Beware a North Korean Nuclear Bazaar

The United States can live with a nuclear North Korea. America survived 50 years of a nuclear balance of terror with the Soviet Union. What the world cannot live with is a North Korea that massively supplies nuclear weapons to highest bidders.

SEOUL, Korea.

North Korea has become the 9th member of the world's exclusive nuclear club.  Within one week of its self-invited debut on the nuclear stage, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1718 sanctioning Pyongyang's nuclear program. The decision Wednesday by North Korea to come back to the six party talks brought a brief sigh of relief for the concerned parties. But the prospects for the six party negotiations remain very much unclear as Washington and Pyongyang, the principal two parties in this seemingly never-ending saga, maintain irreconcilable positions toward each other.

The United States stands firm on its demand that North Korea give up its nuclear program first while North Korea demands a U.S. guarantee of regime survival and economic rewards as preconditions to consider dismantling its nuclear program. No one can predict when and where this tug of war will end, there is one thing that the world should and can do. Don't let North Korea proliferate.    

North Korea's neighbors in Northeast Asia-China, Japan and South Korea-face the reality of living in a different world. Nuclear North Korea alters the fundamental security dynamics around the Korean Peninsula. However, North Korea's nuclear test does not alter the immediate strategic interest of the United States. After all, Washington has tacitly acknowledged North Korea's de facto nuclear status for the past fifteen years. U.S. government officials have variously stated that North Korea had processed plutonium enough for one or two bombs since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, North Korea insists that its nuclear program is for deterrence against possible U.S. attack. Time and again, President Bush has said that the United States has no intention of initiating a military attack on North Korea, which Mr. Bush reconfirmed after the test. It was only matter of time and test before North Korea officially became a nuclear state. In other words, the threat and the deterrence value of North Korea's nuclear weapons program have been in existence for quite sometime. North Korea's nuclear test simply reaffirmed a situation that has been in place.

As long as North Korea's nuclear weapons are purely for deterrence, the United States can live with a nuclear North Korea. The United States and the world survived 50 years of a nuclear balance of terror with the Soviet Union. It is hard to imagine that Kim Jong-Il will launch a nuclear attack on the United States which will surely mean the very end of his own survival. What the world cannot live with is North Korea becoming a mass supplier of nuclear weapons. For now, North Korea is known to have sufficient plutonium for another six nuclear weapons removed from the 5 MW reactor at Yongbyon. If allegations of a secret uranium program are true, the whole stockpile could be as large as 20 or more. In addition to existing nuclear materials, North Korea is reportedly building additional nuclear capacity.  During his 11th visit to North Korea in late May 2005, Stanford University professor John Lewis was told by the North Koreans that they had restarted construction of the 50 MW and 200 MW reactors that had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework. The North told Lewis they planned on finishing the reactors within two years.  The two reactors could produce about 275 kilograms of plutonium annually, enough for about 50 atomic bombs.

North Korea with one or two nuclear weapons is one thing. Dealing with North Korea with one or two hundred nuclear warheads is a totally different matter. As its nuclear stockpile grows, so would the temptation to sell some to the highest bidder. North Korea made it clear in an official statement issued right before the test that it would not transfer its nukes. Nevertheless, the North is in desperate need of cash and it does not have much to sell on the international market.  Weapons sales, such as Scud missiles, have been the main source of North Korea's cash income. North Korea's nuclear materials and related technologies will be in high demand on the international market, a temptation that Pyongyang will find increasingly difficult to resist, especially as its economy suffers more strains under international sanctions. It is hard to believe that impoverished North Korea will not take advantage of its growing nuclear capacity, one of the very few competitive goods it can offer the world.

Right after the nuclear test, President Bush categorically stressed that North Korea should not transfer its nuclear materials. Any possible transfer of nuclear materials to rogue nations or terrorist groups will surely force U.S. military action against North Korea, which will plunge the entire Northeast Asia into serious turmoil. 

Fortunately, North Korea may yet have a long way to go before developing full capacity for mass production of nuclear weapons. It is still not clear whether the October nuclear test was a full success. Although both the U.S. and the South Korean governments confirmed it was indeed a nuclear test, many scientists point out that the first test seemed to be a partial success at best for its relatively small- scale nuclear explosion. To become a full-fledged nuclear power, there must be several rounds of tests-as has been the case with all acknowledged nuclear states, including India and Pakistan. Pyongyang has implied that, under greater U.S. pressure, it would conduct additional tests. However, some speculate North Korea may not have amassed enough nuclear materials to complete additional tests.