Here's a chilling scenario from the CIA's former top Asia hand: Within a year, North Korea is likely to test a nuclear weapon, probably in a cave or mine shaft somewhere in the barren northeast of the country.
A small amount of radioactive fallout will leak from the test site and drift toward Japan. Financial markets in Tokyo and Seoul will be rocked by the news. Foreign companies in South Korea will weigh whether to pull out dependents or reduce their operations. And Washington will debate whether to impose a blockade or other tough measures to contain the North Korean nuclear breakout.
That's the essence of a briefing being given to some major U.S. companies by Arthur Brown, who retired in December as chief of the East Asia division of the CIA's clandestine service. He's now a senior vice president for the consulting firm Control Risks Group. He says the briefing is based entirely on unclassified material. It mirrors concerns in intelligence circles.
Brown argues that the North Korean test is the next step in a nuclear weapons program that has been underway for nearly 50 years. The country is already a "declared" nuclear state after announcing this year that it has weapons. It wants to become a "recognized" nuclear state, like China, India or Pakistan. But to achieve that status, it must first make itself a "demonstrated" power by conducting a nuclear test. Or so goes Brown's analysis.
Pyongyang's nuclear efforts began in 1956, just three years after the end of the Korean War, when the country signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to train nuclear scientists; the Soviets helped build North Korea's first reactor in 1965. In 1974 the North Koreans added a nuclear training agreement with China. They built a second small reactor in 1986 at Yongbyon, and the United States detected a third, larger reactor there in 1989; these reactors could enrich plutonium fuel rods to the levels necessary to make a bomb. The North Koreans agreed to freeze their plutonium program in 1994, and they put 8,000 fuel rods at Yongbyon under seal. But they continued covertly along another bomb-making route, using highly enriched uranium created in special centrifuges apparently obtained from Pakistan.
What convinces Brown that North Korea will soon test a weapon is that the country's leader, Kim Jong Il, has been increasingly open about his goal of joining the nuclear club. When the United States found evidence of the covert uranium enrichment program in 2002, the North made no effort to deny it -- and promptly resumed reprocessing the plutonium fuel rods as well. In October 2003 North Korea warned that it was "willing to physically display nuclear capability," its code phrase for testing. Last year a senior official said his country "needs nuclear weapons for self-defense." And in February the North Koreans announced that they "have manufactured nuclear weapons and will retain them under any circumstances."
A model for the coming nuclear test, says Brown, was North Korea's 1998 test-firing of a three-stage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific. That test was announced by the North Korean news agency, just as Brown expects the coming nuclear test will be. And North Korea hasn't made any effort to deny last week's statement by Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, that it now has the technology to produce an actual warhead that could fit atop missiles which, by U.S. intelligence estimates, could reach parts of the United States.
Kim Jong Il is often seen as a reckless madman, as in President Bush's description of him last week as a "tyrant" and "dangerous person" who "starves his own people" and has "huge concentration camps." But Brown argues that however brutal Kim's policies are, he has pursued what in his context is a rational course. "Kim sees only two options -- Baghdad or Islamabad," says Brown. In other words, he can wait for an American attack or he can move quickly to show his nuclear cards -- hoping he can then bargain for a deal that ensures his regime's survival. In Brown's view, "the chance that Kim Jong Il will negotiate away his nuclear option is close to zero."
The only perverse benefit of a North Korean nuclear test is that it would force neighboring states -- such as China and South Korea -- to end their denial and face reality. A nuclear North Korea poses a deadly and destabilizing threat for Asia. Dealing with that threat will require more active cooperation between the United States and its Asian friends. A nuclear test is one hell of a wake-up call, but in this case maybe it's a necessary one.