The 9th Nuclear State?

North Korea has again caused shock and dismay in much of the world by declaring that it has manufactured nuclear weapons for “self-defense.” It claimed it took this step because the United States’ policy of “hostility” and said it was suspending its participation in the six-nation talks aimed at halting its nuclear weapons program.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced (Feb. 10) that the purpose of the nuclear armaments is “self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s ever-more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” It specifically cited the United States’ description of North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” and its declared intention to seek “regime change” in Pyongyang – quotes from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s testimony during her Senate confirmation hearings last month.

Last month, too, North Korean officials had privately told visiting delegations of U.S. senators that the country has nuclear weapons, but its ultimate goal is “nuclear disarmament.” But this is the first official announcement by the KCNA.

Strangely, the reaction of the U.S., the state whose actions Pyongyang regards as the gravest provocation for its change of stance, has varied between derision (“we have heard this rhetoric before”) and dismissal, followed by threats. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Nice that it would be warrant for concern “if you believe them that they have weapons.”

South Korea has also played down Pyongyang’s claim. Its defense minister says there is a big difference between “possessing” nuclear weapons and claiming that you possess them.

The U.S. has clarified that Washington has no interest in attacking North Korea, has ruled out any concessions to Pyongyang, and has called for resumption of the six-party talks involving South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia (besides the U.S. and North Korea).

The U.S. reaction is in marked contrast to its stand on Iraq before the war, when it (falsely) claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction – on the basis of cooked-up intelligence reports. Washington advocates a “preemptive” approach to WMD in the Middle East, but a relaxed, nonchalant, almost cavalier attitude to the same weapons in the Far East, even when a government itself admits to having them – despite the Korean region being an area of great tension and volatility, and one where 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed.

These double standards are deplorable in and of themselves. But underlying them are two presumptions: one, that North Korea probably does not have nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them; and two, that in the unlikely event it does, the world would know how to deal with them, supposedly by using military means and bringing about “regime change.”

Both presumptions are deeply, and probably dangerously, flawed. The first assumes that North Korea, which in recent years faced grave food shortages and famines, lacks the technological sophistication to produce nuclear weapons, and that it certainly does not have reliable ballistic missiles with which to deliver them.

However, it is ludicrous to believe that nuclear weapons manufacture needs a high degree of all-round industrialization or mastery of a wide range of technologies. Pakistan, for instance, acquired its centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment in the absence of a halfway developed industrial base. So long as a country has access to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities or materials, or can procure certain critical designs and components (whether legally or otherwise), it can over a number of years produce weapons-grade fissile fuel in kilogram quantities. From there to making an explosive weapons assembly is but a short step.

We do know that North Korea has had a long-standing nuclear facility in Yongbyon, which it restarted in 2003. There is evidence that Pakistan’s “rogue” nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan transferred uranium centrifuge design know-how to North Korea in exchange for missiles/missile components. And it has long been known that Pyongyang accumulated 8,000 spent fuel rods from a “research” reactor built by the former USSR. This reactor had no international safeguards.

It would have been child’s play for Pyongyang to reprocess plutonium from the spent fuel – a remarkably simple process. But at another remove, at a higher technology level, it may have also succeeded in enriching uranium to a high level, such as 90 percent, to make fuel for a nuclear bomb – assuming the designs were worked into actual practices.

As for the delivery vehicles, North Korea is widely known to have a range of ballistic missiles of different classes, from the crude Scud (range 175-200 mi.) to No-Dong to Taepo-Dong-I (125-1,400 mi.). An even larger range Taepo-Dong-II version may be under development in North Korea (and Iran). These missiles may not attain the standards of accuracy expected of U.S., Russian or French rockets. But they can deliver devastating warheads over fairly long distances – all the way to Japan and even beyond.

The premise that North Korea does not have a deliverable nuclear weapon and does not pose a credible threat, then, its based on a certain political assessment, not technologically watertight parameters pertaining to what is known about its nuclear program. Central to this is the view that Pyongyang has in the past used claims about its nuclear processes as a “bargaining counter,” a tool to extract concessions from the U.S. through the Agreed Framework of 1994 and subsequent assistance from South Korea and Japan.

