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.
Ironically, it was U.S. claims that Iraq, Tehran’s enemy, was developing nuclear weapons that led Khomeini to restart his country’s program in 1984. Today, Iran’s neighbors — Russia, India and Pakistan — have nuclear weapons, as do its prime enemies, Israel and the United States.
No wonder the nuclear program appeals to Iranian national pride. In 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to calm the United States and other Western countries by appearing to negotiate the future of the nation’s nuclear program, his most vocal opposition came from Iran’s Green Movement leaders, who had worked against his election and feared he would give away too much.
Today there is growing talk in South Korea that the United States should return its tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn in 1991, or that Seoul should develop its own nuclear deterrent.
Even Japan has some legislators talking about dispensing with their longtime principles that bar the possession, manufacture or storage of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new prime minister, has said that the country’s constitution does not preclude the acquisition of nuclear weapons for tactical defense.
Perhaps it’s time for the United States to at least discuss this possible new reality: No nation, not even the powerful United States, can threaten strong enough economic sanctions or military action against any country whose leaders and public want to build nuclear weapons.
Take the view of Stanford professor Sigfried Hecker, a director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, who has visited North Korea seven times. He was the person who announced in November 2010 that the Kim Jong Il regime had built a state-of-the-art uranium enrichment facility.
On Tuesday, Hecker said in an interview posted on Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation Web site that North Korea “has a bomb but not yet much of an arsenal.” He said Pyongyang “lacks fissile materials, plutonium or highly enriched uranium to fuel its bombs” and it is for that reason it is threatening to restart its old plutonium reactor and increase the capacity of its uranium enrichment facility.
Given that circumstance, the United States should focus on trying to dissuade the North Koreans from producing more fissile material, rather than trying to get them to totally give up nuclear weapons.
The United States should work toward Pyongyang having “no more bombs, no better bombs and no export,” Hecker said.
“Why would the regime want to launch a nuclear attack when it fully knows that any use of nuclear weapons would result in a devastating military response and would spell the end of the regime?”
That’s deterrence, which worked during the Cold War and I believe will continue to work no matter who has a nuclear weapon, North Korea, Iran, or any other country.
Nations ultimately will have to see this is the only rational way to proceed.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.