The fight against chemical weapons appears to be steadily gaining ground. Following a U.S.- and Russian-brokered diplomatic deal, Syria has agreed to destroy its chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) even won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize

It is time for North Korea to join this historical momentum and dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal. China has a unique opportunity to play a leading role in convincing its ally that it has little to lose and much to gain from giving up these weapons. 

North Korea’s Chemical Weapons

The international community has long tried to limit the use of chemical weapons. The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited the “use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases.” The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention also banned their production and called for the destruction of all existing chemical weapons. 

North Korea signed the Geneva Protocol in January 1989, but it is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Unclassified estimates of North Korea’s chemical weapons arsenal are imprecise, but the consensus is that the Korean People’s Army possesses some 2,500–5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including blood agents and mustard, phosgene, and sarin gases. 

Pyongyang is also suspected of having exported chemical weapons or the know-how and technology to make them to various countries. The dangers of North Korea’s chemical arsenal—including those of proliferation and accidental or unauthorized chemical weapons attacks or incidents—mean the international community has a clear interest in getting Pyongyang to recognize the potential benefits of giving up these weapons. 

Failure to Deter Aggression

North Korea faces a growing strategic imbalance on the Korean Peninsula that likely fuels its desire to retain chemical weapons. Its conventional military capabilities are declining against those of its potential foes, including South Korea, forcing North Korea to rely on asymmetric capabilities to meet its national security objectives. Since it is unlikely that Pyongyang could win a war, its main strategic priority must be to avoid war entirely. This has prompted North Korea to seek deterrent weapons—or at least weapons that would be game changers for Pyongyang, even against an enemy with superior military capabilities. But chemical weapons are not the answer. 

The North Korean military elite can no longer consider chemical weapons deterrents. Recent events in Syria testify to the fact that chemical weapons do not deter would-be aggressors. Quite the opposite—the Syrian regime’s possession and use of chemical weapons elicited a strong international reaction, including statements by U.S. and French leaders that they were considering military strikes against Syria that would have seriously damaged the state’s military capacities. Damascus agreed to dismantle its chemical arsenal because it no longer considered its chemical weapons to be deterrents that would help ensure the regime’s survival.

Any North Korean use of chemical weapons, even in a local skirmish with the South Korean army, would trigger a response even stronger than that to the Syrian incident. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, recently presented their new “tailored deterrence” strategy to prevent Pyongyang from militarily provoking Seoul. Hagel stipulated that any “North Korean use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable.”

Assuming that chemical weapons serve as deterrents only because they are so-called weapons of mass destruction would be a mistake. Chemical weapons are not on the same strategic level as nuclear weapons, which are deterrent weapons par excellence because of their destructive and symbolic power. Pyongyang should think of chemical weapons as just another kind of conventional weapon with no particular strategic interest for North Korea. 

Lack of Proliferation Partners 

Pyongyang no longer earns economic benefits from proliferating chemical weapons and weapons-related technologies. All importers of North Korean chemical weapons, including Syria, Libya, Myanmar, Egypt, and Iran, have progressively stopped making these acquisitions. 

Syria can no longer buy chemical weapons because it is closely monitored by the OPCW. Any breach of its international commitment to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal would expose Damascus to major retaliation that even Syrian allies such as Russia would not have legal grounds to oppose. 

Imports by Libya are similarly unlikely. Since the collapse of former leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, Libyan imports of weapons systems have been monitored by Western intelligence agencies.

Other countries are hesitant to damage tenuous ties to the West, and the United States in particular, by partnering with Pyongyang on chemical weapons. Myanmar has been engaged in a process of political reform and rapprochement with Western countries. Dealing with North Korea on chemical weapons would destroy Myanmar’s changing global image and reverse the international gains of its reform. 

Egypt is conscious of the fact that its relations with the United States have deteriorated in the wake of a July 2013 military coup that overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and a subsequent regime crackdown. Cairo knows U.S.-Egypt ties would deteriorate further if it cooperated with North Korea. 

Even Iran is showing signs of wanting to warm up its relations with the West and reach an international agreement on the nuclear issue. Any attempt to import chemical weapons from North Korea would send the wrong signal to the countries currently attempting to negotiate with Tehran. It would likely also ruin Iran’s efforts to have some of the economic sanctions levied against it removed. 

Increased Domestic and International Legitimacy

North Korea has never publicly acknowledged its chemical arsenal, and its chemical weapons are not enshrined in the constitution or any public strategic military guidelines. In sharp contrast to its use of the country’s nuclear-weapons program, the regime has never publicized its chemical weapons to strengthen its leadership. As a result, dismantling chemical weapons facilities and stocks probably would not hurt the regime’s identity or weaken its foundations. 

To the contrary, North Korea could reap a number of domestic benefits and increase the legitimacy of the government in Pyongyang by dismantling its chemical weapons arsenal. The regime would be able to portray itself as having taken the moral high ground and, in particular, as being morally superior to countries that have used chemical weapons—such as Japan, North Korea’s historical enemy, which used chemical weapons during the Second World War. The argument that voluntarily giving up its arsenal affords North Korea greater moral standing than Japan would likely resonate with the North Korean people, who are well steeped in the historical animosities between the two countries.

Destroying its chemical weapons would also allow the regime to reallocate part of the resources it currently spends on maintaining this costly arsenal to alleviating domestic hardships and increasing North Koreans’ standard of living. This would help Pyongyang fulfill its national objective of economic development and increase its legitimacy and popularity in the eyes of average North Koreans. 

And by giving up its chemical weapons, North Korea could begin a process of changing its international image. Voluntarily destroying its chemical arsenal would challenge the perception of North Korea as an irrational country prone to increasing international tensions through provocations and make it appear, for one of the first times, as a responsible actor. 

It would also be a smart way for Pyongyang to restart a dialogue with the international community. Global actors are currently focused only on the denuclearization of North Korea, and their top priority will continue to be creating a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But that does not preclude the international community from attempting to address the North Korean chemical weapons issue. And a united international front against chemical weapons would reinforce for Pyongyang that giving up its arsenal would serve its national interests. 

China’s Opportunity 

China, which is both party to all international treaties on chemical weapons and one of North Korea’s few allies, could play a major role in convincing Pyongyang to destroy its chemical arsenal.

Beijing appeared unwilling to shape the world’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It stood in the background while Russia took the lead in brokering a deal with Damascus. This made Russia appear, in a way, more responsible than China, which took a very passive stance at a time when the world could have benefited from Beijing’s participation and leadership. But it is not too late for China to reverse that course.

In North Korea, China has a chance to prove that it is a responsible stakeholder in the international community and on the Korean Peninsula. Facilitating Pyongyang’s chemical disarmament—China could, for instance, offer to destroy part of North Korea’s stock of chemical weapons on its territory—would also increase Beijing’s international prestige as a rising power.

In addition, it would send a strong signal to the world—and the United States in particular—that China is not only ready to cooperate on key global issues but is even taking the lead. This would afford Beijing an opportunity to give substantive meaning to the concept of a “new type of great-power relationship” that Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to define future U.S.-China relations. Decisive steps by Beijing to address North Korean chemical weapons would transform Xi’s abstract concept, which some in Washington have criticized as empty rhetoric, into concrete actions and would reveal a new, modern China that is proactive on the international scene.

Convincing Pyongyang to give up its chemical weapons arsenal will not be an easy task. But, with China’s help, the North Korean regime may come to see that the benefits of taking this historic step far outweigh the limited gains to be had by stubbornly maintaining its chemical weapons.

Antoine Bondaz is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and a program coordinator at the Paris-based Asia Center.