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Pyongyang: The Case for Nonproliferation With Teeth
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Henry Sokolski

After two decades of covert and overt nuclear weapons activities, North Korea now has the United States and its allies in a tight spot. The reasons why, however, have less to do with what nuclear provocations it might attempt after having violated and withdrawn from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) than what, if anything, the world is prepared to do about it. Further mischief following Pyongyang’s April Beijing warning that it might test or export its nuclear weapons might be unavoidable; inaction against Pyongyang’s shredding of the NPT, however, is not.1

So far, the Bush administration has rejected the idea of attacking North Korea’s nuclear facilities. At the same time, President George W. Bush has made it clear that Pyongyang must not be rewarded for its proliferation even as he has kept the door open to diplomatic solutions. More than merely avoiding bombing or bribing, though, will be needed to curb international and east Asian proliferation. In addition, the United States and its allies will have to cut off illicit flows of hard currency to North Korea’s military, which is using this money to finance improvements in its strategic weaponry. Also, to block North Korea and other proliferators from possibly exporting weapons of mass destruction, the UN Security Council needs to toughen the international rules against proliferation, starting with a ban on countries deploying nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons outside of their borders.2 Although establishing such restraints will be challenging, it will be far easier to tackle now—using the war against Iraq and the crisis in North Korea as reasons—than trying to manage the large and unruly crowd of weapons states that otherwise will arise if we fail to act.

What Is at Stake

Having withdrawn from the NPT and insisted that it has a right to develop strategic weaponry, Pyongyang could fire missiles over Japan, test a nuclear weapon, or make ever larger amounts of nuclear-weapon material. If Pyongyang were to take any of these steps, it would surely be provocative. Yet, none of these threats, or blocking them, is as critical to assuring international security as holding North Korea accountable for its earlier violations of the NPT. If Pyongyang is properly taken to task on this score, officials in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Algeria, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, and China will reconsider proliferation actions they might otherwise take. But if Pyongyang’s violations prior to its NPT withdrawal are ignored or rewarded,3 many of these states will conclude that proliferation pays or that, at least, if they acquire or help others get strategic weapons, they will not be penalized.

Recent developments in Iran and Iraq, moreover, will only fortify this conclusion. As Pyongyang recently argued, Iraq made a fatal error in allowing intrusive inspections.4 Would not countries be in a better position to deal with hostile states if they instead developed nuclear capabilities that could bring them within weeks of a large arsenal of weapons, as Pyongyang and Tehran will soon be able to do?

If enough countries decide the answer is yes, an unprecedented round of proliferation is in store. North Korea and Iran could produce scores of bombs. Japan and China could make thousands. Taiwan and South Korea, who have already tried to obtain nuclear weapons at least once, might try again. Saudi Arabia—reported to have bankrolled Pakistan’s program—might counter Iran’s increased nuclear ambiguity by asking Islamabad for help. In fact, so long as Pakistan retains so-called control of the nuclear weapons it might station on Saudi soil, Riyadh can claim it is in compliance with the NPT.5 Egyptian security experts, meanwhile, are also openly discussing the need to acquire a nuclear weapons option. Noting how little the United States has done to counter North Korea, India, or Pakistan, they are fully supportive of the Egyptian energy minister’s plans to emulate Syria’s announced scheme to build a nuclear desalinization plant with Russian help.6

In addition, Libya, according to Israel, is developing a weapons program with Iraqi nuclear scientists’ help.7 Then there is Algeria—a country that a decade ago was caught building a large covert research reactor in a remote, heavily defended desert location.8 Finally, Turkey has made it clear that it expects NATO and the European Union to back Turkey’s security vigorously (with sanctions against Iran and explicit nuclear guarantees for Turkey if need be) if Iran continues its proliferation activities, as expected. Whether or not Ankara will draw nearer to Israel and seek nuclear cooperative ties with it if Europe rebuffs Turkey, as Europe has done in the past, remains unclear.9

Would any of these states actually give nuclear help to groups such as al Qaeda or Hamas? One has to hope the answer is no. Still, there is good reason to fear that several of these states, once they were suspected of having or actually acquired nuclear arms, would be more inclined to give terrorist organizations safe harbor since, unlike Afghanistan, they would then have the nuclear insurance needed to keep the United States and its allies at bay.

The result, 10-15 years hence, would be a world crowded not only with hostile, suspected nuclear states but also with nuclearized friends—who, when the United States needed their help, would tend, like France, to go their own way. Rather than stability, this world would foment more diplomatic and military intrigue than any bureaucracy could ever hope to reign in—a global l914, spring-loaded to go nuclear.

