- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
As the world prepares for a possible fifth nuclear weapons test by North Korea (and second since January), here’s something worth keeping in mind: The greatest threat we face from Kim Jong Un is probably not a suicidal attack against the United States or our allies in Northeast Asia with nuclear missiles. Rather, the more likely danger is that North Korea’s tyrant sells part of his ever-expanding nuclear arsenal to other rogue actors that mean us harm.
That danger is real, if the past is any guide. I well remember the day in spring 2007 when I got an urgent call from Vice President Cheney to drop everything and get over to his White House office. The head of Israel’s Mossad, the late Meir Dagan, had just been in to brief Cheney and President Bush. What he revealed was chilling: compelling evidence that in the Syrian desert east of Damascus, near the town of Al-Kibar, North Korea was covertly building a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor. It was more or less a replica of the North’s own reactor at Yongbyon, which formed the centerpiece of its weapons program.
Making matters worse, Al-Kibar was perilously close to completion. Options for getting rid of it would narrow considerably once operations began and the reactor went “hot.” At that point, any effort to destroy it through military strike or covert action would run a high risk of dispersing deadly radioactive materials that could poison thousands of innocent civilians.
For its part, the U.S. intelligence community had totally missed Al-Kibar. It was completely taken aback by Dagan’s stunning revelations. Indeed, since the early days of the Bush administration, senior officials like Cheney and Undersecretary of State John Bolton had repeatedly queried the CIA about indications that Syria was pursuing nuclear weapons, including via cooperation with North Korea. After all, ample evidence existed that Pyongyang had for years assisted Syria’s ballistic missile efforts. Government officials with connections to the North’s WMD programs were regular visitors to Damascus. Yet until the day in 2007 that Dagan showed up at the White House, the CIA’s answer never changed: The evidence was insufficient to suggest that the Assad regime might be seeking nukes. In fact, when Bolton raised his suspicions publicly in a 2003 congressional hearing, the intelligence community went berserk, launching a furious campaign of leaks to undermine Bolton’s credibility.
The fact is that the United States dodged a bullet in Syria — and, it’s worth stressing, all courtesy of the Israelis. Not only did they discover Al-Kibar in the nick of time. They also carried out the attack that was almost certainly the only means of ensuring the reactor never went hot. The Syrian civil war has without doubt been a strategic catastrophe. But just imagine the nightmare that the world would have faced if, on top of everything else, we were also dealing with the nightmare of the Islamic State getting its hands on a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor.
While Al-Kibar may have been the most egregious case of North Korean proliferation, it was hardly unique. North Korea has for decades sold missiles and missile technology to any state willing to pay. Such transfers are believed to have constituted one of the impoverished country’s most important lines of revenue. Egypt, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen have all been beneficiaries. The military relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular, has been longstanding and deep, commencing in the 1980s and continuing to the present. Virtually all of Iran’s most important nuclear-capable missile platforms can in fact be sourced to North Korean technology.
Importantly, Pyongyang’s proliferation bazaar has been open not only to states, but to dangerous non-state actors as well. Iran’s most deadly terrorist proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, has also been an important recipient of North Korean military assistance. The North provided critical support to help Hezbollah build a massive network of underground military installations, tunnels, bunkers, depots, and storage facilities in southern Lebanon. Moreover, North Korea has played a major role in building up Hezbollah’s huge missile arsenal, sending rocket and missile components to Iran where they were assembled and then shipped to Hezbollah for use against Israeli civilian targets.
With that kind of proliferation rap sheet, one hopes that the American intelligence community is focused like a laser on this element of the North Korean threat. Here, the North’s link with Iran has to be priority number one — especially in light of recent developments.
As a result of last summer’s nuclear deal, Iran is supposed to restrain its program for the next decade or so, while submitting to greater international scrutiny on its territory. In exchange, it will get tens of billions of dollars in cash and the ability to once again sell as much oil as it can on international markets. For its part, North Korea is cash and oil poor but under no such nuclear restrictions. On the contrary, it has spent the first four months of 2016 dramatically ramping up its efforts to improve its expanding nuclear deterrent. Indeed, the North is seeking to perfect precisely those elements of its military nuclear arsenal that Iran has yet to develop: the testing of an actual bomb; warhead miniaturization; reentry technology; and a functional ICBM.
The potential for synergy between these two rogue states and longtime proliferation partners is more than obvious. Especially in the wake of new U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang is desperate for money and fuel. Iran has ample quantities of both, but needs a place beyond the IAEA’s reach where its nuclear weapons efforts can advance covertly over the next decade. Outsourcing the research and development for its military nuclear program to Kim Jong Un is hardly unthinkable — especially when so much of the critical test results can be easily transferred on something as small as a portable USB flash drive. Indeed, it’s almost certainly no more unthinkable than trying to get away with building a plutonium reactor undetected in the heart of the Middle East. And yet Al-Kibarr really happened.
No doubt less likely — but who’s to say impossible? — is the risk that North Korea, for the right price and perhaps in cahoots with the Russian mafia or another anti-Western power, might be tempted to share some part of its nuclear know-how with the likes of the Islamic State or some other jihadist non-state actor that’s focused on staging a terrorist spectacular against the West. There’s well-founded concern that the Islamic State is in very much in the market for WMD, especially radioactive materials. U.S.-led air attacks have clearly cut into its revenues, but the Islamic State probably remains the richest terrorist group in history, with legions of admirers on every continent, including throughout the West. As for motive, well, have you compared some of the videos and rhetoric coming out of Raqqa and Pyongyang recently? Notice any similarities? In terms of blood-curdling intent to lay waste to America and make the death and destruction of 9/11 appear as mere child’s play, Kim Jong Un certainly gives Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a run for his money. Assuming Kim thought enough plausible deniability might be built in to such an operation, just how big a leap would it really be for him to outfit Islamic State with the radioactive waste necessary for a few dirty bombs?
As the 9/11 Commission instructed us, a failure of imagination contributed mightily to the attack that caught America totally unaware and vulnerable that awful day. In the case of North Korea, we’ve had ample warning for decades that almost anything is possible. Pyongyang has more than proven its readiness to sell some of the world’s most dangerous weapons and technology to the world’s most dangerous actors, so long as there is money to be made and no serious chance of meaningful punishment for its transgressions. As the North’s nuclear arsenal grows in size and sophistication, as its economic straits grow more desperate, and as the rhetoric and actions of its mercurial young dictator grows more bellicose and erratic, we should expect the worst from Pyongyang, while acting now to develop the necessary capabilities, strategies, and policies to ensure it never happens.
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