Tuesday, October 10, 2006


I would like to think that most in the US administration are upset with N Korea's nuclear test mainly because they see it as another instance of the world defying their cherished monopoly and authority on one matter or the other, not so much because it poses a real threat. What do you expect when one country still has thousands of functional warheads, and strenuously tries to keep other nations from developing a weapons program, all the while having a sinking general image in the world? I am not saying that N Korea did a good thing by doing a test, and I detest their totalitarian regime as much as anyone else, but such things really are inevitable with the current scenario. I would not be surprised if Iran does the same thing tomorrow. Building a crude nuclear weapon is not very difficult now; on the other hand, it does take a lot of testing to fine tune its yield and efficiency, not to mention deliverability. So we should not fear N Korea's nuclear test and think that means that a nuclear attack by N Koreans on US or any other soil is imminent. The US, thanks to many decades of cold war testing and development, still has a nuclear arsenal that is second to none in quality and number. No country would still dare to attack the US with nuclear weapons. However, unless the US takes a conciliatory stance in many of its foreign policy matters, I don't see how nation such as N Korea and Iran can not go ahead with at least preliminary weapons development.

Reports about the exact yield of the bomb are still not certain I believe. Estimates ranged from a yield of 500 tons (which is lousy) to about 15 kilotons (respectable but one which has long since been spectacularly surpassed). The real threat, if any, comes from the existence of multiple reentry vehicles and ballistic missiles equipped to carry thermonuclear warheads, and that threat does not exist with either N Korea or with Iran (It might exist with China on the other hand- again, what does it actually mean?).

What the US really could realistically fear and pay attention to, as Graham Allison says in his book Nuclear Terrorism, is a terrorist attack on its soil with a dirty bomb. Statesmen, even totalitarian ones like Kim, are rational to a large extent, as far as the continuity of their regime is concerned. Jihadis wearing red bandanas are always a different kettle of fish. It's those fish which the US and other nations should try to keep at bay, and capture.

As for N Korea, now with even China galled over its ally's behaviour, I don't know how long it can keep going in the face of possible economic collapse. But then again, look at Cuba...


Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

US may not have any reason to fear of a nuclear attack by N Korea on its soil, at least not right now, but the test does give N Korea some persuasive powers not to mention a shot in the arm for other wannabes like Iran. Kim Jong is certain to use his new "capability" to blackmail west and S Korea. The nuclear test only strenghtens his grip on power in the hermit nation as any attempt by US to stage a coup against the korean dictator always has to weigh in the possibility, however remote, of a nuclear fallout. I recall General Musharraf on the daily show saying with evident pride," No one can afford to destabilize a nuclear state." This is a message which has gone across well among the power hungry monsters of the world.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Chetan said...

The US is not really worried about North Korea attacking its mainland using nuclear weapons per se. Japan and South Korea are the ones who are threatened by that, certainly not the US, especially given North Korea's poor weapons delivery mechanism.

North Korea is a known for acquiring nuclear knowhow through buying technological knowhow from experts such as A Q Khan etc. It has no qualms about proliferation.

The regime survives by selling its missiles and short range ammunition in the black market for arms. A major piece of their gross national product, comes from missile sales which earns a lot of hard currency. But the market for missiles has currently tapered off. Australia recently caught a North Korean ship filled with Heroin shipment, which leads to fears that the regime is really looking for cash.

An excert from this New York Times story:
North Korea is more than just another nation joining the nuclear club. It has never developed a weapons system it did not ultimately sell on the world market, and it has periodically threatened to sell its nuclear technology. So the end of ambiguity about its nuclear capacity foreshadows a very different era, in which the concern may not be where a nation’s warheads are aimed, but in whose hands its weapons and skill end up.

What US fears is precisely what you mentioned; dirty bombs landing in the hands of jihadist and other non-state terrorist actors. Since Pyongang has a record of proliferation they are most likely to sell their nuclear knowhow in order to keep their economy stable enough to a point where people don't revolt and go for ouster of the regime. That is why the first policy measure US is contemplating is searching all ships going in and out of NOrth Korea.

The funny thing is that policy options are really limited. Since sanctions will only result in a situation where there is even more incentive for Kim Jong Il to sell the nuclear technology on the market.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Chetan said...

Sorry, Forgot to include the link to the news analysis piece in the NYtimes...

Here it is.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

If I were N Korea and were interested in nuclear proliferation, the last thing I would do is announce my nuclear capability with a loud bang. That N Korea has done this can mean that it does not care even if it openly sells nuclear technology to the world. Much more than a technical achievement, this is political bravado. However, even if the US per se cannot do anything directly, N Korea will get itself into trouble with open nuclear black marketing, since the sale of nuclear technology to terrorists ultimately affects everyone, not just the US. Nuclear terrorism is a really tough nut to crack, and the solutions that could work for Khrushchev, Castro, and Kim Jong, will not work for suicide terrorists without an address label on them.
Thanks for the NYT article by the way.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...


11:34 PM  

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