North Korea: A nuclear 7-Eleven?

SEOUL (AFP) —

Experts differ about the scale and immediacy of the military threat posed by North Korea’s latest nuclear test, but there is little disagreement about the alarming proliferation risks it presents.

The most pressing concern is that cash-strapped North Korea will become a one-stop shop, selling nuclear material, technology and even weapons to other countries, terror groups, or states seen as sponsoring terror.

And there is also a fear that the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs will prompt others in the region to reconsider their non-nuclear status, causing the entire non-proliferation regime to unravel.

North Korea has clear form as a proliferator, notably in the sharing of missile technology with Iran, but also in helping Syria build the nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2007.

“Nuclear terrorism is the thing we worry most about in the United States,” said Robert Gallucci president of the MacArthur Foundation and a former US assistant secretary of state.

“The prospect that the North will sell highly-enriched uranium, nuclear weapons designs or even nuclear weapons to all comers, is not a happy thought if you live in one of America’s cities,” Gallucci told a nuclear security forum in Seoul.

A key unanswered question arising from the North’s test on February 12 concerns the type of fissile material that was used.

South Korean, Japanese and U.N. monitoring efforts have so far failed to detect any tell-tale radioactive fallout, but many experts believe the North detonated a uranium device for the first time.

Its two previous tests in 2006 and 2009 had both been of plutonium bombs, and a confirmed switch to uranium would fuel proliferation concerns.

Highly-enriched uranium is seen as the “preferred currency” of rogue states and terror groups. It is the easiest fissile material from which to make a crude bomb and uranium enrichment technology can be readily transferred and sold.

“If the test turns out to have been uranium based then I think we are entering a whole new game in terms of proliferation risk,” said Choi Kang, a security expert at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

“And it’s a risk that extends the North Korea threat beyond the Korean Peninsula and beyond the Northeast Asian region,” Kang said.

Iran features prominently among the list of North Korea’s potential clients put forward by analysts, and there were numerous reports—denied by Tehran—that Iranian experts were on hand to observe last week’s test.

Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, also notes that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been seeking nuclear weapons for more than a decade.

“In intelligence circles, North Korea is known as “Missiles ‘R’ Us,” Allison wrote in a New York Times editorial.

With last week’s test, North Korea was announcing it has “a new cash crop”, Allison said, calling for an unequivocal US proliferation warning—backed by the threat of force—to North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un.

“The urgent challenge is to convince him and his regime’s lifeline, China, that North Korea will be held accountable for every nuclear weapon of North Korean origin,” he said.

The scenario that ends with the detonation of a “dirty bomb” in a city like New York invokes the conventional proliferation plot of selling and smuggling nuclear material.

But analysts also stress the threat that North Korea poses to the global non-proliferation regime simply by its existence as a de facto nuclear weapons state.

The North’s latest test was its largest yet in terms of explosive yield and, according to Pyongyang, marked a breakthrough in its efforts to develop a “miniaturised” warhead that could fit on a ballistic missile.

The further the North progresses towards a genuine nuclear weapons capability, the louder the questions coming from its neighbors about the need for their own genuine deterrent.

In South Korea, a number of ruling conservative party lawmakers have already called for a debate on withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and embarking on a weaponisation program.

“There a real danger of a domino effect here,” said Lee Jong-Hoon, an international studies professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University and a former National Security Council adviser.

“I think the message we should send to China is that it has to do more right now to prevent North Korea going any further,” Lee told AFP.

“Otherwise the consequences might be a nuclear South Korea, a nuclear Japan and even a nuclear Taiwan. Is that what Beijing wants?”

© 2013 AFP

Author Infomation

Giles Hewitt
Giles Hewitt
  • 1

    Bruce Miller

    "nuclear" here is incorrect English but common usage of an American propaganda term. Plutonium technologies, more appropriate, as opposed to Norway and China's Thorium LFTR technologies? Enriched uranium technologies over Thorium technologies? Truth time? Another point: N Korea paralleled with Israel and the Dimona bomb factory? Negev Research Centre? Both pawns in the face-off coming between China and the U.S.A.? Supply line problems for U.S. in Afghanistan would suggest China holds high card?

  • 4

    BertieWooster

    "North Korea has WMDs and they are pointing at us. We know this and we know where they are. They have organised terrorist groups in every city in the world."

    Now where, where have I heard this line before?

  • 2

    slumdog

    Now where, where have I heard this line before?

    From North Korea?

  • -1

    Frungy

    ... and who is to blame for this situation? The U.S. North Korea has been in energy crisis for a long time. It is too poor to afford oil and coal in the sort of quantities required to power a whole country, and lacks the geological features for sufficient geothermal or hydro-electric power sources. As a result it has been focused on nuclear power since the 1950's.

    Back in 1994 the U.S. signed the North Korea-U.S. "Agreed Framework" where the U.S. promised to fund two light-water plants (which don't produce weapons-grade refinable output) and tide North Korea over with other energy sources until these were built. North Korea agreed, complied with the terms, took its main reactors offline.... and then the Republicans came into power and refused to live up to their end of the bargain.

    Naturally North Korea had no choice but to resume using Nuclear technology that produced byproducts that could be turned into nuclear weapons.

    Sorry, but there's no-one here to blame but the Republicans. The entire North Korea situation could have been peacefully resolved with better U.S.-North Korea relations, instead the U.S. government (Republicans especially) broke their word and North Korea won't believe a word they say (and who can blame them?! The country was a mess after the last deal).

    Now the U.S. has the unmitigated gall to point to the byproducts of the North Korean nuclear power plants and accuse them of having WMDs? Without even the pretence of sending in inspectors? This is complete and utter nonsense from the U.S. government. They're just relying on the fact that most people don't know the history (and it isn't exactly ancient history, this is recent) and will swallow their lies and not look to hard and find out that this entire mess is a direct result of the U.S. government's inability to keep a promise.

    Someone once said, "It is safer to be the U.S.'s enemy than their friend, at least then you're not surprised when you find a knife in your back". North Korea learnt this the hard way. Japan has yet to learn it.

  • -1

    BertieWooster

    Frungy,

    Superb post!

    Total agreement with what you wrote.

    Thank you for the voice of sanity!

  • 1

    David Quintero Navarro

    Yes, North Korea is our friend, sing peace treaties with them and we will all live in peace and harmony, kind of the way Poland did after trusting those peace treaties with??? Yes, NAZI GERMANY!! I do not like Republicans, but crappy North Korea can only blame, their crappy religion, yes, if you did not know it, the KIM family is their GODS on earth, keep believing in a messed up cult, and starving your own people, while SOUTH KOREA not only has enough food but is making your cars, tvs, computers, samsun galaxy cellphones, tablets and lots of good food too!

  • 0

    lostrune2

    Rather be North Korea's enemy than their friend since they don't even listen to buddy China anymore.

  • 0

    BertieWooster

    "Nuclear terrorism is the thing we worry most about in the United States," said Robert Gallucci president of the MacArthur Foundation and a former US assistant secretary of state.

    And China, and Iran, Iraq, of course, and Afghanistan, the terrorist cadres everywhere and Mexico and Columbia and Wikileaks, TPP and the EC. And the Russians don't like us anymore.

    Why?

    Don't they want Freedom and Democracy?

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