This is a future worth avoiding and helps explain why North Korea’s violation of the NPT demands attention now. The question is how.

Don’t Bomb, Don’t Grovel

The two most frequently discussed options for addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear misdeeds are either striking its nuclear facilities or giving it the mutual nonaggression pact and the reestablishment of the Agreed Framework it is demanding in exchange for a pledge of some form of nuclear self-restraint. Each option is simple enough. Each has its backers. Neither, however, should be pursued.

Certainly, targeting North Korea’s known bomb-making facilities makes no sense. It not only risks a more frightening North Korean counterstrike against South Korea’s own reactors but also a complete breakdown of our security relations with Tokyo and Seoul. Bombing what we can target also leaves Pyongyang with what we cannot—one or more covert bombs and a set of hidden uranium-weapons plants that could provide the material for several more bombs a year.

On the other hand, giving Pyongyang the mutual nonaggression pact it craves—one that would recognize and treat it as the United States’ equal—would only confirm to the world’s nuclear wannabes, starting with Iran, that going nuclear wins you what you want. Pyongyang, after all, is not just pleading out of fear. It hopes that if it can make Washington formally agree that North Korea is no longer a military threat, South Korean support for stationing U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula will implode and Pyongyang’s hand in negotiating the terms of Korean unification would be strengthened.

Nuclear inspections might sound appealing, but in North Korea, where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has hardly gone much further than its first inspections in l992, they would have far less of a chance at success than what the IAEA and other UN inspectors with UNSCOM and UNMOVIC might have achieved over the last three decades in Iraq. Put aside that Pyongyang has publicly rejected the idea of ever allowing the IAEA to complete the inspections it was blocked from carrying out more than a decade ago. Ignore that North Korea has scorned Iraq for having committed the grave error of submitting itself to intrusive UN inspections.10 Gloss over the United States’ lack of information about the location of its uranium-bomb-making facilities or weapons plutonium. The fact is that, unless Pyongyang has a major change of heart and gives up its tyrannical ambitions to unify the peninsula under its military control, there is no way to be sure that it has surrendered all of its hidden nuclear assets. Although we must demand that Pyongyang accept intrusive IAEA inspections, we must also recognize that without a North Korea eager to prove that it is out of the bomb-making business, inspections will never find what they must to force Pyongyang to disarm.11

What, then, should we do? Pyongyang might make more nuclear weapons.12 It may export its nuclear capabilities; North Koreans recently were sighted at Iran’s uranium-enrichment plants.13 It might fire nuclear-capable rockets over its neighbors. All of these threats are real. None, however, is worth jeopardizing the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea, which is exactly what the United States will risk if it starts a war that is unwinnable without them. Each of the threats, moreover, can be mitigated if the United States and its friends act now to rein in Pyongyang.

How? First, the United States must continue to protect its troops and allies. Second, the United States must stop helping the North Korean military. In February, Japan’s foreign minister pleaded with the United Nations to do more to block Pyongyang’s illicit drug exports to Japan. This trade, which violates international strictures against selling drugs, is conducted entirely by North Korea’s military and annually nets it several hundred million dollars in hard currency. Pyongyang spends a good portion of this money to acquire foreign parts and technology that it still needs to complete its two unfinished military reactors, its uranium-bomb plants, and its long-range missiles. North Korea’s share of the Japanese illicit drug market is estimated to be approaching 50 percent.14

Meanwhile, there are Seoul’s cash transfers. Hyundai, South Korea’s most subsidized entity and the largest corporate sponsor of Seoul’s “sunshine” policy, is reported to have funneled $1.68 billion directly to Pyongyang. North Korea, in turn, has used this cash to feed its modernizing military.15 Like lax anti-drug enforcement, letting these cash payoffs continue is not only cynical, it is dangerous.

The United States, unfortunately, is culpable as well. It is helping North Korea construct two large power reactors. Each of these plants is capable of making more than 50 bombs worth of near weapons-grade plutonium in the first 15 months of operation.16 President Bill Clinton promised these reactors in 1994 to persuade North Korea to comply with the NPT. Earlier this year, North Korea withdrew from the treaty and was condemned by the IAEA’s Board of Governors for violating it. Yet, construction of the reactors and the sharing of nuclear technology—all useful to train the next generation of North Korean bomb makers—continues.

Washington’s diplomats, still anxious to reach some agreement with Pyongyang, want to retain the option of completing these plants. The result is growing suspicion abroad that Washington is less interested in enforcing the NPT than in finding a way to paper over its nuclear differences with Pyongyang.

