#17: The North Korean Threat
(February 18, 2003)
North Korea is one of the world's leading weapons proliferators, enthusiastically selling its technology to rogue nations for money to prop up its economy and finance the development of its weapons systems.
North Korea has supplied missiles and built missile production facilities for Iran, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Syria, for example, purchased complete Scuds and production equipment from North Korea, and Pyongyang has been engaged in joint missile development with Egypt for two decades.
Iran is North Korea's principal customer for weapons and technology, and it has been the site of a number of missile tests carried out on North Korea's behalf. North Korea may have sold one of its most sophisticated missiles, the Nodong, which has the capability of carrying nuclear weapons more than 750 miles, to Iran. Meanwhile, the Shahab-3 missile under development in Iran — with a range of 800 miles — is reportedly based on the Nodong. North Korean experts are also believed to have supervised the installation of centrifuge equipment that can be used by the Iranians to enrich uranium.
More worrisome even than the missile transfers is the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. According to the Defense Department, Pyongyang can produce large quantities of nerve, blister, and chemical warfare agents. These could be sold to rogue nations and/or terrorists.
North Korea could export plutonium from its nuclear weapons program, as well as weapon design data, to Iran and other Middle East nations willing to pay for it. If the Koreans produce nuclear bombs, they could stockpile enough to have a surplus for sale to the highest bidders.
U.S. options for containing or eliminating North Korea are limited. An Osirak-type attack on North Korean nuclear facilities would be difficult because they are well-defended, we’re not sure where all the nuclear materials are located, and the weapons program is probably conducted in multiple locations.
The North Koreans have threatened, and most experts take them at their word, that they will respond to any attack with an all-out war against the South, which might also include the firing of missiles at Japan. Even if the Koreans’ nuclear capability could be eliminated, Saddam Hussein has shown that this is not a permanent solution, only a temporary one.
Striking against North Korea’s nuclear facilities would not have any impact on missile proliferation or possible transfers of biological and chemical weapons.
An effort to disarm the North Korean regime would likely require an all-out war in which U.S. forces would face a well-armed, determined force capable of inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties on our forces and South Korea's civilian population.
Other than military action, another option is to use economic aid and trade as a means to discourage North Korea from selling its weapons. This has not worked to date.
The U.S., Israel, and other allies could take more aggressive steps to interdict shipments of missiles and nonconventional weapons, but this is exceedingly difficult and still could trigger a massive response by the North Koreans against their neighbors. There’s also nothing that can be done to stop the exchange of technical know-how.