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North Korea-the Next Iraq?

As the U.S. prepares to descend on Iraq, one question looms in the background: Is North Korea next?
December 20, 2002

Examine a night composite satellite image of the Earth. The areas that are well lit are, for the most part, regions of wealth and well-being. Darkness represents wilderness or poverty. A very small feature is particularly interesting. South Korea shines brightly while North Korea is dark; the demilitarized zone is the clear boundary. With the Berlin Wall gone, this border is now the most vivid illustration of the difference between communism and capitalism. Yet North Korea can, any time it so desires, make a light brighter than a thousand suns.

At least that is the opinion of Florida Senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. “North Korea has at least two nuclear weapons,” he stated bluntly on Meet the Press recently. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is more cautious. In August 2001 he said that North Korea has the nuclear material to have between two and five nuclear weapons, but he did not claim that any had been built.

The contrast between North and South is not just in the lights. North Korea has an area slightly smaller than that of Mississippi, and a population of 22 million people. Yet, of 174 countries tabulated by The Economist, North Korea has the largest armed forces. (I’m including reserves; if you include only active military, then North Korea still ranks fifth.) Its gross domestic product per person, relative to local cost of living, is just 6 percent of South Korea’s. North Korea cannot afford to feed itself; a third of its calories consumed are financed by international aid. Its industrial base is in a sad state of disrepair from years of neglect; the country’s only thriving export is arms. The country’s totalitarian ruler, Kim Jong-il, inherited his job from his father. He is one of a small number of rulers categorized as “pathological predators” by former CIA director James Woolsey. (Saddam Hussein is also on the list.) North Korea is, of course, a member of President George W. Bush’s axis of evil.

In early October, the United States confronted North Korea with evidence that the country is expanding its nuclear weapons program-that it is building gas centrifuge enrichment plants that could produce enough uranium fuel for one or more new nuclear weapons per year. (This is in addition to the two to five weapons they may already have from prior plutonium production.) North Korea’s intention could be to use the weapons against their traditional enemies (South Korea and Japan) or to sell them to the highest bidders; nobody knows. The region is exceptionally dangerous. For decades, the South Koreans have been discovering covert tunnels built by the North under the demilitarized zone, large enough to drive tanks through. And, after North Korea, the country with the largest army in the world is South Korea.

To the amazement of the world, North Korea responded to this confrontation by admitting that they, indeed, have such a program. They then declared dead the 1994 U.S.-North Korea bilateral “Agreed Framework” that had outlawed such facilities. The North Korean leaders subsequently announced that, in addition to the new uranium program, they were resuming plutonium production in their nuclear reactors.

A uranium enrichment centrifuge does not look like your typical laboratory centrifuge. It consists of a hollow tube, typically 20 centimeters in diameter and two meters tall, delicately balanced to spin at 40,000 rotations per minute; the surface moves at close to a kilometer per second. The tube can be aluminum, although it can be spun faster if made of maraging steel, one of the strongest manufacturing materials known, a low carbon steel named after the marcasite crystals used in its manufacture. It used to be an exotic material, until it became a popular surface for expensive golf clubs. It is a controlled material, on the watch list of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Be suspicious of any rogue country that imports lots of golf clubs.

The centrifuge is filled with uranium hexafluoride, a material that vaporizes at the relatively cool temperature of 57 Celsius. When spun in a centrifuge, the effective force is 200,000 times that of gravity. The heavier U-238 diffuses toward the outside; the lighter, more fissile U-235 is concentrated at the center, where it is scooped off and sent to the next stage. North Korea has large reserves of uranium ore, estimated at four million tons. A centrifuge plant capable of separating enough of the light isotope U-235 to make one nuclear weapon per year could fit inside a small movie theater.

How do we know North Korea is building such a plant? It is too small to draw attention to itself in satellite imagery. Despite their rapid rotation, centrifuges are quiet. And energy consumption is not a helpful signature, since centrifuges consume significantly less power than other enrichment processes. So you cannot find centrifuges easily. But if you learn that a country is importing the key materials and equipment needed (finely balanced aluminum tubes, special bearings, maraging steel) then you can deduce that such a plant is under construction.
We know from such indications that North Korea is manufacturing these centrifuges. We suspect that Iraq is making them. So why attack Iraq and not North Korea? This question is common these days, frequently asked by people who think it is improper to attack either. What is the difference between North Korea and Iraq?

The first answer that comes to mind is: there is no difference. Former President Bill Clinton recently said that in the 1990s he had explicitly threatened to attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities unless the country ended its nuclear program (New York Times, Dec 15, 2002). Just because President Bush is not openly threatening North Korea at present, don’t assume that it is not on his agenda. Prior to North Korea’s admission of its centrifuge program, President Bush was interviewed by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. The president told him, “I loathe Kim Jong-il. I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people.” After Iraq, don’t be surprised if North Korea moves up to President Bush’s front burner.

But upon closer examination, the situations are not identical. There are substantial differences between the two countries that affect any decision. Here are a few:

1. North Korea most likely already has nuclear weapons. The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is only 40 kilometers away from the border. An attack to remove Kim Jong-il could quickly turn into a nuclear war, making an attack on North Korea more dangerous than an attack on Iraq.

2. We have a “vital interest” in Iraq: oil. Our interests in North Korea are more abstract: to prevent war and nuclear proliferation. That is important in the long run, but the Iraq issue is more urgent.

3. North Korea has admitted to having a program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Iraq claims it has abandoned such efforts, despite its admitted attempt before the war of 1991. I believe Iraq is lying. North Korea is showing remarkable candor. This suggests a nonviolent solution of the Korean situation may be possible.

The last item is important. The real news in October was not that North Korea had started such a program; the U.S. already knew that. The news was that they admitted to it. Despite pundits who suggest the opposite, my reading of recent history is that the U.S. is not quick to go to war. We negotiated with Iraq for eleven years (1991 to the present); the current crisis was precipitated four years ago, when Iraq cut off the access of the inspectors. North Korea, in its announcement, may be indicating that they want to negotiate seriously. North Korea looms as the next potential Iraq. It is important that we steer it in a different direction, if we can.

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