As with Iraq, which defied the NPT and now is banned from receiving so-called peaceful nuclear technology, Pyongyang’s nuclear cheating should also disqualify it from possessing nuclear reactors. The White House, however, has yet to announce publicly that it is unwilling to waive the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which forbids the United States from giving nuclear goods to NPT violators. Encouraged by this silence, South Korea and Japan continue to build the reactors, hoping that Washington might still ship the U.S. parts and technology needed to finish them.17

What else helps Pyongyang modernize its military power base? Counterfeiting, skimming from gambling operations in Japan, and selling ballistic missiles and related technology to whoever will buy them. Together, these rackets earn its military hundreds of millions of dollars a year.18 Improved law enforcement in the region, with assistance from the United States, like-minded countries, and the United Nations could help curb this trade, as would passage of proposed and pending measures in Japan.

These steps, of course, will not eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat. Nor can they entirely preclude Pyongyang from making additional fissile material for nuclear weapons or selling its nuclear capabilities. But they should alert other would-be bomb makers—who have already misread the U.S. silence and are now chomping at the bit—that there is a price for violating the NPT and no reward for going nuclear.

These steps also do not rule out the possibility of diplomacy and negotiations. But they will take certain things off the table—nonaggression pacts and reactors—that should not be there. At the same time, acting on these measures now should make it easier to insist, as the United States must, that North Korea be deprived of any new benefits until it proves to the IAEA and the world that it is entirely out of the bomb-making business. Finally, if Pyongyang continues to misbehave, implementing these measures should put the United States and its allies in a much better position to garner broader support to do more—something paying tribute or attacking militarily now would all but rule out.

A Nonproliferation Regime With Teeth

Pursuing these measures against Pyongyang should help make it clear that violating the NPT bears a price. None, however, will be sufficient to check North Korea if it decides to export its nuclear capabilities. Against this possibility, nothing less than an international interdiction effort against Pyongyang will do. Unfortunately, convincing China and Russia to join in singling out Pyongyang might not be easy.

This recommends a different strategy, one that is country-neutral but has enforcement mechanisms. Instead of targeting countries, this approach would ban dangerous proliferation activities. Unlike existing proliferation limits, however, this one would actually authorize states to act to assure adherence.

Such a regime should first focus on what everyone ought to agree should be banned: the deployment of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons outside of one’s borders. Such a ban would be hard to argue against. North Korea, after all, is not the only country that needs minding. Iran, for instance, has announced it wants to share its nuclear capabilities. It also is unclear what, if any, of his chemical arsenal Saddam Hussein might have redeployed to other countries for safekeeping.19

To address these concerns, the UN Security Council should authorize states to board and inspect any vessel or vehicle if there is reason to believe they are carrying weapons of mass destruction. This should be done with the permission of the country of origin or the flag carrier nation if possible, but without it if not. Like Great Britain and its interdiction of the slave trade in the l800s, the United Nations must make it clear that redeploying weapons of mass destruction to other states is too reprehensible to allow the perpetrators of such actions the protection of international law.

Assuming UN agreement could be reached on this limited ban, other dangerous items, such as the unique ingredients needed to make chemical and nuclear weapons, might be added. But initially, the proposal should not be burdened with such issues. The debate over just a nuclear weapons redeployment ban would be large enough.

Should past arms deployments, such as the U.S. stationing of nuclear weapons in Germany, be reversed? If foreign deployment of chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons is banned, should countries still be allowed to share the means to make such weapons? How should the lines be drawn between safe and dangerous weapons-related activities and materials? Is it sensible to allow states such as Iran to acquire all the so-called civilian facilities necessary to arrive within weeks of having a large arsenal of nuclear weapons? Is it reasonable to ask other countries to forgo acquiring weapons of mass destruction unless the states that have them reduce their own security reliance on them? How far might regime change in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea go to obviate other states’ will to proliferate?

All of these questions and more are sure to be raised by a proposal to toughen existing nonproliferation rules. The United States and its friends, however, should welcome such debate. Indeed, if the final outcome of taking North Korea’s violation of the NPT seriously is to reopen these issues and finally put teeth into the weapons restraints that international security requires, the tight spot Pyongyang now has the United States and its allies in will only serve to assure that Washington and its friends avoid much bigger crises later.


1. See, Glenn Kessler, “N. Korea Says It Has Nuclear Arms: At Talks with U.S. Pyongyang Threatens ‘Demonstration’ or Export of Weapon,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2003, p. A1.

2. Although conventions on chemical and biological weapons already prohibit states from producing or stockpiling chemical or biological weapons, at least 20 countries are believed to possess such weapons, including states that have signed one or both of the conventions.

3. Pyongyang has a sovereign right to withdraw from the NPT. It is still liable, however, for any violations committed before its withdrawal.

