Israel's North Korea Problem

The Administration policy toward Iraq is correct, but those arguing that the danger from North Korea may be greater are probably right; the difference is that we can take care of the threat from Saddam, but we're virtually helpless to stop the Koreans. And just as the elimination of Saddam will benefit Israel, the failure to take steps to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons could prove catastrophic for Israel.

North Korea's recent actions have highlighted the danger that nation poses to the world, but it's destabilizing impact on the Middle East has long been evident. Due primarily to its weak economy, North Korea has long been one of the world's leading weapons proliferators, enthusiastically selling its technology to rogue nations for money to prop up its society and finance the development of its weapons systems.

In particular, North Korea has supplied missiles and built missile production facilities for Iran, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Syria, for example, purchased complete Scuds and production equipment from North Korea, and Pyongyang has been engaged in joint missile development with Egypt for two decades.

Iran is North Korea's principal customer for weapons and technology, and it has been the site of a number of missile tests carried out on North Korea's behalf. North Korea may have sold one of its most sophisticated missiles, the Nodong, which has the capability of carrying nuclear weapons more than 1200 kilometers, to Iran. Meanwhile, the Shahab-3 missile under development in Iran — with a range of 1,300 kilometers — is reportedly based on the Nodong.

More worrisome even than the missile transfers is the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. According to the Defense Department, Pyongyang is currently capable of producing large quantities of nerve, blister, and blood chemical warfare agents. These could be easily transferred to nations or terrorists.

North Korea could export plutonium from its nuclear weapons program, as well as weapon design data, to Iran and other Middle East nations willing to pay for it. In the worst-case scenario, the Koreans move forward with the production of nuclear bombs and then stockpile enough to have a surplus for sale to the highest bidders.

What is most frightening is that I see little that Israel or the United States can do about the situation. I fear that we are simply going to be forced to accept a new member of the nuclear club and one that is less concerned about controlling its own stockpile than the existing members. You can see our impotence in the Bush Administration's response.

The first thought is to mount an Osirak-type operation and take out the nuclear facility. Analysts have pointed out that this is problematic on a variety of levels. First, it would be difficult to accomplish. Second, it is likely the nuclear materials are spread out and that we don't know where they all are. Third, the North Koreans have threatened, and most experts take them at their word, that they will respond to any attack with an all-out war against the South, which might also include the firing of missiles at Japan. Even if the nuclear capability could be eliminated, Saddam has shown that this is not a permanent solution, only a temporary one. This also would not have any impact on missile proliferation or possible transfers of biological and chemical weapons.

The only way to put the North Koreans out of the proliferation business and eliminate them as a threat would be to use the same strategy as we are preparing for Iraq, a war to disarm the regime. No one has any illusions that such a war would be anything like what is expected in Iraq. Rather than overwhelming superiority, U.S. forces would face a well-armed, determined force that would lose a war, but not before inflicting potentially hundreds of thousands of casualties on our forces and South Korea's civilian population.

That leaves us with no good options. The best we can hope to do is try to use economic aid and trade as a means to discourage the trade in weapons. That hasn't worked to date. The U.S., Israel, and other allies could also take more aggressive steps to interdict shipments of missiles and nonconventional weapons, but this is exceedingly difficult and still could trigger a massive response by the North Koreans against their neighbors. There's also nothing that can be done to stop the exchange of technical know-how.

The time may come when the danger will merit a war against North Korea, but for now the cost is too high. No one should be deluded, however, as to the cost of not disarming the Koreans. They are going to insure that the Middle East stays a dangerous place long after Saddam is gone.