Nightmare scenario: A-bombs for al-Qaeda
DOUG SAUNDERS From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
LONDON — The most alarming thing about Kim Jong-il’s new weapons, to many knowledgeable observers, is not the nuclear threat itself. It is the way the world’s major powers might respond to them. The worst-case scenario goes something like this: Terrified by the nuclear threat next door, the Japanese decide to build their own nuclear arsenal, to the deep alarm of China. The United States beefs up its Pacific bases and begins threatening attacks on North Korean missile sites. In response to this new U.S. presence near its shores, China drastically increases its military strength and begins making overt threats, setting off a chain of military escalation. And North Korea, isolated and desperate after losing its last sources of economic support, sells its nuclear devices to al-Qaeda.“It’s more realistic today than it was yesterday,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, who was the U.S. State Department’s chief official on nuclear proliferation issues until last year.In his opinion, which is shared by many other Western officials, the greatest threat is that an isolated North Korea, desperate for food and fuel after it has been isolated by its former supporters, will sell its weapons to terrorist groups or rogue states.
After all, Pyongyang has shown no qualms about making such sales: International observers such as the International Atomic Energy Agency believe North Korea sold 1.7 tonnes of uranium hexafluoride to Libya in 2000. And it does not lack desperation: China, the main source of food and fuel for the impoverished nation, expressed outright fury Monday at its neighbour’s desperate act. If it cuts off aid, North Korea could become an even more dangerous state.“I have felt for a long time that this is the process where North Korea is trying to get recognition for itself even at the expense of aggravating its main supporters,” said James Grayson, president of the British Association for Korean Studies. “My worry is that they would be pushed even further into the corner and become more dangerous.”Chinese leaders Monday suggested that they might punish North Korea in such a fashion. Their wrath at their communist neighbours’ defiant act was reflected in the unusually hostile diplomatic language used in their condemnations.“I think China is very furious with North Korea right now,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said Monday. “So I think that China is inclined to show its displeasure by maybe slowing down the oil flow, slowing down investment trade assistance. . . . China is perhaps more relevant to causing or preventing the worst-case scenario.”But some say Chinese leaders are likely to respond more aggressively to an increased Japanese and U.S. military presence, triggered by the nuclear threat, than they are to North Korea itself.Japan’s ruling politicians, leading a population opposed to most forms of war, are still very much against increasing the country’s military role in the region. But there is a Japanese minority that believes the country should have a nuclear arsenal, and that faction could become much larger and more influential as a result of the North Korean weapon.One potential benefit is that the very real possibility of North Korea selling its nuclear knowledge to terrorists could lead to an agreement among China, Japan and the United States to search all North Korean container ships for radioactive material.Indeed, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, suggested Monday that the neighbouring powers and the United States might have reached a previously elusive agreement to punish North Korea.“I would say that there was a consensus in that meeting for a strong and swift response,” he said Monday of the UN Security Council emergency meeting.While this could bring a new strategic unity to these usually fractious partners, many observers say it is highly unlikely to take place, precisely because it would seem like such an overtly military act. And the inspection of ships, which would require an effective naval blockade of North Korea, would look like a military act.“My guess is that they’re likely to be hesitant about taking steps that could lead to a further escalation,” Gary Samore, another former U.S. State Department non-proliferation official, said Monday. “They want to put pressure on North Korea, but steps that could seen as an act of war, [such] as a naval blockade, those are things that they are going to be very wary to support. If you’re going to have some kind of an enforceable ban on military trade, you’re going to have some kind of a military regime. . . . The Chinese and Russians are afraid to use something that could cause an escalating conflict.”And that is what could keep this development from producing any visible response. The fear of a fast-escalating conflict or regional calamity outweighs any larger concern about North Korean weapons.