This may well be true even now. Let’s assume there is a high probability that it is. But what if it’s not? What if North Korea is serious this time, and has a small nuclear arsenal – and the CIA apparently believes it has six to eight bombs – and will take steps “to bolster its
nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom, and democracy chosen by the people in [North Korea].”

Should the world wait for an actual nuclear explosion before taking note of this? Or should it act on the precautionary principle and initiate efforts to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program?

Going by what is known of the two most recent breakouts from the global nonproliferation regime, India and Pakistan, it seems downright foolish to assume that a country must announce its arrival as a nuclear weapons state through a nuclear blast. India demonstrated its weapons capability 30 years ago, and Pakistan has probably had its own since the late 1980s. More importantly, Israel has never tested a nuclear weapon, nor explicitly admits it has one, but is widely believed to have 100-200 warheads, probably many more than India.

At any rate, North Korea has been making supposedly “boastful” claims about its nuclear weapons capability for more than two years. At what point in time should it be said to have crossed the threshold of weaponization, or at least of seriousness? It’s hard to tell. But it’s only prudent to assume that it may have already done so and then deal with the problem that poses.

That problem is serious. It represents one more chink in the global nonproliferation regime after Israel, India, and Pakistan perforated it over the years. One can only hope that the world can deal with it ably, with greater effectiveness and less hypocrisy than it did with the preceding three cases.

Israel found an indulgent ally in the U.S. and never faced sanctions and reprimands despite whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu’s daring disclosures about the Dimona facility and its weapons activities. Take India and Pakistan. The United Nations Security Council passed a strong resolution condemning their tests and demanding they roll back their nuclear programs. It also asked for sanctions on their nuclear program. But for a variety of reasons, neither it nor its members acted on this demand or its spirit.

By early 2000, the U.S. had lifted most sanctions and was busy building bridges with India – lured by the attraction of cheap labor in information technology and its emerging market. After Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan stopped being a pariah state or “failing” state. It has become an “invaluable ally” of the U.S. in fighting al-Qaeda.

The N-5 did not normalize India and Pakistan as de jure nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But they have already been accommodated into a second tier – of de facto nuclear states. In effect, the same thing is likely to happen to North Korea and any other states that cross the threshold and expand the membership of the Nuclear Club.

So far, the global nonproliferation regime has relied on physical controls, inspections, and checks to prevent the diversion of civilian nuclear materials to military use. These have proved ineffective in numerous cases and will increasingly fail as the general level of technology rises in many parts of the world. There is an urgent need for political leadership, which delinks nuclear weapons from national security thinking, and which does not regard them as a currency of power or ticket to superpower status.

Such leadership is sorely absent. The United States, to its eternal shame, is building new nuclear weapons and seriously considering undermining and rolling back the resolution passed by the last NPT Review Conference (00). It is proceeding with plans to build missile-defense systems. Russia has just inducted a new series of missiles into its arsenal and is building even more sophisticated nuclear bombs.

At least three other nuclear states are furiously stockpiling fissile material, building new warheads, or expanding missile programs. And none has shown any will to pursue the global abolition of nuclear weapons.

This will set the darkest possible example for potential proliferators and aspirants to nuclear-state status. But North Korea will pose an even more immediate problem by crossing the nuclear threshold. It will almost certainly spur South Korea to consider doing the same. Even more important, hawks in the Japanese establishment will clamor for severely amending the constitution (already hollowed out in some respects by Japan’s steady militarization and its out-of-area activities, especially in Iraq) so that its commitment not to make or “bring in” nuclear weapons is junked. That could open the way to Japan’s entry into the nuclear club. It will take Japan only a few months to acquire a huge arsenal: it already sits on a massive stockpile of plutonium imported from Western Europe.

The world, particularly the U.S., will find it hard to dissuade the two Asian allies. But even if it does manage to work out some compromise, that will be at the cost of weakening and loosening the nonproliferation regime.

There is one simple, non-devious way to get out of this mess: get rid of the nuclear fix, and respect the NPT (especially Article VI) and the World Court opinion of 1996 calling for the conclusion of negotiations to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. Short of this, the world could soon have its 10th nuclear state, then the 11th … and so on.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.