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Nonproliferation Hinges on North Korea

Date: August 18, 2003
On Aug. 27, the U.S. will join China, Russia, North Korea, Japan and South Korea in negotiations in Beijing over how best to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat. One country that won't be represented but that's sure to be watching is Iran. Earlier this summer, I attended a meeting in Geneva that included Tehran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and several members of Iran's Expediency Council. After the formal session, they pulled me aside. The one question — the only question — they pressed me about was what Washington planned to do about North Korea. Since then, Iranian diplomats have been consulting European officials. Tehran has begun developing a grand negotiated nuclear bargain of its own. The stakes are high. If, like North Korea, Iran succeeds in getting the world to accept its nuclear program and is allowed to finish its nearly completed "peaceful" light water reactor (which after little more than a year of operation can make over 50 bombs worth of near weapons-grade plutonium), its neighbors are sure to follow suit. Saudi Arabia, who helped bankroll Pakistan's bomb project and has medium-range rockets of its own, has already had officials visit Islamabad's bomb factory in Kahuta. There's even been talk about Pakistan loaning some of its nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, keeping them under Pakistani control (like the U.S. does with its weapons in Germany). Egypt and Syria, meanwhile, are planning nuclear desalinization plants (i.e., big reactors producing material which could be used for nuclear weapons). Algeria, which was caught in 1991 covertly developing a reactor that might make bombs, now has it on line. Finally, Turkey, a close friend to Israel, has made it clear that Iran going nuclear would force Ankara to secure new "security assurances." Like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, which have either tried or considered producing nuclear weapons, all of these nations have or could quickly acquire nuclear-capable missiles. This is not a world the U.S. and its allies want. They probably could identify adversaries and friends in it. But it would be possible only to form a vague idea of how well-armed they might be. And friends, when called upon, would be more inclined to go their own way. Too much would be reminiscent of 1914 but with one big difference — an increasing number of conflicts would be spring-loaded to go nuclear. What must the U.S. do to avoid this? How can it convince Iran and the others that violating their nuclear nonproliferation pledges is a bad idea? First, it would help if Washington was clearer about its own view of North Korea — the most egregious violator of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Certainly, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton was lucid enough when he spoke in Seoul on July 31. "To give in to [Kim Jong Il's] extortionist demands," Mr. Bolton noted, "would only encourage him, and perhaps more ominously, other would-be tyrants around the world." He went on to explain that the best way to bolster upcoming six-way talks, was to have the U.N. Security Council take up the IAEA's six-month old violation report to the council and identify North Korea as an NPT outlaw. This would at least dispel the fiction Pyongyang is promoting that it should be treated as an equal by the other parties to the negotiations (which the IAEA has not found to have violated the treaty). Mr. Bolton also highlighted U.S. President George W. Bush's global strategic weapons technology interdiction effort, the Proliferation Security Initiative. Top on every participating nation's target list for this effort, he noted, was North Korea and Iran. Mr. Bolton's points angered North Korea, which depicted him as "human scum." The White House, in turn, backed Mr. Bolton, saying he spoke for the administration. This support, however, was soon downgraded. Earlier this month at the U.N. mission in New York, U.S. Ambassador Jack Pritchard met with North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Han Song-ryol and reassured him that Mr. Bolton's comments were strictly his "personal" opinion. Mr. Han notified the Japanese press on Aug. 10 and the following day North Korea all but demanded Mr. Bolton's resignation. The question now is, how does the administration view Mr. Bolton's comments? Do they have the administration's backing or do they merely reflect, as one official put it, "a point of view held by many Americans"? Iran and North Korea seem ready to exploit the lack of clarity. This month, U.S. and Japanese newspapers have detailed Iran and North Korea's cooperative efforts to develop nuclear warheads and Taepodong-2 nuclear-capable rockets (designed to fly over 6,000 miles). The number of North Korean weapons experts in Iran is now so large, one paper reported, North Koreans have a seaside community in Iran of their own. Iranian nuclear experts, meanwhile, have already flown to Pyongyang to consult on how to handle IAEA inspections and the possibility of being found in violation of the NPT. The IAEA Board of Governors is set to address these issues next month in Vienna. To curb the mischief that might be done here, the White House ought to reiterate its support for what it claimed were administration views on using the U.N. Security Council to find North Korea in violation of the NPT. If this is not done, the six-way talks will simply become an excuse for keeping the U.N. from enforcing the NPT. North Korea loathes the NPT and IAEA inspectors (who they see as biased) and hates the idea of bringing their violations before the U.N. As far as Pyongyang is concerned, it has withdrawn from the NPT and should not be held accountable for what it did while it was a member of the treaty. Count on Iran and other would-be bomb makers to be watching this carefully. Second, the U.S. can hardly ask others to be firm against North Korea's nuclear nonproliferation violations or to block the start up of Iran's own power station if Washington allows construction of the two large U.S.-designed reactors former U.S. President Bill Clinton promised Pyongyang under the 1994 Agreed Framework to proceed. Work on these reactors (which like Iran's, are prodigious producers of near weapons grade plutonium) continues. This should end. The only way these reactors can be completed is with key U.S. components that President Bush can only approve for export by waiving U.S. legal prohibitions against doing so for NPT violators. Despite all of the Bush administration's tough talk, Japan and South Korea continue to pour concrete in hopes Mr. Bush will waive the law. At any time, President Bush could announce that he has no intention of doing so. The sooner he does so the better. Finally, it would help if, before the six-way talks begin, the U.S. makes it clear what it believes the talks' minimum objectives are and when these objectives need to be met. If North Korea must disclose and dismantle its nuclear program, when at a minimum must this be accomplished? Also, what topics should be off the table? Is the U.S. unwilling to giving Pyongyang assurances that it will not attack it militarily? Or is this an open question? Some (including Iran and North Korea) might see the talks as an end in themselves. So long as we are negotiating, they hope, Washington can hardly risk killing the talks by taking any adverse actions (e.g., terminating the reactors, interdicting weapons-related shipments, identifying Pyongyang at the U.N. as an NPT violator and possibly sanctioning it there, etc.). Moreover, the longer the talks go without resolving any of the key issues, the more likely it is that the U.S. will be forced by the others at the table to make concessions, setting additional advantageous precedents for Iran. Cynics, on the other hand, are already arguing that the talks are simply designed to kick the can on the entire set of axis nuclear headaches until sometime after Mr. Bush wins re-election. The problem here is that they might be right. Iran and North Korea's misbehavior, however, will hardly wait that long. If Washington thinks it can be tough and pull out of the talks after being vague, coy or quiet about its ultimate goals and general time table for 15 months, it certainly knows something no one — including the other parties to the negotiations and the world's proliferators — yet has sound cause to believe. Indeed, under these circumstances, Iran's proposed grand bargain and nuclear program should be fully ripe for yet another crisis by next November. Mr. Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington and editor of the forthcoming book "Nuclear Iran: Developing a Strategy Beyond Denial" (U.S. Army War College). He is also an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics.