When Outlaws Get The Bomb

Kim Jong Il's crude blast punctuates a scary reality: the law of the jungle now governs the race for nuclear arms.

The tremor out of the far north of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea was unremarkable. It registered a magnitude 4.2, a light earthquake. Its significance had to be declared by its perpetrator, the unpredictable regime of Kim Jong Il. North Korea, one of the poorest and most hermetic nations on earth, was claiming a successful underground nuclear bomb test and entry into the once exclusive club of nuclear powers as member No. 9. "More fizzle than pop," said a U.S. intelligence source dismissively, though he conceded the blast was likely to have been nuclear. A sniffer plane would later pick up hints of radiation in the atmosphere. Days of diplomatic consternation ensued at Pyongyang's announcement, and after stops and starts, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea, demanding that it dismantle its nuclear-arms program. It also banned the sale of conventional weaponry and luxury goods to the country. Pointing at Washington as its nemesis, Pyongyang said any increased American military pressure would be deemed a declaration of war.

Welcome to the bad new world. As crude as the North Korean blast was, it punctuated a scary fact: the rules that governed the nuclear road during the cold war and its immediate aftermath have become irrelevant, replaced by the law of the jungle--every state, rogue or otherwise, for itself. The risk now, says former Clinton Administration Defense Department official Graham Allison, is the emergence of a more dangerous nuclear age. Pyongyang's test, says Allison, threatens to set off a "cascade" of nations seeking the ultimate weapon. "The North Korean test blew a hole in the nonproliferation regime of Northeast Asia," says Allison. "I think this is bad news for the country, bad news for the region, bad news for the world."

What we have now is not a tight club of nuclear powers with interlocking interests and an appreciation for the brutal doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" but an unpredictable host of potential Bomb throwers: a Stalinist Bomb out of unstable North Korea; a Shi'ite Bomb out of Iran; a Sunni Bomb out of Pakistan; and, down the road, possibly out of Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well; and, of course, an al-Qaeda Bomb out of nowhere. Israel is a nuclear power already. And Turkey may just decide it had better be too. Even Japan and South Korea could eventually move toward the Bomb, if they feel the U.S. nuclear umbrella begins to fray in East Asia. What are the consequences for the U.S. and the rest of the world? Are we in an era of barely controlled proliferation, in which countless nations must at least consider the possibility of going nuclear? Or are those fears, in the wake of the North Korean test, overblown? Is there still time to manage the situation?


The North Korean incident impetus to what appears to be a determined push by Iran to acquire the capability to produce its own nuclear bomb. Tehran insists it is interested only in a civilian nuclear program for energy purposes. The main outside players--the U.S., the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)--are increasingly skeptical about those claims but thus far have been powerless to do much about it. Western intelligence agencies assume Iran could become the next nuclear power if it proceeds undeterred with its clandestine program. Like North Korea, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the diplomatic edifice erected in 1970 precisely to deter countries from going nuclear. (Pyongyang formally withdrew from the NPT in 2003.) The North Korean test, says General Giora Eiland, Israel's former National Security Adviser, means "Iran will reach the obvious conclusion--that nobody will stop them."

"If Iran goes nuclear militarily," says an Egyptian official, "others will not sit idly by." The official says Turkey would think seriously about going nuclear, and if "Iran, Israel and Turkey are all nuclear, the Arab states would feel they have no choice but to follow. Forget about eradicating poverty, all efforts will go into acquiring nuclear technology." In a private memo he wrote on May 1, which was reported in a Bob Woodward article in the Washington Post on Oct. 8, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that at least two Middle Eastern states--which he did not name--have been thinking about developing nuclear weapons. In all likelihood, he was referring to Egypt--which has a civilian nuclear program for its energy needs--and Saudi Arabia. The leaders in the Arab world have made due note of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's success in using the pursuit of nuclear power as a way to rally popular support.

When Pyongyang declared the success of its test, Japan swore it would continue to abjure nuclear arms. At a minimum, however, the incident will surely spur Japan's efforts to develop a missile-defense system in cooperation with the U.S. That, in turn, is bound to anger China and could push Beijing to spend more on nuclear weapons to ensure that Japan doesn't feel invulnerable. An icy East Asian cold war and a very hot arms race between Japan and China are a greater prospect now than they were a week ago.

