Pyongyang and the 'p' word

Posted in Koreas | 18-Oct-06 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

Dr. Ehsan Ahrari is WSN Editor U.S.A. and member of the WSN International Advisory Board.

Now that North Korea has apparently brought its nuclear weapons program out in the open, all sorts of forbidding rhetoric and scenarios are being offered about what it might do with its nuclear weapons. Since the UN Security Council has passed a resolution imposing limited sanctions on the hermit state [1], the question is how far will an angry regime retaliate in terms of opening up its own "nuclear bazaar".

North Korea is known to have supplied ballistic missiles to a number of Middle Eastern countries, so it has clients who are willing to pay high prices, presumably in hard currency, for its missile know-how. Of concern, too, is whether North Korea will become a regular source of transfer of nuclear knowledge to countries that have expressed an interest in developing "peaceful" nuclear programs. Finally, it should be asked whether Pyongyang would be willing to sell a "dirty bomb" to the likes of al-Qaeda. After all, both North Korea and al-Qaeda share an intense hatred for the lone superpower.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il might well be thinking along the lines of A Q Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. Khan, by his own admission in 2004, at one time ran a nuclear bazaar aimed at proliferating nuclear weapons know-how to North Korea, Iran and Libya. It was never made public exactly how far he got in realizing this goal.

What concerns the international community is that North Korea's potential customers - ie, countries which have conducted business with Kim in terms of purchasing cruise and ballistic missiles - include Angola, Myanmar, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda, Libya, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Vietnam, Yemen, Zaire and Zimbabwe.

A report published in 2005 by the Congressional Research Service stated that North Korea earned about US$1 billion through arms sales during 1997-2000, which made the country the 11th-largest supplier of arms to developing countries. From 2001 to 2004, North Korea did not make the list of leading arms suppliers.

Despite UN sanctions expressly prohibiting most arms sales, weak enforcement and oversight could allow North Korea to return to the market. To start with, it could sell conventional arms, including ballistic missile supplies. This was underscored when a recent report indicated that North Korea had attempted to sell missile technology to Nigeria and Myanmar.

The US is most worried about the possibility of the hard-currency-seeking regime even considering selling technology to develop nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to countries like Iran and Syria (assuming that Iran does not yet have that knowledge).

Egypt and Turkey have expressed interest in developing nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes, as have Morocco and Yemen. Even though there is no current evidence to question their motives, there is always the possibility that nuclear plants built for peaceful purposes will lead to the development of indigenous nuclear weapons.

It should be clearly stated that no one is accusing either Egypt or Turkey of having nuclear weapons aspirations at the present time. However, if North Korea can get away with converting peaceful know-how to nuclear weapons development, more and more actors could be tempted as well.

Finally, there is a high degree of interest on the part of al-Qaeda to seek nuclear know-how for the development of a "dirty bomb". Osama bin Laden has been on record since 1998 depicting the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction as part of his organization's "religious duty".

Even though collusion between the communist North Korea and a religious extremist entity like al-Qaeda sounds unlikely, what might unite them is a common enemy, the US. while there is no evidence of complicity between North Korean scientists and al-Qaeda, there is the possibility that Kim's regime could be talked into providing know-how, for a price of course.

The nature of global affairs in the post-September 11, 2001, era is such that no one can rule out any of the preceding scenarios. The nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for the past several decades. As countries' national security is threatened - especially those not protected by the American or Russian nuclear shields - they might be compelled to develop their own nuclear umbrellas. Israel has been a pioneer in this regard.

India and Pakistan are two of the newest members of the elite nuclear club. Both of them had to crash the gate to become members, and North Korea has simply emulated them.

As long as it is not persuaded to unravel its nuclear weapons program, which could be achieved by offering it legitimate security guarantees, North Korea as a pariah state remains a dangerous actor which could be looking for openings to "strike back" at the lone superpower when suitable opportunities arise.

Note [1] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 bans North Korean trade in materials linked to its weapons of mass destruction program, ballistic missiles, high-end conventional weapons - including warplanes and battle tanks - and luxury goods. China rejected a call for more intrusive searches of North Korean vessels, such as those Japan plans to implement on its own accord. The resolution will create a UN committee to monitor the sanctions' effectiveness and to draw up a list of individuals and institutions linked to North Korea's weapons programs. They will be prohibited from traveling abroad, and most of their financial assets will be frozen.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: