Features

Death by experiment

North Korea | An extensive chemical testing program shows how far North Korea will go to achieve a WMD arsenal

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

In a café in Seoul, South Korea, Chun Ji Seung explained he was desperately sorry for what he had done. He was tall for a North Korean, a member of the well-fed elite that knew little of the starvation of millions in the closed nation. With that privilege, he applied his training in chemistry to test poisonous gases, gases the Kim Jong Il regime eventually tested on humans.

The 31-year-old Mr. Chun-whose name is an alias-said such experiments were conducted as recently as 2002, when he escaped to the South. Similar accounts have trickled out over the last decade, but his is the latest piece in a still-murky picture of testing related to developing weapons of mass destruction. His story emerged when Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, traveled to Seoul last November and spent 10 hours interviewing three defectors who conducted such research at the behest of the Kim Jong Il regime.

The latest revelations are significant as the United States works to cajole North Korea and four other partners back to the table in six-way nuclear disarmament talks. Conceding that the United States had presented it with clear evidence of North Korea's nuclear plans, Beijing officials hinted last week that they may reverse their own stand. China has long supported North Korea's contention that it has no enriched uranium, a dispute at the heart of the negotiations, effectively stalling any progress to end the WMD threat on the peninsula. With each new round of defectors and news of WMD programs, it becomes harder for North Korea to hold its strained position at the talks.

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At a Washington press conference Mr. Cooper divulged what he had learned from the meetings with Mr. Chun. The young defector was the most nervous one he interviewed, terrified that North Korean authorities would discover his identity and retaliate against him and his family. He has refused to give any media interviews.

Mr. Chun explained that in 1994 he was a chemistry student at one of North Korea's top research institutions. Before he graduated, the government drafted him to work on two teams that were researching gassings-untraceable types that might have been useful for assassinations, others that brought almost instant death, and still more whose length of effects needed further study.

He was a member of Team A, which performed experiments exclusively on animals. When the results were successful, he said, Team B would step in and copy the tests-this time on humans. Team B members recorded their results matter-of-factly on a large chart under the animal findings.

Authorities shifted the teams from urban to rural areas frequently so they would not attract too much attention from the locals. That would have been likely, Mr. Chun said, because members were well-fed and clothed. When his team's research was successful, Mr. Cooper said, it became a "death warrant for political prisoners."

The one bright spot in Mr. Chun's story is the apparent desire he and some of his superiors have to expose the horror. "This young man fled North Korea in 2002 with the knowledge and assistance of a supervisor in this program, and what he described as a few senior members of the military," Mr. Cooper said. "Chun told me that these individuals had helped him to escape because they wanted the outside world to know what was going on."

Tim Peters is one of the Seoul activists who helped arrange Mr. Chun's meeting with Mr. Cooper. He directs Helping Hands Korea, a nonprofit that helps refugees from the North. Mr. Peters told WORLD he sees even more encouraging signs: "During the course of the interview he revealed what I considered the key explanation for his conscience-and a truly remarkable fact for anyone inside the North-that his mother was a Christian. I say 'remarkable' because virtually all North Korean refugees will say that there are no Christians inside the country."

The other two defectors Mr. Cooper interviewed were older and more callous. They were primary sources in a BBC documentary called "Access to Evil," which last year broke the news of North Korea's gas chambers. The first was a 55-year-old chemist who helped to supervise the gassing of two political prisoners in 1979 at a high-level camp.

Each prisoner was in a glass-enclosed chamber, one of four housed in a building at the camp. The chemist and others on his team were able to watch the prisoners through the glass and hear them scream through a two-way audio hook-up. He told Mr. Cooper that the first died after two and a half hours, while the second lingered an hour longer.

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