Reports have surfaced of a new North Korean uranium enrichment plant, whose existence is a “provocative act of defiance” according to a senior Administration official quoted by Fox News on Sunday. In one sense, the existence of this plant is a shocking surprise, because it demonstrates a much greater level of sophistication than North Korea was generally thought to possess, and its 2,000 centrifuges appeared with incredible speed.
In another sense, this isn’t surprising at all. North Korea’s path to producing weapons-grade radioactive materials has been set since the early 90s, when the last plausible chance to stop them came and went. Communist Korea’s uranium centrifuges began spinning on the night Kim Jong-Il was whirling a clueless Madeleine Albright around the dance floor in Pyongyang.
It would have been difficult to stop North Korea under the best of circumstances. In the very early days of a rogue state’s nuclear program, targeted strikes might be able to wipe out indispensible resources and personnel, as the Israelis did to Iraq when they took out the Osirak reactor in 1981. Ideally this sort of strike will push the horizon of nuclear development beyond the reign of the current dictator, in hopes that a government less determined to develop them will come to power. It takes massive resources and tight security to complete a nuclear program. There is reason to hope a basket-case dictatorship will crumble before weapons-grade material comes rolling off the production line.
In practice, it hasn’t worked out that way. The Iranian mullahs put a bullet through the head of their democracy movement last year. Kim Jong-Il built his new uranium plant with starving slave labor. The strategy of containment through atrophy is not panning out.
Once the early stage of a nuclear program is complete, facilities and personnel can be dispersed and hardened, until surgical strikes really aren’t an option any more. At that point, the only way to stop the nuclear countdown is regime change. No one should be truly surprised that none of the other methods work. What do sanctions mean to a pampered dictator whose conscience is untroubled by the poverty of his people? How effective can sanctions ever be, against a state that counts China or Russia as a patron?
The West is always eager to trade concessions for empty promises, a game North Korea played masterfully over the past twenty years. Make a few promises, collect a few billion in money or materials, and tell the boys in the weapons program to keep it quiet for a while. The dictator might need to allow a carefully staged inspection of a Potemkin facility or two, which is a bit of a hassle, but nobody ever said totalitarian rule was going to be easy. As the New York Times reports, the original North Korean weapons program involved harvesting spent plutonium from a reactor at Yongbyon, which they shut down with great fanfare in 2008… even as the more sophisticated and productive program of uranium enrichment was chugging along. It was a very successful bait-and-switch operation, in which North Korea was paid handsomely to destroy a facility they were pretty much finished with anyway.
North Korea has successfully detonated two test warheads. There is speculation in the Asian press that another test may be coming soon. Intelligence sources believe they milked half a dozen warheads out of the Yongbyon facility before it was demolished. Once functional warheads have been produced, the regime-change option is essentially off the table. The true value of a nuclear weapons program to a rogue state is security against such operations. Once the nuclear umbrella goes up, there is very little a dictatorship can do, short of actually deploying a nuclear weapon against an enemy target, that would provoke an international response stronger than a harsh letter. A nuclear rogue state becomes the Charlie Rangel of the global community, able to sit back and watch the civilized world spend years debating how strong their symbolic reprimands should be.
Nuclear blackmail is another reason to push ahead with a weapons program, and North Korea excels at it. Perhaps Kim Jong-Il or his successor will have a dozen warheads someday, and feel good about selling a couple of them to the United Nations for billions, while the rest are carefully hidden away… to resurface when the Pyongyang treasury needs replenishing. The North Koreans made a point of showing off this new uranium facility. There’s a reason they wanted the world to see it. The so-called “six-party talks” have been stalled for quite a while. Something tells me North Korea is about to stomp away from the table, and leave the other five parties stuck with the check.
Some talk hopefully of China pulling the leash on its feral client state, but they’ve got plenty of reasons to let their starving attack dog have its head for a while. It helps them peddle their protection racket to the rest of Asia. Posing as a dragon slayer, when the dragon takes your orders, is a lucrative business. It’s also nice when the terrified neighbors pitch in to feed the dragon for you. China’s economic boom would not be enhanced by having to shoulder the full expense of propping up the zombie North Korean state.
There are few good options for moving forward from here. North Korea wouldn’t have made such a show of tipping its hand unless it thought it was holding some excellent cards. At best, we might have another round of expensive payoffs, buying a couple more years until North Korea decides to stage this whole drama again. At worst, uranium production – and proliferation – is about to begin. The great danger of a state like North Korea is not the weapons they’ll deploy, but the ones they’ll sell. The first act of atomic terror will not be conducted by an easily targeted nation-state that can be proven guilty on the world stage, and obliterated in retaliation. The U.N. just released a report two weeks ago, long suppressed by China, which revealed North Korea has been selling banned materials to Iran, Syria, and the Myanmar junta. I’m sure they’re all eager to see what kind of Black Friday specials the North Korean Wal-Mart of Evil offers over the next couple of years.
There might have been something decisive that could have been done about this, twenty years ago. That ship has sailed. The current drama has been inevitable, in some form, since the Soviet Union was able to obtain Western nuclear secrets through espionage at the beginning of the Cold War. The fabled Communist spies of yesteryear picked the lock on Pandora’s Box, a few hundred years before the human race was ready to deal with it. All we can do now is try to hold back the hands of a doomsday clock that will probably never stop ticking. Even China might be surprised when the alarm goes off.