North Korea may already have the capability to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve agent, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday.
His warning came as analysts said North Korea may be preparing for a sixth nuclear test ahead of a key anniversary in the country and following the deployment of a US naval strike group to the region.
"The security situation around our country is getting increasingly severe," Abe said, who was addressing the Japanese parliament's diplomacy and defense committee.
"We have just talked about Syria. There is a possibility that North Korea already has a capability to put sarin on warheads to strike the ground," he said.
Abe did not provide any evidence why he felt North Korea had the capability to equip missiles with chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons capability
North Korea is one of only six countries not to have signed or acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and is believed to have large stockpiles of chemical agents, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
According to South Korea's 2016 Defense White Paper, North Korea has been developing chemical weapons since 1980.
The paper estimates, as of that year, North Korea had 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including anthrax, smallpox and plague.
A 2012 report by the US department of defense said that "North Korea probably has a longstanding chemical weapons program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood and choking agents and likely possesses a (chemical weapons) stockpile."
The report said that stockpile could be deployed "by modifying a variety of conventional munitions, including artillery and ballistic missiles."
While analysts have been skeptical of North Korean claims about its intercontinental ballistic missiles capabilities, the country possesses a substantial arsenal of conventional missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan.
Tong Zhao, an analyst with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, told CNN that "it appears technically possible to put chemical weapon agents including nerve agents such as VX or sarin in the warhead of a ballistic missile."
North Korea was accused of using VX nerve agent in the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Japan is one of only a handful of countries which have experienced a sarin gas attack.
In 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway that led to the deaths of 13 people and sickened more than 5,500 commuters.
Abe linked his warning about the North Korean capability to recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
On April 4, more than 80 people were killed and many more injured in a chemical attack in Idlib province, which the US and its allies blame on the Syrian regime.
"Innocent citizens, including babies and children, fell victim in Syria," Abe said.
"As the security situation is getting increasingly severe around our country, we should strengthen the deterrence of the Japan-US alliance based on an appropriate division of roles between Japan and the United States, and continue to study what we must do in order to protect the lives and the assets of the Japanese people."
Risk to Japan
While much attention is paid to Pyongyang's threats of striking the US mainland with intercontinental ballistic missiles, South Korea and Japan are the most at risk of North Korean attack.
Huge batteries of conventional artillery, missiles and other weapons are capable of striking Seoul, according to a January report by analysis firm Stratfor.
"Ballistic missiles could strike US military positions beyond the Korean Peninsula, specifically in Japan," the report said.
"Whatever the targets, Pyongyang's existing ballistic missile stockpile could easily deliver approximately one kiloton (1,000 metric tons) of high explosives, as well as other non conventional munitions -- chemical, biological or even nuclear."
Multiple recent North Korean missile tests have landed in the waters off the coast of Japan, and last month, state news agency KCNA said units conducting the drills were "tasked to strike the bases of the US imperialist aggressor forces in Japan."
While Japan has long maintained a pacifist foreign policy following World War II, under Abe the country has moved away from this stance. His government has lobbied to change the constitution to allow Japan to strike overseas targets.