April 17, 2014 | Forbes
North Korea’s Nuclear Fallout
For a rogue state under international sanctions, what is the penalty for threatening to carry out an illicit nuclear test? As North Korea is demonstrating, and Iran is no doubt closely observing, there is no serious cost.
Last month, North Korea’s government stated that it would not rule out “a new form of nuclear test.” That threat, conveyed in a March 30 article by Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, was followed on April 4 by a North Korean press conference at the United Nations in New York, at which North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Ri Tong Il, confirmed that his government is planning to carry out a new test. Asked for details of what form it might take, he said: “Wait and see.”
And that, it appears, is what the U.S. is doing: waiting, for what would be North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, following those in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Yes, there has been a certain amount of diplomatic flurry. The State Department has called on North Korea to “cease and desist from needlessly threatening regional peace and security.” Last week, senior nuclear diplomats from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. met in Washington, and restated their commitment to “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.” This week, China’s chief envoy for Korean Peninsula Affairs, Wu Dawei, is in Washington for a series of meetings with U.S. officials. According to Reuters, these meetings have so far reaffirmed China’s and America’s agreement on what the State Department described as “the fundamental importance of a denuclearized North Korea.”
All this is much of a piece with President Obama’s remarks just after North Korea carried out its second nuclear test, in May, 2009. Obama warned that North Korea was “inviting stronger international pressure,” and threatened that “Russia and China, as well as our traditional allies of South Korea and Japan, have all come to the same conclusion: North Korea will not find security and respect through threats and illegal weapons.”
Except there is no denuclearization happening in North Korea. On the contrary, North Korea is now pursuing two pathways to the bomb — having unveiled a uranium enrichment program in 2010, and restarted its plutonium producing Yongbyon reactor in 2013. If North Korea carries out the new test it is now threatening, it would be Pyongyang’s third nuclear test on Obama’s presidential watch.
The dangers of allowing North Korea to build and hone a nuclear arsenal go well beyond the Korean peninsula. In December, 2012, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit, effectively testing technology that could also be used to launch nuclear-tipped long-range missiles. This past January, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “North Korea is committed to developing long-range missile technology that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.”
At that same hearing, Clapper highlighted that along with North Korea’s record of exporting ballistic missiles to countries such as Iran and Syria, North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor (destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli air strike). Clapper warned that “North Korea might again export nuclear technology.”
That warning sounds ever more urgent in view of North Korea’s close ties to Iran. Currently, Iran is haggling over its own nuclear program, in talks with a group of world powers dubbed the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia). Iranian officials have been claiming that their country has an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium. U.S. officials have been saying they seek a deal that would stop Iran from getting the bomb, while assuring the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful.”
Could North Korea serve as a nuclear weapons back shop for Iran, while Iran offers the P5+1 a facade of compliance in exchange for sweeping sanctions relief? That would be similar to the game North Korea played in reverse some years ago with Syria, Iran’s close ally. Publicly, North Korea was cutting nuclear freeze deals at the Six-Party Talks, raking in aid, cash and concessions in mid-2007 while shutting down its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. Secretly, at the same time, North Korea was helping Syria build a copy of the Yongbyon reactor, on the Euphrates River – a project North Korea had been working on for years. Had the Israelis not destroyed that copy-Yongbyon reactor as it was nearing completion, it could have become an alternate source of plutonium.
Now comes North Korea’s threat to conduct a new form of nuclear test. North Korea’s first two tests, in 2006 and 2009, were plutonium-based. The nature of its third test, in 2013 — whether plutonium or uranium — has not been publicly substantiated. But among North Korea analysts, there is plenty of betting that Pyongyang is now preparing to detonate a device based on highly enriched uranium. “There’s almost no doubt about it,” says Bruce Bechtol, a former senior defense intelligence analyst, and author of a new book on “North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era.”
Why might that be especially alarming in view of Iran’s nuclear maneuvers? On April 8, Secretary of State John Kerry testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran’s uranium enrichment program is now so far along that “we’re operating with a so-called breakout period of about two months.” Kerry elaborated that by “breakout” he meant the ability to produce enough bomb-grade highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. He stressed that Iran would need more time to then turn that material into a weapon: “It doesn’t meant they’ve gotten to a — a warhead, or to a delivery system, or to even a test capacity or anything else.”
Perhaps not. But if Iran wants to bridge those gaps, North Korea seems increasingly well positioned to offer its services. North Korea, longtime weapons vendor to Iran, is refining its missiles, working on warheads and fields test facilities. Plus it is preparing by its own account to carry out a new form of test.
Nor do the dangers end there. Whether or not Iran partakes directly of North Korea’s next nuclear novelty, North Korea is pioneering the precedent that in the 21st century, a wayward regime may, with relative impunity, build and test nuclear weapons. Right now, North Korea is demonstrating to the world that it is even safe to broadcast such plans, albeit at risk of being bombarded by press releases from the U.S. State Department.
As North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has advanced in recent years, the U.S., its allies, and the U.N. have responded to Pyongyang’s tests with a growing stack of condemnations and sanctions, mingled with bait for a resumption of the nuclear talks that collapsed in late 2008. Whatever the costs that sanctions have been imposing on North Korea, clearly they have not been enough to stop its development of the bomb, or bring down the Kim regime — or even deprive North Korea’s ruling elite of their luxuries. This past winter, for example, North Korea opened a ski resort flaunting fancy equipment imported in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Nor do nuclear talks offer a solution. Over the past two decades, North Korea has cheated on every deal, pocketing concessions that have served to fortify the Pyongyang regime and moving along to the next stage of missile and bomb development. Nor has China stopped North Korea’s nuclear ventures, despite Beijing’s periodic professions of dismay. Finding a way to stop North Korea’s next nuclear test is a tall and risky order. But a U.S. policy of “wait and see” (per the instructions of North Korea’s diplomat) is another step in a direction that is becoming obscenely dangerous. Absent the further services of the Israeli Air Force, it’s high time U.S. policy-makers bestirred themselves to find some way to genuinely stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation — before the next test.
Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.