Nuclear Proliferation Realities – North Korea and Iran Immune to Traditional Arms Control

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. administration made deterring, preventing, or eliminating the threat of nuclear terrorism a top priority. Americans are rightly worried that a terror sponsoring state such as Iran or North Korea, in cooperation with a terrorist group, might seek to detonate a nuclear device in an American city.

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. administration made deterring, preventing, or eliminating the threat of nuclear terrorism a top priority. Americans are rightly worried that a terror sponsoring state such as Iran or North Korea, in cooperation with a terrorist group, might seek to detonate a nuclear device in an American city.

Thus, by default, considerable focus has been on the nuclear threat and preventing such an attack from occurring in the first place. Toward that end, the United States has adopted a four-year plan to sequester as much nuclear material as possible, both domestically and abroad. For too long, however, conventional wisdom assumed keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists meant primarily safeguarding nuclear material produced as part of the nuclear energy fuel cycle and safely storing or eliminating nuclear weapons material in the former Soviet Union. (The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has done extraordinary work in this area since 1991.)

On the other hand, the United States and some of its allies used the framework of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to deal with North Korea and Iran, both parties to the treaty when their nuclear weapons programs were discovered. Here, the tools available to the United States were those of sanctions against the offending country, and lengthy, tedious and largely fruitless negotiations.

What we missed was that Iran and North Korea were largely immune to “arms control” incentives as well as being state sponsors of terrorism. In fact, both rogue states developed and, in the case of Pyongyang, deployed, nuclear weapons while being full members of the NPT. These two states along with Pakistan, China and Russia, to name the most obvious, have cooperated on both ballistic missile systems (used to deliver warheads) and nuclear weapons technology. The attorney for the City of New York has twice indicted Chinese companies for facilitating nuclear weapons work and missile work in Iran.

Though the Pakistani-based A.Q. Khan network was officially closed-down by the Bush administration (Khan being the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb and creator of what I have termed a “Nukes ‘R Us” consortium for selling nuclear know-how and technology to Libya, Iran, North Korea, Iraq and Syria), elements of it have, in a sense, been informally recreated through the current loose federation of countries and entities – including terrorist groups – seeking to proliferate nuclear weapons technology.

What was missing in America’s historical view of nuclear terrorism was that the NPT-member rogue states were determined to secure nuclear weapons capability. Once those states had weapons capability, they intended to supply specially formed terror groups under their control with the same capability. The threat therefore is initially state-based but ultimately shifts to a terrorist cell or group, making stopping such a threat very difficult. The case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is illustrative. Iraq surprised everyone with the advanced state of its nuclear program, which was discovered only because of Desert Storm.

Here current policy assumes that pressure (chiefly through sanctions) on rogue states, a “reset” with Russia, and engagement and cooperation with China, and another round of nuclear weapons cuts, will be sufficient to keep the nuclear terrorist genie in the arms control-counter proliferation bottle.

What is worrisome is the current push for taking major and irreversible steps toward the elimination of key portions the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This is the animating philosophy behind Global Zero, the campaign to rid the world of all nuclear weapons by 2030. It is not that the United States would achieve zero nuclear weapons first, and then expect the rest of the world to follow, but that Global Zero proponents believe that by showing the world America is serious about eliminating its own arsenal it would prompt countries such as Brazil, Germany, and Turkey to coordinate pressure on dangerous nuclear states, such as North Korea and an aspiring Iran, to eliminate their own nuclear weapons programs.

Unfortunately for Global Zero proponents, the fact is that the United States has already cut the number of its deployed and reserve nuclear weapons from the height of the Cold War by anywhere from 80 to 90 percent, depending upon how one does the math. One could reasonably assume that this severe reduction is ample evidence of the American commitment to the NPT goal of elimination.

But critics repeatedly claim such progress is insufficient. Each time Iran, North Korea, Russia, or China deploy additional nuclear weapons or build new nuclear capable platforms, refuse international inspectors, test a nuclear device, and/or launch potential delivery missiles, many analysts and commentators rush to explain rogue behavior by reference to U.S. policies or capabilities. America is urged to make greater concessions under the assumption that a more conciliatory approach will persuade rogue states to give up their nuclear ambitions or provide a better framework for negotiations.

A common maxim among those demanding the United States first give up its nuclear weapons is, “Keep your nuclear weapons and the Americans will not invade.” It was only after Moammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear weapons program did America invade Libya, is a common assumption. The fact that the United States has not invaded North Korea, which has yet to give up its nuclear weapons program, is supposedly further proof of the benefit of rogue states having nuclear weapons. 190 other countries do not have nuclear weapons and the United States has not invaded them, however.

When North Korea exploded a nuclear device, or admitted seeking uranium enrichment, both in violation of the Agreed Framework, the Bush administration was condemned for a failure to “engage and negotiate.” Now, North Korea tests ballistic missiles and openly threatens to launch nuclear devices against the United States, and the UN Security Council, correctly, condemns Pyongyang and not the U.S. government. When the Bush administration sought sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear weapons development program it was accused of “war mongering,” while the current sanctions regime receives support from those same critics because they are a “smarter alternative” to war.

And that then brings us back to where we started.

The coalition of state sponsors of terrorism is alive and well. Chinese and Russian technology was discovered in the debris of a North Korean rocket launched, in contravention of all of Beijing’s and Moscow’s professed support for UN sanctions. North Korean and Chinese technicians are helping Egypt with Scud missile technology. Specialists told a Congressional Commission some years ago that Russia has assisted Pyongyang in developing small nuclear warheads with an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) capability. One new report claims North Korea has warheads as small as 500 kilograms, showing necessary progress toward successfully mating a warhead with a missile. And Iranian rockets are smuggled from the Sudan through Egypt and the Sinai to Gaza where they are fired at Israel.

None of this is a coincidence. The conventional wisdom that ‘soft and smart power’ can entice the tyrants of the world to make peace is based on a mistaken belief that tyranny flows from nations being propelled solely by historical events over which they have no control, reacting to “grievances” against the United States. A prominent example of this school of thought is found in veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer’s 2008 book, All the Shah’s Men, whereby the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the 9/11 attacks are blamed on U.S. support for the 1953 “coup” in Iran.

When President Reagan confronted the Soviet empire, he did with all the tools at his disposal-economic, political, cultural and military. And arms control was used as a tool to weaken Soviet hegemony.

Today, however, there is a growing chorus who believe blaming America for the world’s ills is good political business. The downside is that an American public weary of war will see such a retreat as a necessary re-balancing instead of a dangerous withdrawal; a withdrawal based on an assumption by U.S. officials that totalitarian forces pursuing nuclear weapons will see it as an accommodation between partners and not as a weakness to be challenged.

Peter Huessy, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis and the senior defense consultant at the Air Force Association. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.