Yesterday Foreign Affairs posted an article I had written with Sue Mi Terry, once the CIA’s foremost North Korea analyst, arguing that the experience of the Agreed Framework was an inauspicious precedent for the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. We wrote: “The case of North Korea clearly exposes the dangers of the United States seeking a nuclear agreement with a state that has no intention of abiding by one. The 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which called on North Korea to freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors, collapsed within a decade of its signing. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, and today it is a full-fledged nuclear power. The United States’ experience with North Korea should make it wary of similar nuclear negotiations, especially with Iran.”
Today the Wall Street Journalruns an article exposing just how grave the danger is. According to the Journal, Chinese experts have concluded that the North Korean nuclear program is even more advanced than the U.S. intelligence community has believed: “The latest Chinese estimates, relayed in a closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists, showed that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year.”
To add to the danger, the Journal notes, “Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, said this month that defense officials believe North Korea can now mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile called the KN-08. U.S. officials don’t believe the missile has been tested, but experts estimate it has a range of about 5,600 miles—within reach of the western edge of the continental U.S., including California.”
It’s not too hard to imagine, a decade from now, reading similar reports about how Iran has dozens of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of hitting the United States, to say nothing of nearby targets such as Israel, which Iran can already strike with an arsenal of 50,000 rockets positioned in Lebanon. And there is no reason to believe that Iran is any more sincere than North Korea about giving up its nuclear program. Those who advocate the agreement with Iran imagine that we will be able to somehow monitor Iranian nuclear developments, but the North Koreans caught us by surprise by developing a secret plutonium enrichment program—and if the Journal report is accurate, North Korea continues to surprise us still.
The rapid pace of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs is alarming in part because of its implications for regional stability–will South Korea and Japan feel compelled to go nuclear too in their own defense? If so that could set off a nuclear arms race. South Korea and Japan have so far refrained from such actions, even though both have extensive civilian nuclear programs that could be weaponized in a heartbeat, because both countries shelter under the American nuclear umbrella.
Some suggest that our nuclear umbrella could be extended to states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to prevent them from going nuclear to counter the Iranians, but the major reason our security guarantees to South Korea and Japan have credibility is because we have tens of thousands of troops stationed in those countries. We don’t have any troops in Saudi Arabia, nor are we likely to put any back in, because we would regard that as a provocation for more terrorism. Absent Americans in harms’ way, however, any American security guarantees would be about as credible as the “red line” that Obama drew in Syria. Thus the U.S. would have little influence to stop an incredibly dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Another reason why the advanced state of the North Korean program should be of such concern is because North Korea is a notorious nuclear and missile proliferator. As the Journal notes, North Korea “previously exported nuclear technology to Syria and missile components to Iran, Yemen and Egypt.” North Korea could easily offer Iran a shortcut toward putting nuclear weapons on missile warheads, bypassing entirely all of the procedures put in place to monitor Iranian compliance with a nuclear accord—procedures which appear to be if anything less rigorous than those under the Agreed Framework.
And if Iran breaks out as a nuclear power after a bogus agreement with the West, as North Korea did, the consequences will be much more severe for the world. North Korea, after all, is a declining, bankrupt state whose leadership is primarily intent on staying in power. Its juche philosophy appeals to no one outside its borders, and few within. Iran is an expansionist state, by contrast, with a jihadist ideology that appeals to many Shiites and ambitions of dominating the entire Middle East. The nuclear accord with Iran is, therefore, potentially far more dangerous than the Agreed Framework with North Korea—and we know how that worked out.