Focusing Threats Against North Korea Over Nuclear Transfer

June 2, 2009

Steve Walt took SecDef Gates to task for tough talk on North Korea that were unlikely to back up. Walt makes the great point that we need to draw a sharp distinction between North Korea passing nuclear know-how and technology to states on the one hand and giving nuclear technology to terrorists on the other:

“Gates was on firmer ground when he warned North Korea that the United States would consider any transfer of nuclear materials to other countries or terrorist groups a ‘grave threat’ to the United States and its allies. Even here, however, a bit more discrimination was in order. We obviously don’t want North Korea giving nuclear know-how or nuclear material to other countries, but it’s not clear we would do anything to them if we discovered that they were. After all, as Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig has documented, giving nuclear assistance to another country is hardly an unprecedented act. Russia assisted China’s nascent nuclear program when they were allies, France gave key support to Israel’s nuclear program, and China helped Pakistan’s nuclear program as well. Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network subsequently spread nuclear technology in several directions, and North Korea appears to have provided nuclear assistance to Syria. The key point: in none of these cases was it seen as grounds for war.

But giving nuclear technology to a terrorist group is another matter entirely, and we need to make it clear to Pyongyang that this is an act that would lead us to discard our normal reservations and remove them from power once and for all. Not only do we want to deter North Korea from ever trying something like this, but we also want to establish and reinforce a clear precedent for other nuclear powers. Regime survival seems to be the paramount concern of Kim Jong Il and his associates, and they must be under no illusions about what nuclear transfer to terrorists would mean for their own futures. This scenario should be the topic of some serious contingency planning by the U.S. military, as well as some serious discussions among the other interested parties, beginning with the other members of the Six Party talks (Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea). None of these states have an interest in nuclear leakage to terrorists, so it should not be that hard to get them to agree that giving nuclear materials to terrorists would be clear and immediate casus belli.”

This is exactly right. Nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a state is very different from a terrorist organization getting the bomb. States can be deterred. Terrorists often cannot be. The possibility of a terrorist group using a nuclear weapon against an American city is (or very well ought to be) right at the top of the list of US security threats. This needs to be communicated to North Korea and other states as well: the US will not tolerate the transfer of nuclear technology to terrorists, and any regime involved in such a transfer will be removed from power through military force. Such a threat is much more credible and powerful if similar threats and tough talk are not offered every other day for any old reason. The bottom line is that the North Koreans can test nuclear bombs all day long and the US is very unlikely to use military force, and rightly so. Similarly, if the North Koreans cooperate with Syria on nuclear technology, the US is unlikely to go to war over it. We need to make it beyond clear that the transfer of nuclear technology to terrorists is a different animal entirely.

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