4. Howard French, “North Korea Says Its Arms Will Deter U.S. Attack,” The New York Times, April 7, 2003.

5. The NPT (see articles I and II) allows countries to accept nuclear weapons on their soil (as NATO and Warsaw Pact countries did from the United States and Russia, respectively) so long as they stay under the control of the nation that redeployed them. A nonweapons member to the NPT can even accept such “controlled” weapons from states (e.g., Pakistan) that are not members of the NPT. This point has not been lost on either the Pakistanis or Saudis. See Patrick Clawson, “Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East: Who Is Next After Iran?” A presentation at The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, April 2003, available at http://www.npec-web.org/project/clawson; Richard Russell, “A Saudi Nuclear Option?” Survival, 43, no. 2 (Summer 2001), p. 75; Global Security.org, “Saudi Arabia Special Weapons,” available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/saudi/; Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Evolving Threat from Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” hosted by the U.S. State Department.

6. Emily Landau, “Egypt’s Nuclear Dilemma,” Strategic Assessment, 5, no. 3 (November 2002); Andrew Jack and Stephan Fiddler, “Russia in Talks to Build Syrian Nuclear Reactor,” Financial Times, January 15, 2003; Yotam Feldner, “Egypt Rethinks Its Nuclear Program, Parts I, II, and III,” MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series (l18, 119, and 120), January 17 and 22, 2003.

7. Ross Dunn, “Libya Leads Arab Race for Nuclear Bomb—Sharon,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 6, 2002.

8. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “Algeria: Big Deal in the Desert,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 57, no. 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 45-52; M. Gonzales and J. M. Laraya, “Spanish Intelligence Warns of Algerian Nuclear Potential,” El Pais, August 23, l998, available at http://www.fas.org/news/algeria/fbis-tac-98-235.htm.

9. See Clawson, “Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East.”

10. Sang-Hun Choe, “North Korea Views to Prohibit UN Inspections,” Associated Press, April 12, 2003; BBC, “North Korea Rejects Nuclear Checks,” December 4, 2002.

11. Nautilus Institute’s April 11, 2003, reprint of three reports from the Korean Central News Agency and Nodong Sinmun, “Military-First Ideology Is and Ever Victorious Invincible Banner for Our Era’s Cause of Independence,” available at http://www.nautilus.org/pub/ftp/napsnet/special_reports/MilitaryFirstDPRK.txt.

12. “Beyond the Agreed Framework: The DPRK’s Projected Atomic Bomb Making Capabilities, 2002-2009,” available at www.npec-web.org/pages/fissile.htm.

13. Glenn Kessler, “Group Alleges New Nuclear Site in Iran,” The Washington Post, February 20, 2003, p. A31; Joby Warrick and Glenn Kessler, “Iran’s Nuclear Program Speeds Ahead,” The Washington Post, March 10, 2003, p. A1.

14. Mari Yamasuchi, “North Korea Plying Its Drugs in Japan,” Associated Press, March 4, 2003, reprinted in The Washington Times, March 14, 2003. See also Jamie Tarabay, “Australia Charges N. Korean Ship’s Crew in Drug Case, The Washington Post, April 22, 2003, p. A15; Jay Solomon, “Heroin Busts Point to Source of Funds for North Koreans,” The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2003, p. A1.

15. Jay Solomon and Hae Won Choi, “How Hyundai’s Quest for Ties to North Korea Worked to Its Detriment,” The Asian Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2003, p. A1.

16. “The Special Problem of the Beginning-of-Life and End-of-Life Fuel Discharges” in Verifying the Agreed Framework, Michael May, ed., (Lawrence Livermore, CA: Center for Global Security Research, April 2001), pp. 49-50, 64-65. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimated that 330 kilograms of more than 80 percent plutonium 239 would be produced during the first 15 months of normal operation of a 1-gigawatt light-water reactor.

17. Seoul’s and Tokyo’s commercial motivations to continue construction of the reactors include redemption of more than $3 billion in public bond offerings, Korean corporate welfare, and a desire to demonstrate Korea Electric Power Company’s ability to build and export reactors to less-developed nations.

18. Matthew Engel, “Drugs and Forgery Sustain North Korean Economy,” The Guardian, January 20, 2003; Daniel Cooney, “Many North Korea Exports Go to Black Market,” Associated Press, April 11, 2003; Nicholas Eberstadt, “A Turn of the Screw,” Time Asia, February 28, 2003.

19. “Syria’s Role: Fierce Words, Tied Hands,” The Economist, April 5, 2003, p. 28.


Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and author of The Best of Intentions: America’s Campaign Against Strategic Weapons Proliferation (Praeger, 2001).


Posted: May 1, 2003