The most dangerous message North Korea sent Tuesday with its third nuclear weapon test is: nukes are for sale.
The significance of this test is not the defiance by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, of demands from the international community. In the circles of power in Pyongyang, red lines drawn by others make the provocation of violating them only more attractive.
The real significance is that this test was, in the estimation of American officials, most likely fueled by highly enriched uranium, not the plutonium that served as the core of North Korea’s earlier tests. Testing a uranium-based bomb would announce to the world — including potential buyers — that North Korea is now operating a new, undiscovered production line for weapons-usable material.
North Korea’s latest provocation should also remind us of the limits of Western policies, led by the United States, that focus on “isolating” the hermit kingdom. Such policies do not isolate us from the consequences of North Korea’s actions. For a decade, American policy makers’ attention has been consumed by Iran’s attempt to build its first nuclear weapon. During those years, American officials believe, North Korea has acquired enough plutonium to make an arsenal of 6 to 10 nuclear bombs, depending on the size, and is now most likely producing enough highly enriched uranium for several more bombs every year.
Nuclear weapons can be made from only two elements: uranium that has been highly enriched, and plutonium. Neither occurs in nature. Producing enough of either fuel for a bomb requires a significant industrial plant. North Korea produced its stock of plutonium at its Yongbyon reactor, but that plant was shuttered in 2007 during a hopeful period in international talks about curbing its nuclear arms program. By then, Pyongyang had reduced its arsenal by one bomb, with its 2006 test, and in 2009 it used up a second bomb in another test. We should only hope that it continues conducting plutonium-fueled tests until this stockpile is eliminated.
Those numbers figure heavily in the more realistic American assumption that North Korea would most likely use uranium fuel in a third test, rather than further deplete its limited stock of plutonium.
Two years ago, North Korea unveiled a showcase uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for several bombs annually. There is no evidence, however, that this showcase has become operational. American experts therefore believe that Pyongyang must have another still-undiscovered parallel plant that has been operating for several years. That plant by now could have produced several bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium.
Hence the grim conclusion that North Korea now has a new cash crop — one that is easier to market than plutonium. Highly enriched uranium is harder to detect and therefore easier to export — and it is also simpler to build a bomb from it. The model of uranium-fueled bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was so elementary, and its design so reliable, that the United States never bothered to test one before using it. Yet it killed more than 100,000 people. As the former secretary of defense Robert M. Gates put it, history shows that the North Koreans will “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” In intelligence circles, North Korea is known as “Missiles ‘R’ Us,” having sold and delivered missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, among others.
Who could be interested in buying a weapon for several hundred millions of dollars? Iran is currently investing billions of dollars annually in its nuclear quest. While Al Qaeda’s core is greatly diminished and its resources depleted, the man who succeeded Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been seeking nuclear weapons for more than a decade. And then there are Israel’s enemies, including wealthy individuals in some Arab countries, who might buy a bomb for the militant groups Hezbollah or Hamas.
President Obama has rightly identified nuclear terrorism as “the single biggest threat to U.S. security.” If terrorists explode a single nuclear bomb in an American city in the near future, there is a serious possibility that the core of the weapon will have come from North Korea.
The Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly warned the North Korean regime that it could not sell nuclear weapons, materials or technologies without being held “fully accountable.” But the United States used precisely these words before Pyongyang’s sale of a nuclear reactor to Syria — which by now would have produced enough plutonium for Syria’s first nuclear bomb had it not been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007. With what consequences for North Korea? Pyongyang got paid; Syria got bombed; and the United States was soon back at the negotiating table in the six-party talks.
Given America’s failure to hold Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, accountable when he sold Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, the technology from which to make a bomb, could the younger Mr. Kim imagine that he could get away with selling a nuclear weapon or bomb-making material? The urgent challenge is to convince him and his regime’s lifeline, China, that North Korea will be held accountable for every nuclear weapon of North Korean origin.
Mr. Obama should send Mr. Kim a direct, unambiguous message, with a carbon copy to the Chinese leadership in Beijing, warning that if a nuclear bomb of North Korean origin were to explode on American soil or that of an American ally, the United States would respond precisely as though North Korea itself had hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. An unambiguously forceful warning, backed up by a credible threat of commensurate force, is the only guarantee that even the zealous, isolated North Koreans would hear.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.