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N. Korean leader Kim Jong Il. (AP)

Teetering on the brink of a nuclear dark age

ASK THIS | October 16, 2006

Harvard Professor Graham Allison writes that North Korea's provocation reveals the face of 21st century nuclear danger: The terrible threat of nuclear terrorism. Is the U.S. government prepared to meet this enormous challenge?

(Adapted from the blog of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.)

By Graham Allison

As a result of North Korea’s acquisition and detonation of nuclear weapons, we now live in a much more dangerous world. Kim Jong-il’s provocation reveals the face of 21st century nuclear danger: the threat of nuclear terrorism. Although the test will have serious negative repercussions for regional security and the nonproliferation regime, the real danger is that a country known among national security specialists as “Missiles ‘R’ Us” will become a “Nukes ‘R’ Us” for terrorists and other proliferators.

The key challenge for thinking citizens today is to understand the significance of the North Korean test, and most importantly, to move the Bush administration to adopt a principle of nuclear accountability that can prevent nuclear weapons ending up in terrorist hands.

On that subject, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science has released a special volume on nuclear terrorism that I edited. The essays raise several key issues about the looming threat of nuclear terrorism and the actions we can take to combat it. Articles by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, and myself deal explicitly with the challenges posed by a nuclear North Korea. In addition, questions and answers below are an excellent starting point for wrapping one’s mind around the concept of nuclear terrorism.

Q. Are the actions the U.S. and other governments of the world are currently taking commensurate with the leaders' words about the single largest and most urgent threat to their nation's security?

On the one hand, President Bush and other leaders' diagnosis of the threat should rationally lead to a categorical imperative demanding that everything that can feasibly be done actually be done on the fastest possible timetable to minimize the threat. On the other hand, when one compares actual performance with possibilities and opportunities, the results have to be judged disappointing.

As I argue in Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, success in preventing a nuclear 9/11 requires effective implementation of a doctrine of Three No's: No loose nukes, No new nascent nukes, and No new nuclear weapons states. On all three fronts, the administration's first-term performance can be summed up by one word: unacceptable.

"No loose nukes" means securing all weapons-usable material beyond the reach of terrorists and criminals that might sell them on the black market. Hard as it is to believe, fewer potential nuclear weapons were secured in Russia in the two years after the 9/11 wake-up call than in the two years prior to that attack. Although the administration launched a global clean-out initiative that removed some highly enriched uranium from eight countries, the makings for nuclear bombs remain today in 40 developing and transitional countries. Performance worthy of an "A" in securing "loose nukes" requires locking down all nuclear material in 12 to 18 months -- not mañana.

"No new nascent nukes" means no new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, the essential elements in creating nuclear weapons. The international security community has slowly come to recognize this red line: highly enriched uranium and plutonium are bombs just about to hatch. On this front, the Bush Administration earned a "D minus." While its attention was consumed by Iraq, Iran advanced from years to only months away from completing the infrastructure for its nuclear bomb.

"No new nuclear weapons states" recognizes the reality that we have now nine nuclear powers but says unambiguously: "No more." Sharply reducing Cold War arsenals and devaluing nuclear weapons in international relations are long-term goals, but the urgent challenge is to stop further bleeding. Here the president clearly failed. When he entered office, North Korea had two bombs-worth of plutonium (acquired in the final years of his father's administration). At the end of his first term, according to CIA estimates, North Korea's nuclear arsenal had grown to eight bombs-worth of plutonium.

In contrast to the first term, the good news is that in the past year the reconfigured Bush national security team appears to be "getting its mind around the concept" of a nuclear bomb exploding in an American city. In confronting the threat of nuclear terrorism, the administration has moved beyond ideological principles to a new pragmatism.

In February 2005, at a summit in Bratislava, Presidents Bush and Putin put nuclear security at the top of the agenda. For the first time, the two presidents accepted personal responsibility for addressing the issue and assuring that their governments act urgently. They agreed on a work plan that assigned responsibility to Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and his Russian counterpart; established specific working groups on best practices in nuclear security and security culture; and required the secretaries to oversee implementation of these efforts and brief them regularly.