And while Tokyo seems sincere about not going nuclear now--the antinuclear sentiment in that country, for obvious reasons, runs strong and deep--there are limits to how secure Japan may come to feel under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If North Korea proves capable of putting a nuclear warhead on a missile that can reach the U.S.--it already has short-range missiles capable of reaching Tokyo--the strategic game changes. If North Korea could nuke Japan, or blackmail it, while credibly threatening to strike the U.S. with a nuclear warhead, would Japanese officials truly believe the U.S. would retaliate against Pyongyang--and risk a North Korean nuke landing in Honolulu? The day may come when Tokyo will have to make that precise calculation.


Ashton Carter, a counterproliferation expert at Harvard, believes the risk of nuclear proliferation out the back door of a rogue state is increasing. North Korea or Iran could conceivably sell a bomb to a terrorist group, and Osama bin Laden is unlikely to be put off by traditional methods of deterring a nuclear attack. That means plugging the source. Says Derek D. Smith, author of Deterring America: Rogue States and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: "If you can't deter the terrorist organizations, you'd better be sure to deter whoever is supplying them."

Reacting to the blast, President Bush said, "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action." That was an explicit embrace of Graham Allison's concept of "nuclear accountability." Thus, according to Allison, if Kim Jong Il were to sell a weapon to bin Laden and that weapon were used against the U.S. or one of its allies, then the principle would require the U.S. to "treat this precisely like a nuclear-tipped-missile attack" and retaliate against Pyongyang. "That danger [of North Korean proliferation] has always been there," says Michael Green, until last year a senior staff member on the National Security Council. "But North Korea has a mailing address, and they know it. If there was a nuclear explosion somewhere, it would probably be traced back to them, and their country would be destroyed. That's a deterrent."

The Pentagon and the IAEA both devote considerable resources to the task of identifying the source of any bomb that is tested. Still, tracking the source of nuclear material is a complex, difficult endeavor--one that is hardly guaranteed success. To this day, there are questions about the origins of the material that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan sold to Libya. Among the material that Libya turned over after it abandoned its program was a precursor to highly enriched uranium--uranium hexafluoride. U.S. intelligence agencies believed it came from North Korea but spent months trying to prove it. They still haven't.


It is perhaps surprising at a moment when one of the world's most isolated and despotic regimes says it has gone nuclear that some current and former security strategists view Kim Jong Il's move as far less than a disaster. No one, to be sure, regards it as a good thing. But it is possible to view the test--and the state of play in the nuclear world more broadly--in more apocalyptic terms than is warranted. Many question, for example, Allison's argument that North Korea will unleash a sort of nuclear domino effect--with one country after another scrambling to get nukes. Take, for example, the nonnuclear countries in East Asia closest to North Korea: South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. All are wealthy, technologically sophisticated countries that could go nuclear in a heartbeat. (South Korea had a clandestine nuclear-arms program in the mid-1970s.) But all reside snugly under the so-called U.S. nuclear umbrella--any attack by Pyongyang would bring the full destructive force of the U.S. military in response. And last week all swore off any notion that North Korea's test would make them rethink their policy of eschewing nukes.

Indeed, since the end of the cold war in 1991, not all the news on the nuclear front has been bad. South Africa, Ukraine and, more recently, Libya all willingly gave up nuclear weapons or the pursuit of them. Brazil and Argentina formally abandoned any thought of going nuclear. "I would also disagree with the basic premise that the pressure is all in the direction of going nuclear," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The North Korea test, he says, will have only marginal effects on how other countries view their own security and the role nukes should play in them.

And some are dusting off the cold war theory that nukes are inherently stabilizing. "Nuclear weapons increase the international responsibility of every state that has acquired them," says a British general. Even Pakistan, roundly condemned as a rogue for its nuclear test in 1998 (conducted in response to India's tests held a couple of weeks earlier), is now viewed, as Fitzpatrick puts it, as a "responsible" nuclear state. It has not gone to war with India, its archrival, and--precisely because war now brings risk of nuclear annihilation on both sides--that prospect is less likely than it was before Pakistan joined India. Deterrence worked during the cold war, and it can work now.


What, then, can be done to rein in countries like North Korea? Pyongyang is especially prickly and dangerous, and already holds 10 million residents in the South Korean capital as virtual hostages. Seoul is only 30 miles from the border and has always lived under the threat of immediate destruction from North Korean firepower. Says a senior U.S. military officer: "[It is] within easy and rapid range of perhaps 10,000 artillery tubes with a 57-second flight time. That can cause World War II--size casualties." And that's without nuclear weapons. Now, unless the U.S. goes back to the bargaining table and somehow entices North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons--something most experts believe is unlikely--deterrence and containment become even more important. "The tactical game with North Korea--trying to get them to stand down their nuclear program--is now pretty much over," says Henry Sokolski, a former Defense Department nonproliferation expert in George H.W. Bush's Administration. "Now it's a strategic game, containing them and waiting for the regime to collapse."

