Don’t sanction North Korea

Fresh sanctions on a cash-poor North Korean regime could help cause exactly the situation we hope to prevent — nuclear proliferation. By Charles D. Ferguson It’s hard not to be a bit anxious about the news, reported Thursday, that North Korea might launch a ballistic missile toward Hawaii next month. But the United States and ...

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Fresh sanctions on a cash-poor North Korean regime could help cause exactly the situation we hope to prevent -- nuclear proliferation.

By Charles D. Ferguson


Fresh sanctions on a cash-poor North Korean regime could help cause exactly the situation we hope to prevent — nuclear proliferation.

By Charles D. Ferguson

It’s hard not to be a bit anxious about the news, reported Thursday, that North Korea might launch a ballistic missile toward Hawaii next month. But the United States and its partners should resist the urge to panic. North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile capabilities are rudimentary and will likely remain so for years to come. (Pyongyang’s long-range missiles won’t likely reach all the way to Hawaii, given their record of failure. Kim Jong Il instead might be trying to send a message to President Obama, who was born and grew up in Hawaii.) In fact, the only thing to fear is literally fear itself: If severe economic sanctions are imposed on North Korea, they could result in the plausible worst case scenario of North Korea selling nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials abroad.

As it stands today, North Korea cannot credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack from a ballistic missile or aircraft. The long-range Taepo Dong missile may someday have the reliable capability to hit the continental United States. But the two failed tests in recent years show that at least a few more trial runs would be needed to work out the technical kinks. Besides, the Taepo Dong is not likely to be able to carry its 500 kilogram payload, a first-generation nuclear warhead, over an intercontinental distance. Nor does North Korea have a long-range aircraft that could drop a nuclear bomb on the United States.

Moreover, North Korea has yet to develop a reliable, high-yield nuclear weapon. The country’s first test, in October 2006, produced an explosion that fell far short of the four-kilotons that North Korea told China it expected. (And even four kilotons would pale in comparison to the 20-kiloton plutonium-based bomb that fell on Nagasaki in 1945.) Many analysts believe North Korea’s second nuclear test last month was more successful, at an estimated yield of two to four kilotons. This might tell us that North Korea is seeking to build low-yield nuclear weapons, stretching out its limited plutonium stockpile. The country might have enough fissile material for three to eight nuclear bombs of the Nagasaki design or somewhat more than double that number at lower yields.

North Korea is stuck with its current stockpile of plutonium for at least another several months, because it will take that long to repair the disabled reactor at Yongbyon. Even then, Yongbyon can only make about one bomb’s worth of plutonium each year. And though North Korea recently shocked the world by admitting to having a uranium enrichment program, it will likely take years to produce large quantities of weapons-usable material.

Of course, the relatively rudimentary nature of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal does not call for complacency. In the region in particular, North Korea does pose a serious threat to both South Korea and Japan. Seoul is in striking range of thousands of North Korean artillery tubes, and Pyongyang has repeatedly warned of its ability to turn the South into a “sea of fire.” Yet such a scenario is unlikely so long as the United States remains committed to defending South Korea and Japan, as the Obama administration has reaffirmed that it is.

The greatest concern is that North Korea could sell nuclear and missile capabilities to other states or perhaps non-state actors. Already, North Korea has sold several hundred million dollars worth of missiles to Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Vietnam, and Yemen, in recent years, and it helped Syria build a nuclear reactor that was intended for plutonium production. (In September 2007, Israel bombed this construction site.) Facing dire economic conditions, North Korea certainly has a strong motivation to profit from its only expertise.

As far as we know, North Korea has refrained from selling its nuclear weapons and materials to other states or non-state actors. But should harsh financial sanctions be imposed, the country might feel compelled to do exactly that. That prospect has thus far been held off by China, which, fearing North Korea’s collapse, has prevented the U.N. Security Council from imposing truly tough sanctions or authorizing the use of force. That might be a blessing in disguise — and save the world from its own worst nuclear fears.

Charles D. Ferguson is Philip D. Reed senior fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and project director of the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force Report on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy, chaired by William J. Perry and Brent Scowcroft.

KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

Charles D. Ferguson is president of the Federation of American Scientists. His book Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know will be published in May.

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