet produced weapons?"
The source, who was not identified as he or she was discussing sensitive military matters, admitted that the US government may find it difficult to track the North Korean government's bioweapon programme, if it exists, as it would be integrated into "civilian" agricultural factories.
The primary fear is that biological pathogens could be unleashed by the regime, and it is believed that the rogue nation already has the ability to create samples of smallpox, anthrax and plague.
A separate former military official said: "It's a presumption that they have it and will use it."
In recent weeks, North Korea has been engaged in a war-of-words with US president Donald Trump, amid rising concerns from the US about ongoing nuclear weapon testing.
"We do not wish for a war but shall not hide from it," was the line from the North's foreign ministry on 7 December. Days earlier, two dozen American jets mobilised in the region for an aerial drill - a strong, united, show of force with South Korea following Jong-un's recent actions.
Prior to that, Donald Trump's national security advisor, HR McMaster, told a US national security conference that the chance of a conflict with North Korea was "increasing every day."