Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

A Scary Thought: Loose Nukes in North Korea

While the world prepares to disarm Iraq of chemical and biological arms, by force if necessary, it does nothing as a larger disaster unfolds in North Korea-loose nukes.

News reports indicate that North Korea has begun to move fuel rods containing six bombs’ worth of plutonium from its facility at Yongbyon. For eight years, since 1994, that plutonium has been stored at Yongbyon where it could be seen by on-site inspectors and, if necessary, entombed by an airstrike of precision bombs. Now it is being trucked away, perhaps to one of North Korea’s many caves, where it will be difficult to find or destroy.

This development undermines global nonproliferation efforts that have been successful for decades, and represents an imminent danger to the security of the region. Even more, in an age of terrorism it poses the additional specter of putting nuclear weapons into the hands of parties even more threatening than the North Korean government. North Korea has few cash-generating exports other than ballistic missiles. Now nuclear weapons or fissile material could take their place in its shopping catalogue. Or North Korea’s government might collapse, losing control of the nukes in the process.  While hijacked airlines and anthrax-dusted letters are a dangerous threat to civilized society, it would change the way Americans were forced to live if it became an ever-present possibility that a city could disappear in a mushroom cloud.

North Korea has not been allowed to reprocess nuclear fuel rods to obtain weapons plutonium since 1989. In that period, North Korea obtained a quantity of plutonium that it did not declare honestly to the IAEA, as it was required to do. How much is uncertain, but estimates range as high as two bombs’ worth. Whether it has had a bomb or two for the past 15 years is not known, but for sure it is now only a few months away from obtaining six bombs. The North Koreans might reckon that’s enough to sell some and have some left over to threaten the U.S. and its allies, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea also admitted last October that it aims to produce the other metal from which nuclear weapons can be made-uranium. It will be years, however, before that effort produces anything like the amount of fissile material now being trucked from Yongbyon. The material at Yongbyon is the immediate threat.

Even if their nukes remain in the hands of the current government, a nuclear North Korea could prompt a domino effect of proliferation in East Asia.  South Korea once had a nuclear weapons program that it stopped because it was persuaded its security could be assured without them. Will some in South Korea start to reconsider? Similar questions might be asked in Japan and Taiwan-questions no government wants asked.

We cannot wait for the Iraq situation to resolve itself while the North Korean government is taking actions that cross a dangerous “red line.”  The North Koreans have chosen, as many predicted, the most inconvenient time to take the wheel and drive out of Yongbyon. So far, they have been in the driver’s seat. The U.S. needs to develop a policy that gets its hands back on the wheel.

First, we must make it clear that the concealment or reprocessing of those rods constitutes an unacceptable threat to our security and to the security of the region.

Second, we must repair our relations with South Korea, because no American strategy can succeed if it does not have the support of our allies.  Their national interests and ours are not identical, but they overlap strongly.  South Korea can provide vital assistance in persuading North Korea’s leaders to change course-or it can undermine our position if it is not persuaded we are right. Above all, our troops must stand shoulder to shoulder to deter North Korean aggression.

Third, President Bush must begin now the diplomacy he has said will be his first resort for staving off a nuclear setback on the Korean peninsula. No one can say whether diplomacy will work. Perhaps the North Koreans are determined to attempt to get nuclear weapons despite our resolve and the world’s condemnation. We can only ascertain that by beginning direct talks.

Our position in that diplomacy must be clear: We require the complete and verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.  One thing we can offer in return is not something tangible, but something that North Korea might value highly: a formal pledge that the U.S. does not have hostile intent against North Korea. Much as we object to North Korea’s treatment of its people, we do not plan to go to war to change it. We can live in peace. Only the U.S. can make this pledge, which is why direct talks are required.

We can argue that since North Korea has enough conventional firepower on the DMZ to make war a distinctly unpleasant prospect to us, it doesn’t need nuclear weapons to safeguard its security. Far from guaranteeing security, pursuit of nuclear weapons will force a confrontation. Once the nuclear program is gone, the relative stability that will remain can provide the time and conditions for a relaxation of tensions, and, eventually, improved relations if North Korea transforms its relations with the rest of the world.

The other thing the U.S. can offer is assistance with the process of dismantling the North’s nuclear and missile weapons and facilities, in a version of the historic Nunn-Lugar program that dismantled the former Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction.

The loose nukes disaster unfolding at Yongbyon touches the highest security interests of the U.S. and the world as we enter the 21st century. Delay is not an option.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton B., William J. Perry, and John M. Shalikashvili.“A Scary Thought: Loose Nukes in North Korea.” The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2003.

The Authors

Ash Carter