At the July G8 Summit, Presidents Bush and Putin further advanced the issue, announcing a new Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. The first component consists of a plan to guarantee supply of nuclear fuel to states that forgo building their own enrichment plants. This proposal will tighten the noose around Iran as it seeks to exploit a loophole in the Nonproliferation Treaty. By guaranteeing states that six separate international suppliers will provide backup guarantees against interruption of supply for any reason other than breach of commitments under the NPT, this proposal eliminates Iran's excuse for Natanz the enrichment plant it is rushing to finish today. The other component is a Civil Nuclear Agreement that will lift restrictions on cooperation between the two countries in developing peaceful nuclear power. This will include joint research on next-generation, proliferation-proof reactors, including technologies where Russian science is the best in the world. It will permit sale to Russia of U.S. technologies that can improve the safety and efficiency of Russian nuclear power plants. And in time it will allow Russia to import for safe storage U.S.-origin nuclear waste from power plants in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Q. The United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change warned about erosion of the entire nonproliferation regime to a point of irreversibility beyond which there would be, in their fine phrase, "a cascade of proliferation." Is this in fact likely? Inevitable? Preventable?

Answer: likely, not inevitable, and possibly preventable. As the reality of the North Korean nuclear test sinks in, South Korea and Japan will each begin quietly examining its “Plan B” for acquiring its own independent nuclear deterrent.

If Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state, most Middle Eastern analysts predict that Egypt will feel obliged to follow suit (or otherwise live in the shadow of a nuclear armed Persia). Saudi Arabia will probably not be far behind, but as a buyer rather than a maker, perhaps having already made arrangements with Pakistan for the purchase of warheads that could be mated to medium range missiles that it bought secretly from China in the 1980s.

Q. Now that North Korea has become a nuclear weapons state, how should the U.S. and the international community seek to deal with nuclear rogues?

Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who was the chief negotiator of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, presents two provocative lines of inquiry and prescription: preemption and accountability. Both will unquestionably receive much greater attention over the months immediately ahead. Students of strategy, including nuclear strategy, have an opportunity to analyze the extent to which traditional concepts of deterrence may be applicable, the reasons why they may not be, and the possibilities for complements, extensions, or additions to our lexicon of nuclear strategy.

Q. How should the U.S. deal with the newly-outed nuclear North Korea?

As former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry has been insisting for the past five years, North Korea is the single most dangerous actor on Earth. It is the only nuclear weapons state whose leader could rationally imagine advancing his interests by selling a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden. Nor is this the only possible nuclear nightmare that could emanate from North Korea, as Secretary Perry's essay suggests. How to deal with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-il will be among the most vexing challenges for the final two years of the Bush administration and for whatever American government succeeds it. Secretary Perry's analysis, in effect, invites strategists to confront this most vexing challenge.

Q. What are the factors in international politics that lead to, encourage, or support demand on the part of new states and non-state actors for nuclear weapons? What actions can the U.S. and other governments in the international community take to diminish these demands?

While most programs of prescription for preventing nuclear terrorism focus on the supply side, and actions that could be taken to prevent terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb or the material from which they can make a bomb, Charlie Curtis rightly reminds us that we should also be asking about the demand side. As his fertile essay demonstrates, this is a largely underdeveloped domain of inquiry and one that presents many opportunities for both scholars' and practitioners' intellectual attention. 

Q. Are we headed for a new nuclear dark age?

Most of the essays in this volume agree that on current trends, we are likely to see continued erosion of the nonproliferation regime, perhaps even to the point of collapse, a further spread of nuclear weapons, and the probable use of nuclear weapons by terrorists to destroy one, or perhaps more, of the major capitals of the world. If this occurs over the next decade, as I suggest in "Flight of Fancy" or along the lines of one of the scenarios imagined by former Senator Sam Nunn, will this end abruptly the modern world as we know it? After the first terrorist nuclear bomb demolishes a major capital, or a second, will civilized people continue living in major urban areas? Will the sole remaining superpower, or a U.S.-Russian collaboration, seek to establish a new global nuclear order by force, including the use of nuclear weapons to destroy arsenals and stockpiles?

While one can write, or read words about these possibilities, such radical departures from current realities defy imagination. Even hard-to-please glimpses at such a catastrophic future should, nonetheless, motivate policymakers and citizens alike to act urgently now to prevent this ultimate preventable catastrophe. Where the stakes could mean terrorists exploding a nuclear weapon in my city, or my country, Churchill's counsel to colleagues in WWII is surely apt. "It is not enough," he said, "to do one's best. What is required is rather that one do what is necessary for success."

Is nuclear terrorism the ultimate preventable catastrophe?
Allison writes that when it comes to preventing nuclear terrorism, the press should be asking what, if anything, has the Bush administration accomplished — and what needs to be done.

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