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Nuclear Arming Could Snowball

North Korea's moves to restart its program may prompt neighbors to build their own arsenals, security analysts say.

January 06, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The vivid prospect of a North Korea with enough plutonium for six or eight bombs could prompt neighboring countries to consider building their own nuclear arsenals, security experts warn.

Moreover, it could mean that North Korea by mid-decade would begin exporting plutonium to an eager global black market, a threat that policy analysts say could not only destabilize East Asia but also encourage nuclear aspirants in the Middle East and other regions.

"We could be approaching a nuclear tipping point," said Mitchell Reiss, dean of international affairs at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"What we're concerned about is whether it's going to start a nuclear chain reaction" in which previously nonnuclear countries "may start to reconsider their bargain and to hedge their bets," he said. "If you see North Korea acquire even a small nuclear arsenal, they may begin to wonder whether nonproliferation is a mug's game."

While Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are highly unlikely to decide to go nuclear any time soon, experts say, any of the three governments could probably build a nuclear arsenal within months or years should it decide that U.S. security guarantees are no longer enough to defend it against a more dangerous world.

Moreover, a nuclear North Korea would probably push all three nations to embrace missile defense systems, analysts say. That in turn could antagonize China, particularly if the U.S. sold such systems to Taiwan.

These and other scenarios have come under urgent discussion as policy analysts and North Korea experts voice growing doubt that the Bush administration strategy of pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program can succeed without the direct negotiations Washington has ruled out.

Next week's meetings between Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts will probably include discussion of the still-vague plan for a compromise to be presented by South Korea's president-elect Roh Moo Hyun. It was unclear whether the mutual concessions Roh envisions to break the stalemate would satisfy North Korea that the Bush administration did not intend to try to topple Kim Jong Il once the U.S. finishes with Iraq, or avoid the moral hazard the Bush administration sees in rewarding North Korea with sweeter new deals when it breaks old promises.

The threat of nuclear proliferation in Asia makes China a pivotal player, experts say.

The Bush administration and the South Korean government are both courting China's help in persuading North Korea that a nuclear weapons program will make it a regional pariah. China has taken the unusual step of joining with Russia in publicly criticizing Pyongyang's nuclear program.

But China would be reluctant to punish its North Korean allies by reducing aid or trade, lest it worsen the already problematic flow of desperate North Korean refugees into northern China, said Gary Samore, a former National Security Council official now at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in London.

However, analysts note that the United States used its influence in the 1970s and 1980s to stop Taiwan and South Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

Now, the Bush administration could argue that it's time for China -- the only country with leverage or influence over North Korea -- to do its part to keep the nuclear genie bottled.

If North Korea proceeds to separate the plutonium from its spent nuclear fuel rods, a precursor to making bombs, it would be crossing a "red line" with unpredictable consequences, experts agree.

Ever since North Korea declared it was restarting its nuclear program, the Bush administration has sought to downplay the dispute by arguing that the U.S. has long believed that North Korea might already have up to two nuclear devices. But that has caused more anxiety in Asia, not less, said Kurt M. Campbell, a former Pentagon official.

"The most alarming thing we've seen from the Bush administration is this, 'North Korea has two [nuclear weapons] and what's a few more?' type of approach," said Campbell, who is studying the "tipping point" scenarios with Reiss and North Korea specialist Derek Mitchell at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "By saying it's not a crisis ... you are emboldening the North Koreans to go further and further."

Moreover, "North Korea could easily decide it wanted to put some of its plutonium on the black market, and they could get a handsome price for it," Campbell said. "Secondly, the other countries in the region have banked on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. To have the U.S. basically blessing that [possibility of one or two North Korean nuclear weapons] creates all sorts of problems."

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