Commenting on North Korea’s attack and sinking of the Cheonan with 46 South Korean sailors killed, President Obama said this past weekend at the G-20 summit in Toronto that “our main focus right now is in the U.N. Security Council making sure that there is a crystal-clear acknowledgement that North Korea engaged in belligerent behavior that is unacceptable to the international community.”
Speaking in Prague a year ago, just after North Korea tested a rocket that could be used in a long-range missile, the president memorably declared: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”
Yet, thus far, when it comes to North Korea’s belligerent behavior, President Obama’s words have meant little. It is worth asking why. Part of the answer lies in Pyongyong’s ace in the hole: nuclear weapons. Or is it aces in the hole?
Rand has recently updated one of its studies of the North Korean nuclear arsenal under the significant title Uncertainties in the North Korean Nuclear Threat.
North Korea has produced at least two nuclear devices: the one it tested in October 2006 and the one tested in May 2009. It appears that North Korea does have adequate fissile material for at least 5–10 nuclear weapons, but has it made those weapons? And if so, what form have they taken? Are they bombs, missile warheads, or just nuclear devices that might be hidden along a road or some comparable place?
In these issues, the key question is: Has North Korea pursued nuclear weapon development entirely on its own? Or has it gotten external help? And if so, has that help been in terms of expertise provided, key components and materials provided, and/or what? For example, many experts assume that North Korea may not yet have a nuclear weapon capable of fitting on a ballistic missile because making such a weapon requires significant expertise in nuclear weapon design and explosions. But if North Korea has had external help in such designs from experts of other countries, then it may have already completed such nuclear warheads. Not knowing makes the North Korean nuclear weapon threat very uncertain.
One of North Korea’s purposes in acquiring nuclear weapons is deterrence. Uncertainty serves to enhance their deterrent effect. It is no surprise that in response to Pyongyong’s belligerent behavior, the United States and South Korea have effectively been deterred. “I think President Lee [Myung-bak] has shown extraordinary restraint given these circumstances,” were President Obama’s words of praise for South Korea’s leadership in Toronto. Given the shadow cast by the North’s nuclear weapons, what choice did Lee have other than “extraordinary restraint”?
There are urgent lessons here as we contemplate a world in which Iran also possesses one or more nuclear bombs.