Peacekeeping: Making a Muddle of North Korean Nukes

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October 16, 2006: The watered-down United Nations Security Council resolution on North Korea is a stopgap that might not be effective against the North Korean nuclear program. This is considered another UN peacekeeping operation, and it is not going well. Meanwhile, the North Koreans still face a long path to deployable nuclear weapons. In essence, both sides seem to be muddling along, each dealing with less than optimal results.

The fitful progress by North Korea is best described as an issue of quality control. The test North Korea carried out is believed to have fizzled. A nuclear weapon that "fizzles" does not achieve the designed yield - often only achieving a small percentage of that designed yield. For instance, estimates of the North Korean nuclear test have been in the 550 ton to 5 kiloton range - the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was a 12-15 kiloton weapon. This would not be unusual for North Korea. Their Taepo Dong 2 missiles have also had quality control issues - the test in July failed within two minutes of launch.

To solve these problems, the North Koreans need to look over their designs, and figure out why their nukes fizzle and why their missiles fail. Then, they need to make sure their fixed designs will work. This costs money - and North Korea is short of that. They can counterfeit money and smuggle things, but that is going to be harder.

For the United States, their fitful progress is due to the fact that Russia and China have been balking at serious sanctions. That said, what emerged from the Security Council is still a serious blow to the North Koreans, even if China and Russia forced removal of what was, for all intents and purposes, a blockade. The North Koreans do not have much in the way of hard currency, and nuclear scientists, and the materials they use, cost money. While the United States has been carrying out financial sanctions on its own, having the UN getting more countries to do so will make the financial noose even tighter. If Kim Jong-Il's checks bounce, the nuclear weapons and missile programs will stop.

The other thing the United States has going for it is the fact that that it will be harder for China and Russia to balk at increased measures down the road, if the financial sanctions are not sufficient. China and Russia both are trying to maintain prestige - China by showing it can handle things in North Korea, and Russia in order to avoid losing influence in East Asia, as it has in Eastern Europe. They were able to water down this resolution, but it may not be possible to water down future resolutions.

However, the American position is complicated by the fact that South Korea and Japan could lose patience and go nuclear. Japan already has a breeder reactor (which gives it access to bomb-grade plutonium), and is estimated to be capable of deploying nuclear weapons within six months of making the decision. South Korea would take a little longer, but a poll taken after the North Korean test showed strong support for a nuclear weapons program.

Unlike the missile tests, the nuclear weapons test has not produced a clear winner. If anything, it has created a great deal of uncertainty in East Asia. The situation appears to be one that the United States and North Korea are muddling their way through. Thus muddling through is what makes the situation dangerous, because if Japan and South Korea sense a lack of progress, they may decide to get nuclear weapons of their own, and that will make things more dangerous in East Asia. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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