Chemical Weapons in The Asia-Pacific: History, Science, and Future Prospect
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Chemical Weapons in The Asia-Pacific: History, Science, and Future Prospect

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In this report, former policy advisors at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Jonathan Forman and Alexander Kelle revisit some of the darkest episodes of past wars to remind us of the experimentation and use of chemical weapons in the Asia-Pacific region and the problem presented by modern chemical industry and innovation for maintaining the modern non-use norm for chemical weapons.

Even as new disruptive technologies of warfare and deterrence emerge around the world, the specter of chemical weapons continues to be a near and present danger. As with nuclear fuel cycle facilities and fissile material, many chemicals are dual-use, that is, widely used in innocent commercial activity, but also usable as weapons. Moreover, the development of other types of chemicals (such nanomedicines that target specific cells or tissues) expands the range of possible chemical attacks compared with the indiscriminate nature of chemical gases or weapons used in the past.

The Asia-Pacific is home to five of the world’s top ten most highly resourced and funded states for scientific and technological research and development, as well as five of the top ten chemical producing states. Forman and Kelle observe that although the general trend suggests that fewer states possess chemical weapons today, thereby reducing the chances that they would be used in war, a credible threat of non-state actors weaponizing commercially available chemicals exists in the region. Whereas there is no publicly available hard evidence, the DPRK is widely assumed to be the only state in the Asia-Pacific region with a deployable chemical weapons arsenal.

Key Points from the Report include:

  • Asia-Pacific’s history of chemical weapons: The Asia-Pacific region has been exposed to the development and use of chemical weapons by both state and non-state actors over the past century, including the use of chemical weapon agents by Japanese imperial forces in China, US forward deployment of chemical weapons in Japan and its pursuit of “chemical extended deterrence” against the DPRK chemical weapons in the Cold War, ROK’s home-grown chemical weapons stockpile, and the destruction of the Russian Federation’s stockpile in 2017. To this day, even during the pandemic, Japan and China continue to remove and destroy residual chemical munitions abandoned by Japanese imperial forces in China, under the rubric of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The most notorious case of non-state actor use of chemical weapons in the region was by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo in 1995.
  • DPRK’s chemical weapons: The DPRK is believed to possess a well-developed chemical weapons program, including so-called “binary chemical warfare agents,” although no hard evidence is publicly available to confirm this. The United States and ROK authorities estimate that the DPRK has around 5,000 metric tonnes of various chemical warfare agents stockpiled, including highly toxic nerve agents. As per reports, DPRK may have also assisted Syria’s chemical weapons program. The DPRK has not signed nor ratified the CWC yet, and the OPCW would be required to be involved at a much higher level, beyond the regime’s standard operating procedures, to ensure the safe and irreversible destruction of DPRK chemical weapons under international verification.
  • The threat of chemical terrorism: The possession of chemical weapons by states in the Asia-Pacific has decreased significantly over the past two decades, thereby reducing the probability that such weapons would be used in a traditional war between States. chemical terrorism by non-state actors or those with state sponsorship, however, is a real possibility in the region. The large industrial base present in the Asia-Pacific presents potential targets for attacks on infrastructure that could result in chemical releases. Such attacks might also occur through cyber vulnerabilities, which requires non-traditional considerations toward chemical security in general.
  • Chemical weapon proliferation risks: Recent chemical incidents have demonstrated that low technology and non-traditional chemical threat approaches are used in chemical attacks. These approaches do not follow the Cold War doctrines that influenced drafting and negotiations of the CWC, which poses significant challenges to the ways in which we think about preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons and preparedness for countering chemical attacks in the 21st century world.
  • Contribution of science and technology: Scientific expertise and enhanced technical capability are a source of innovation and opportunity to better detect, prevent, and/or respond to chemical threats. At the same time, it is the actions and decisions of the States Parties of the CWC that drive success in prohibiting chemical weapons and preventing their re-emergence. As the CWC approaches its 25th anniversary in April 2022, the scientific contributions from Asia-Pacific alongside collaboration among (and beyond) the regional states will play a very significant role.

About the Authors

Jonathan FORMAN served as Science Policy Adviser at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) from March 2013 to January 2020. He has been a non-resident Scholar at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies since 2019.

Alexander KELLE is a Senior Researcher at the Berlin Office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He served as a Senior Policy Officer at the OPCW from February 2013 to December 2019.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: iStock/ amickman