U.S. Worried North Korea Is a Biological Time Bomb

Pentagon developing disease-detection system in case Pyongyang’s healthcare fails

U.S. Worried North Korea Is a Biological Time Bomb U.S. Worried North Korea Is a Biological Time Bomb
This story originally appeared on April 25, 2014. It appears Pyongyang is preparing for yet another nuclear weapons test. But North Korea may pose... U.S. Worried North Korea Is a Biological Time Bomb

This story originally appeared on April 25, 2014.

It appears Pyongyang is preparing for yet another nuclear weapons test. But North Korea may pose as much of a biological threat as an atomic one.

While the reclusive communist regime is thought to have—or at least have researched—biological weapons, these may not be the greatest bio-menace to America and its allies. North’s fragile healthcare system is far more worrisome, as it could prove incapable of containing rapid-spreading diseases.

Enter the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition program—JUPITR for short. It blends high-tech sensors, Internet-based disease tracking and collaboration between American and South Korean doctors, all in an effort to contain nasty bugs of North Korean origin.

JUPITR is basically a disease early-warning system.

The Pentagon’s Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense told War is Boring that “a series of low- and no-threat occurrences” on the Korean peninsula specifically highlighted the need for a project like JUPITR.

In other words, a bunch of North Koreans recently got sick enough to worry officials in Seoul and Washington. Bird flu and foot-and-mouth disease are particularly worrisome.

The JUPITR program is actually four related initiatives.

A Combat Outpost Surveillance and Force Protection System, also known as the Kraken. U.S. Army photo

The first initiative is a Web-based “health surveillance management tool” that provides info on disease outbreaks and available medical supplies.

This Internet portal will help officials keep tabs on flare-ups and the stockpiles of medicine to treat them. The app will also have an online library of known biological substances to help officials spot suspicious vectors.

In the second initiative, U.S. Army biologists are working closely with their South Korean counterparts to improve Seoul’s own bio capabilities.

At the moment, Korean scientists often have to send samples to labs in the U.S. for testing. This process takes time—and in a crisis, the delay could be disastrous. Personnel from the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center are helping upgrade South Korean facilities so more tests can be done locally.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and the Department of Health and Human Services are also getting involved, because of the public health angle.

The third and fourth initiatives involve setting up sensors in Korea that can sniff out incoming illnesses. For the third, the Pentagon wants to hold what it calls a “shoot-off” to pick one of 10 disease sensors. The Defense Department will ship the winning device off to Asia.

The fourth effort adds similar sensors to an existing base defense system. The Combat Outpost Surveillance and Force Protection System—or COSFPS—already has radars, video cameras and laser range finders.

The COSFPS is nicknamed “Kraken” because of its pop-up tower and tentacle-like wires. The setup has been protecting American bases in Afghanistan for years now.

All four initiatives are underway, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon is actually going to deploy them on a large scale. The military describes JUPITR as a tech demonstration and expects it to end next year.

As with any of its many tech demos, the Defense Department could decide later whether to expand JUPITR. At the moment, the world is more worried North Korea will set off another nuke. Sick chickens and cattle seem a lot less scary.