In northern North Korea (Chagang Province) it was recently revealed that a new (late 2020) Ganggye Chemical Factory for producing paint and varnishes was actually producing chemical weapons. This was revealed because the factory was next to the Changja River. The truth about the factory was revealed when people living downstream along the Changja River noted lots of dead fish in the river. Since people get drinking water from and wash clothes in that river this caused some alarm. Complaints were made to local officials and police, who also use the river water and the initial response was that production of paint and varnish was causing the dead fish. Then some locals who worked at or near the factory revealed that Ganggye Chemical Factory was one of those facilities that really produced chemical weapons and called itself something else because chemical weapons are top-secret items and producing them so close to the Chinese border offends the Chinese. Because the factory is close to the border the news quickly jumped the border because North Koreans living near the border often have Chinese cell phones that can connect with a Chinese cell tower if the user is close enough to the border. This has always been dangerous because it is strictly forbidden and police have an added incentive to catch those with cell phones because they can demand a large bribe from those wanting to avoid arrest and time in a labor camp. The calls are usually to friends, family or business associates in China or anywhere in the world. North Korean cell phones only allow calls with in North Korea and these are monitored by the police. The secret police have special equipment for monitoring Chinese cell phones and that soon revealed that many North Koreans now knew about what Ganggye Chemical Factory produced despite the locals being ordered to keep quiet about that and the dead fish. Anyone who had recently eaten river fish were ordered to appear for a medical exam. By early 2021 North Korean leaders were mainly worried about international condemnation for exposing civilians to toxic byproducts from a chemical weapons plant.
As recently as 2018 North Korea was subjected to international condemnation for their production of chemical and biological weapons. That process began in 2018 when a North Korean soldier who recently defected to South Korea was found to have anthrax anti-bodies in his blood. This came at about the same time as rumors of North Korea planning to equip its long-range ballistic missiles with warheads containing anthrax. The reality is that anthrax does not make a very effective biological weapon, but it is an easy one to obtain and hardy enough to survive delivery via ballistic missile. Moreover, anthrax is not contagious but it does occur naturally in many parts of the world and many people acquire immunity by surviving exposure (not uncommon) or receiving a vaccination (less common).
North Korea could not afford to vaccinate the entire population against Anthrax, or even all its troops. Only those assigned to guard facilities storing Anthrax filled bombs, shells or warheads, or manufacturing facilities would need the vaccination. If used in a combat zone troops moving into the contaminated area would need vaccination to avoid getting sick or dying from the anthrax.
What was not reported was any more details of the North Korean soldier with the Anthrax anti-bodies. That was done to prevent North Korea from figuring out what South Korea knew of their biological and radiological weapons programs. It is known that South Korea gives defectors thorough physical exams including world class analysis of blood and tissue samples. Over 30,000 North Korean have managed to reach South Korea, most of them in the last twenty years and all have been thoroughly examined. All South Korea will reveal is that the data has been very useful, not only in treating the defectors for the many infections and maladies they have, but also for getting an idea of what, so to speak, is in the air, water and soil up there over time and where.
Another item of information that became public in the last few years involved recent defectors who showed signs of radiation poisoning. Since they came from the area where North Korea tests its nuclear weapons underground, it indicates that rumors of massive radiation leaks were true. The Chinese certainly believed it and ran TV and print ads warning citizens near the border to get checked if they showed certain symptoms. There were also illustrations on how to clean oneself to avoid accumulating enough exposure to get infected.
There was another North Korea biological weapon scare in 2015 when a PR video of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a recently refurbished North Korean Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute became available. Western analysts noted in the background there were some industrial equipment for making large quantities of new biological agents. North Korea said it was doing some research on biological pesticides for some local crops. But that expensive equipment could make biological weapons like militarized Anthrax. North Korea denies that is the case but it was noted that sanctions never banned pesticides or medicine. However North Korea could always have large quantities of some new pesticide made in China much more cheaply than doing it themselves. Then again, a lot of what North Korea does makes no economic sense and they keep doing it anyway. That is likely the case with this Anthrax scare. Then again, there is some danger and whatever is produced in the new Ganggye Chemical Factory appears to be more dangerous than anthrax.
Even the most potent militarized Anthrax isn't that powerful. We know this from a military Anthrax accident in 1979. A Russian biological warfare plant outside the city of Sverdlosk accidentally released some militarized Anthrax. Thousands of people in the area were infected. But fewer than a hundred died. What was particularly discouraging to Russian military bioweapon scientists was that only one of the dead was of military age and he was already ill from other ailments. All of those that died from the Anthrax were old and usually sick. All the victims had weakened immune systems. Many had lung ailments. The Russians initially denied that there was an accident and did not treat the locals for Anthrax. Later they said the deaths were caused by people eating meat infected with Anthrax, which is a common way for people to die from Anthrax. It was only after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 that Western researchers were able to get into the area and interview survivors and discover that people with normal immune systems were able to fight off an Anthrax infection.
North Koreans know about the shortcomings of anthrax and other chemical weapons and now the world, not just people along the Changja River or across the border in China want to know just what the Ganggye Chemical Factory is producing.