Hold North Korea accountable for its nuclear arms

July 23, 2006|By GRAHAM ALLISON

Could North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, sell Osama bin Laden a nuclear weapon or the fissile material from which terrorists could make a nuclear bomb?

Yes. Since January 2003, while U.S. attention has been consumed by Iraq, North Korea has reprocessed the 8,000 spent fuel rods frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework to produce enough plutonium for six nuclear weapons. It has restarted its nuclear research reactor at Yongbyon, which is now producing an additional two bombs worth of plutonium annually. With an arsenal of 10 nuclear weapons and an operational production line, the sale of one or two weapons would thus make little difference to North Korea's deterrent posture.

Has the North Korean government thought about selling a nuclear weapon? Again, the answer is yes. At an April 2003 meeting with James A. Kelly, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official threatened that Pyongyang could "export nuclear weapons." Although famous for bluff and bluster, North Korea also has a well-earned reputation as "Missiles-R-Us." Over the past decade, it has sold and delivered missiles to Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Yemen.

Moreover, despite the American-organized Proliferation Security Initiative that seeks to prevent North Korean exports, it is continuing to sell and deliver missiles to dangerous customers. Late last year, Pyongyang reportedly delivered 18 missiles to Iran. As a criminal state whose two other cash crops are illegal drugs and counterfeit $100 bills, North Korea's government knows how to operate black markets.

Could Mr. Kim imagine that he could get away with selling a nuclear bomb to al-Qaida? His calculation about possible American responses would include judgments about U.S. capabilities to determine the origin of a terrorist nuclear weapon and President Bush's willingness to respond.

Americans think of Mr. Bush as decisive and quick to act. Kim Jong Il's experience with this president has been quite the opposite. Mr. Bush has repeatedly warned North Korea of dire consequences if it took actions the U.S. declared "unacceptable" or "intolerable." But after Mr. Kim crossed each of these red lines, the Bush administration reacted mildly, and the world moved on. Despite Mr. Bush's 2003 assertion that "we will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea," or his recent announcement that a missile test would be "unacceptable," Mr. Kim has stiffed Mr. Bush without consequences.

North Korea could have doubts about U.S. capabilities to identify the source of a nuclear weapon brought to an American city by terrorists.

In sum, we should contemplate the possibility of Mr. Kim selling a nuclear weapon to terrorists. Were he to do so, the danger of a nuclear explosion in a U.S. city would increase drastically.

To deter Mr. Kim from this extreme act, the U.S. government should act now to convince him that North Korea will be held accountable for every nuclear weapon of North Korean origin. To do this, Mr. Bush can take a page from President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, the Soviet Union was installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. Some worried that these weapons might fall under the control of a young, hotheaded revolutionary leader named Fidel Castro.

After careful consideration, Mr. Kennedy issued an unambiguous warning to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He asserted, "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Mr. Khrushchev understood that meant nuclear war.

The Bush administration should announce a new policy of nuclear accountability and warn Kim Jong Il directly and unambiguously that the explosion of any nuclear weapon of North Korean origin on the territory of the United States or our allies will be met by a full retaliatory response that assures that this could never happen again.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is a former assistant secretary of defense and author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." His e-mail is graham_allison@harvard.edu.

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