North Korea not only has the capability to produce nuclear weapons (it has conducted three underground tests), but it has also stated an intention to build them. At last month’s plenary meeting of the North Korean Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, “a new strategic line was laid down on simultaneously pushing forward economic construction and the building of nuclear-armed forces,” said a spokesman for North Korea’s General Department of Atomic Energy.
In April 2009, Pyongyang threw out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since then there has been no monitoring of those facilities. North Korea has been subjected to increasing economic sanctions, but those efforts have not slowed its progress toward a deliverable nuclear weapon.
Yet I haven’t heard any official in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing talk about attacking reactors at Yongbyon, where plutonium or uranium are being refined — or any secret facilities that may be making highly enriched uranium.
Meanwhile, Israel and the United States have threatened military action against Iran should Tehran move toward building a nuclear weapon. Israel’s red line is Iran developing the capability to produce highly enriched uranium at its two major facilities at Natanz and Fordow. Both are being visited by IAEA inspectors who report on the level of enrichment being achieved.
The inspections provide the United States and Israel some early warning should Iran suddenly try to break out and produce weapons-grade material. Another tipoff: if Iran told the IAEA to leave.
And although North Korean verbal threats are treated as bluster because they don’t appear to be supported with military action, Iran is seen as an “existential threat.” and its repeated claims that it doesn’t want to build nuclear weapons are dismissed as lies.
Several truths are not being discussed in all of this.
The first is that most people in Iran and North Korea want the prestige that goes with nuclear weapons, although most are paying an economic price. Notice that North Korea’s youthful new leader tied the determination to build nuclear-armed forces with “pushing forward economic construction.”
What most Americans don’t know is that North Korea first sought help from the Soviet Union for a nuclear reactor after the United States threatened to use its nuclear weapons to end the Korean War. Soon after, Pyongyang learned that U.S. nuclear bombs and artillery shells had been stored at bases in South Korea — and the desire for their own weapons increased.
Having nuclear weapons is a popular political issue in Iran. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi began the nuclear power program with technology and highly enriched uranium provided by the United States for a research reactor. He also had in mind gaining technology for producing a bomb. When the shah was deposed in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered an end to Iran’s nuclear programs.