SANTA MONICA, California — International efforts to pressure North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program could increase the chances of one of America's worst nightmares coming true — North Korean sales of nuclear weapons and technology to Iran, terrorist groups and other nations.
This frightening result could come about if new sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations — along with trade restrictions imposed by Japan, the United States and other nations — succeed in weakening North Korea's already weak economy, threatening the rule of Kim Jong Il. Desperate for hard currency, Kim could decide that the only way to keep his regime and himself alive is to become a nuclear arms merchant.
North Korea is believed to possess nuclear materials sufficient for five to 10 weapons, and perhaps as many as 20. And since it appears to have created nuclear weapons already, the North likely has the ability to build more.
Following passage of a UN Security Council resolution Oct. 14 demanding that North Korea destroy its weapons of mass destruction and halt work on nuclear arms development, North Korea's UN ambassador, Pak Gil Yon, said if the United States continued to "increase pressure" on North Korea his nation would consider it a declaration of war and take "critical countermeasures."
While Pak did not specify what those would be, North Korea has a long history of selling arms. The nation's announcement that it had tested a nuclear explosive on Oct. 9 made nuclear weapons potentially its most valuable export.
The Security Council resolution bans North Korean trade in materials linked to its nuclear weapons program, as well as heavy military equipment such as tanks, artillery systems, missiles and warships.
However, a provision of the resolution saying other nations can inspect goods leaving and entering North Korea to enforce the trade ban was weakened considerably when China said it would not participate in such inspections. Most of North Korea's imports and exports cross the 880- mile border with China.
Russia and China also insisted on removing any threat of force before agreeing to back the UN resolution. That may lead Kim to ignore it.
In Congressional hearings in 2005, the directors of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency suggested there was a possibility that North Korea might seek to sell nuclear weapons or materials abroad for hard currency.
Kim is also well aware that he could use the mere threat of selling nuclear weapons to terrorists or other nations as a bargaining chip to demand billions of dollars in aid and concessions on a broad range of issues from the United States and other nations. In his view, giving up the weapons that give his small nation such enormous power must seem as senseless as asking a bank robber to turn his pistol over to the teller.
Iran is facing possible UN sanctions for developing its own nuclear program, which it says is designed only for peaceful power generation. Experts believe it would take Iran five to 10 years to develop a nuclear bomb of its own. But buying an atomic weapon from North Korea could bring Iran entry into the nuclear club much sooner.
As the world's fourth-largest oil exporter, Iran could afford to pay a high price for North Korean nuclear weapons. Iran has refused to condemn North Korea's atomic bomb test, and the two nations maintain good relations.
While nuclear arms exports from North Korea today are most frightening to the United States, South Korea, Japan and allies of these nations, it would be short-sighted for Russia and China to consider these loose nukes to be someone else's problem.
Once nuclear weapons leave North Korean hands there is no telling where they could eventually wind up and who they could be used against. And the more these weapons of mass destruction proliferate, the greater the pressure there will be on South Korea, Japan and other nations to join the nuclear club, creating yet more dangers of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of people who would use them.
Perhaps the only way for the nuclear genie that has escaped the bottle in North Korea to be put back is with a strong shove from Russia and China. It is in the long-term interests of both these nations to start pushing harder.
Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on October 17, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.