The international community can also make it difficult for rogue nuclear states to make a buck off their new technology. To its credit, the Bush Administration has implemented the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a program now involving about 80 countries. They work to interdict material and equipment they believe is headed for use in the production of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. and its allies credit improved intelligence sharing and cooperation for successes like the October 2003 interdiction of the German-owned ship BBC China, which was intercepted carrying centrifuge components to Libya. But there are still huge gaps. The PSI relies on "actionable" intelligence, and Representative Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledges that U.S. human-intelligence assets in "hard targets" like North Korea are sorely lacking. Says Derek Smith: "It really comes down to having the intelligence capability to be able to determine which modes of transferral are going to be used, so you know which ship to go after. Certainly, we're not going to be able to put a blockade in place on air, sea and land all around North Korea."

China, which has not signed on to the PSI, has been a valuable partner. This summer North Korea conducted conventional- missile tests--in defiance of its chief patron Beijing and the rest of the world. And now China, which has sold conventional missiles to Iran in the past, is stepping up efforts to deter Pyongyang from moving missile and missile-related technology to Iran. A high-ranking diplomat in East Asia tells TIME that China has denied overflight rights to North Korean aircraft bound for Tehran.

Overshadowing everything is the reality that this is a different world from the one that existed during the cold war--and the established powers are at sea in trying to cope with it. Defense intellectuals like Thérèse Delpech, director of strategic affairs at the Atomic Energy Commission in France, reject classic deterrence theory as a model for today's nuclear age. "The new actors, such as Ahmadinejad or Kim, are much more prone to act [impulsively] rather than like the United States or the Soviet Union" during the cold war, she asserts. And even if that's not true--Iran's Ayatullahs and Kim may want nukes primarily to secure their hold on power--there is little question that the world faces big problems dealing with the new nuclear challenges. "The United Nations keeps pushing back deadlines, and the matters at hand get more and more serious," says Delpech. "There has to be the will among the principle powers to recognize that proliferation has to be viewed in a way that goes beyond parochial national interests."

Is there that will? The Bush Administration insists there is, and that cooperation among the Western allies will ultimately rein in North Korea and deter future nuclear wannabes like Iran. Yet that may be more hope than reality. Says Delpech: "We're now facing two very grave cases of proliferation at the same time, and we have to use this moment of condemnation to pull the [established world] powers together." But considering how long it took for the Security Council to ban the sale of luxury goods to Pyongyang, time does not appear to be on our side. [This article contains a diagram. Please see hardcopy or pdf.] NUCLEAR WORLD

North Korea is defiantly rushing to become the ninth country on earth to have the Bomb. President Bush has said the U.S. "will not tolerate" a nuclear North Korea, but containment may be the only viable option remaining

•Countries with nuclear weapons; Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories

•Countries with the ability to develop nuclear weapons

•Countries with nuclear weapons; not NPT signatories •Argentina, Brazil, Chile

•South Africa


Britain Israel Unconfirmed arsenal Iran Suspected program Pakistan Russia


North Korea Testing weapons


•Indonesia, Australia The U.S. and Russia control most of the world's nuclear warheads. Those stockpiles are shrinking, but other countries are pursuing nuclear weapons Deployed nuclear weapons, in thousands 1950-2000 U.S. U.S.S.R/Russia Others

Estimated nuclear stockpiles, 2005

Russia 8,800 inactive 7,200 deployed U.S. 10,315

Est. warheads

China 410 France 350 Britain 200 Israel 100-170 India 75-110 Pakistan 50-110 North Korea Unknown

Russia has about 8,800 warheads in reserve or awaiting dismantling

In addition to the known nuclear powers, North Korea says it has nuclear weapons. Iran could be next

Sources: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Natural Resources Defense Council

With reporting by With reporting by Aryn Baker/ Islamabad, Timothy J. Burger, SALLY B. DONNELLY, Elaine Shannon/Washington, Simon Elegant/Beijing, James Graff/Paris, Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi, Scott MacLeod/Cairo, J.F.O. McAllister/London, Tim McGirk/Jerusalem, Andrew Purvis/Vienna, Simon Robinson/New Delhi, Jennifer Veale/Seoul, Bryan Walsh/Tokyo

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: