Analysis & Opinions - Los Angeles Times

Worse Than You Think

| July 9, 2006

The President is downplaying the threat from North Korea. But what happns if Pyongyang sells a nuclear bomb to terrorists?

The Commander-in-Chief insists his North Korea policy isn't a disaster.

At a news conference Friday, President Bush was asked why, given North Korea's increasing nuclear capability, its refusal to talk and its July 4 missile launches, Americans shouldn't conclude that the U.S. policy toward North Korea is a failed one.

"Because it takes time to get things done," Bush replied.

Unfortunately, time is only likely to expose even more starkly that his North Korea policy is a striking failure.

Taking a page from its post-9/11 strategy of avoiding discussion of the inability to capture Osama bin Laden, for the last year the Bush administration has assiduously avoided two words: North Korea.

Until Kim Jong Il forced himself back into the limelight, the administration had almost succeeded in erasing him from public consciousness. The White House's desire to change the subject is understandable. Since Bush entered the Oval Office in January 2001, Kim's estimated stockpile of plutonium has quintupled.

In 2001, U.S. intelligence officials judged that in 1991, during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, North Korea secretly reprocessed spent fuel diverted from its Yongbyon research reactor to produce enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear bombs. Estimates now are that Pyongyang today has enough plutonium for eight to 13 bombs' worth of plutonium and a production line that is making two additional bombs' worth of plutonium every year.

Why are Kim's nuclear bombs a much graver threat than his missiles?

As a vehicle for delivering a nuclear weapon, an intercontinental ballistic missile has one fatal flaw: It leaves an unambiguous return address. Kim knows that were he to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM against the United States, in the same hour, America's overwhelming nuclear response would ensure that no warhead was ever again launched from North Korea.

If a North Korean nuclear weapon does detonate in an American city, it will have come in a backpack across our porous borders (where 50% more illegal aliens entered the U.S. last year than in the year before 9/11), or in one of the 7 million cargo containers that arrive by ship and rail annually (only 3% of which are inspected), or in a boat that docks at one of the countless unmonitored marinas in the Northeast, Florida or California.

After 9/11, Bush pledged to do everything possible to prevent the most dangerous weapons from falling into the most dangerous hands. As he explained, that meant Al Qaeda with nukes. Terrorists, having no known return address, and often seeking martyrdom, are difficult to deter.

How significant is the difference between the nuclear threat posed by North Korea when the Bush administration entered office, and the threat we face today? A state with two untested nuclear weapons faces an array of uncertainties. Will the weapons work? If it conducts a test, even if successful, at that point it would have only one nuclear bomb. With one or two nuclear weapons, the possibility that it would sell or transfer one of the weapons is extremely low.

Contrast this with North Korea today, which has enough plutonium for eight to 13 nuclear bombs and is producing an additional two bombs' worth of plutonium a year. Could such a state contemplate selling a bomb to another state or to a terrorist like Bin Laden?

Imagine that the state was the North Korea described by the Bush administration as a Stalinist criminal nation that recently starved 2 million of its own citizens, and that is known as "Missiles R' Us" because its principal sources of income come from the sale of missiles (18 of which reportedly were delivered to Iran late last year), illegal drugs and counterfeit $100 bills.

Moreover, Kim is acutely aware that he is the target of Bush's policy that calls for "regimicide." As the United States squeezes North Korea economically to destroy the "Dear Leader" and his evil regime, could he turn out to be as diabolical as the president describes him?

Why the Bush administration's approach to North Korea has failed so catastrophically is a longer story. Suffice it to say that today, U.S. options in dealing with North Korea have shrunk to a choice between horrible and even worse.

But the starting point for the strategic reassessment now required is a recognition of reality. In combating the most likely source of what Bush rightly identified as "the single largest threat to American national security," the Bush administration's policy has failed.

Graham Allison,a former assistant secretary of defense, is director of theBelfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard'sKennedySchoolof Government.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Worse Than You Think.” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2006.