Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear-weapons technology

Smoking Out China

Today, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the six-party talks to disarm North Korea could resume this month. Hill, America’s chief representative at the long-running negotiations, is in Moscow in an effort to save the Bush administration’s faltering campaign to take away Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Il’s militant state failed to honor an agreement to make a declaration of all its nuclear programs by the end of 2007.

This is a particularly bad moment for Kim to stiff the international community. He is set to lose his most valuable ally, the other Korea. Elections last month ended a decade of “progressive”—actually leftist—rule in the South. A conservative, Lee Myung-bak, is set to take over on February 25. After his victory, Lee’s spokesman stated that he would review Seoul’s policies and programs that have supported its northern neighbor. The potential loss of assistance is critical because the North Korean economy largely failed to respond to a package of restructuring measures announced in July 2002, and since then aid from China and South Korea is the primary reason why the regime has remained afloat. Kim Jong Il’s one-man government appears so shaky that some American and South Korean officials think that North Korea could collapse in the near future.

These and other developments suggest that Kim should be even more amenable to giving up his arsenal for immediate financial assistance and the promise of admission into the international community. On the contrary, he is digging in his heels.

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Today, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the six-party talks to disarm North Korea could resume this month. Hill, America’s chief representative at the long-running negotiations, is in Moscow in an effort to save the Bush administration’s faltering campaign to take away Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Il’s militant state failed to honor an agreement to make a declaration of all its nuclear programs by the end of 2007.

This is a particularly bad moment for Kim to stiff the international community. He is set to lose his most valuable ally, the other Korea. Elections last month ended a decade of “progressive”—actually leftist—rule in the South. A conservative, Lee Myung-bak, is set to take over on February 25. After his victory, Lee’s spokesman stated that he would review Seoul’s policies and programs that have supported its northern neighbor. The potential loss of assistance is critical because the North Korean economy largely failed to respond to a package of restructuring measures announced in July 2002, and since then aid from China and South Korea is the primary reason why the regime has remained afloat. Kim Jong Il’s one-man government appears so shaky that some American and South Korean officials think that North Korea could collapse in the near future.

These and other developments suggest that Kim should be even more amenable to giving up his arsenal for immediate financial assistance and the promise of admission into the international community. On the contrary, he is digging in his heels.

Why is he doing that? Hill provided one clue yesterday when he was in Beijing. There the American envoy told reporters that Pyongyang was delaying the issuance of its declaration because “to acknowledge certain activities would invite additional questioning on our part and further scrutiny on things.” By “certain activities,” Hill was primarily referring to North Korea’s efforts to develop a program to build nukes with uranium cores.

There is, in all probability, great concern in Beijing that a complete North Korean declaration would reveal the Chinese origin of Pyongyang’s uranium program. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the head of a global black-market ring in nuclear weapons technology, said he began working with North Korea around 1991. Khan agreed to transfer Chinese-designed equipment to Pyongyang, and China helped him deliver it. When Khan’s proliferation activities were exposed in the early part of this decade, Beijing persuaded Islamabad to end its investigation, pardon Khan, and keep him away from American interrogators. Beijing has steadfastly professed that it has been “completely in the dark” about Kim Jong Il’s uranium program when it is clear that it had substantial knowledge.

These denials are, as intelligence analyst John Loftus notes, “a real signal of partnership.” Some speculate that the Chinese may even have developed the long-term master plan that contemplated Pyongyang giving up its visible plutonium weapons program and keeping its covert uranium one. In any event, on Monday Agence France-Presse reported that China has developed contingency plans to grab North Korea’s nukes if that is necessary. Such an exercise would, of course, eliminate evidence of Beijing’s nuclear assistance to Pyongyang. In light of all the evidence, it appears that China recently ordered North Korea not to provide its promised declaration of its nuclear activities.

Another round of six-party talks, which Christopher Hill wants, will not help persuade North Korea to give up its arsenal. Yet insisting on a complete declaration and dragging out the disarmament process may help smoke out the world’s most dangerous proliferator. And I’m not referring to North Korea.

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Encouraging Despots

“Here comes the world’s newest superpower,” writes Cahal Milmo in the Independent yesterday. “China is set to make 2008 the year it asserts its status as a global colossus.” Fareed Zakaria, in his recent piece in Newsweek, agrees, predicting that 2008 “is likely to be seen as the year that China moved to center stage.”

As we start a new year, predictions invariably mention that Beijing is set to take over the world. China in the past merely enticed and puzzled the West. Now, it threatens to dominate us. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins already calls the country “the most important power in the world.” Zakaria does not go that far, but he notes that “China has become the new x factor, without which no durable solution is possible.”

So here’s a question for us: Is it possible to solve any problem when a turbulent Communist state blocks all remedies? If we want to know why geopolitical disorders continue, we need look no further than Beijing. The Chinese have caused some of these maladies and contributed to almost all of the rest. Today, China proliferates nuclear weapons technology, supports murderous regimes, and is emerging as the core of a coalition of authoritarian states. The Beijing Consensus, touted throughout the developing world, is now the alternative to the West’s model of representative governance and free-market economics.

Washington’s approach has been to integrate the Chinese into the international community, to make their country “a responsible stakeholder.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is certainly correct when she said, replying to Mike Huckabee’s charge that the Bush administration has an “arrogant bunker mentality,” that it was “ludicrous” to say we have a “go-it-alone foreign policy.” The problem is not that we are going it alone. On the contrary, the problem is that we seek the assistance of unrepentant despots in solving the world’s most urgent problems.

So here is a question to ponder as we think about the coming year: Is it really a good idea to give increasingly aggressive autocrats a commanding role in shaping the global order?

“Here comes the world’s newest superpower,” writes Cahal Milmo in the Independent yesterday. “China is set to make 2008 the year it asserts its status as a global colossus.” Fareed Zakaria, in his recent piece in Newsweek, agrees, predicting that 2008 “is likely to be seen as the year that China moved to center stage.”

As we start a new year, predictions invariably mention that Beijing is set to take over the world. China in the past merely enticed and puzzled the West. Now, it threatens to dominate us. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins already calls the country “the most important power in the world.” Zakaria does not go that far, but he notes that “China has become the new x factor, without which no durable solution is possible.”

So here’s a question for us: Is it possible to solve any problem when a turbulent Communist state blocks all remedies? If we want to know why geopolitical disorders continue, we need look no further than Beijing. The Chinese have caused some of these maladies and contributed to almost all of the rest. Today, China proliferates nuclear weapons technology, supports murderous regimes, and is emerging as the core of a coalition of authoritarian states. The Beijing Consensus, touted throughout the developing world, is now the alternative to the West’s model of representative governance and free-market economics.

Washington’s approach has been to integrate the Chinese into the international community, to make their country “a responsible stakeholder.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is certainly correct when she said, replying to Mike Huckabee’s charge that the Bush administration has an “arrogant bunker mentality,” that it was “ludicrous” to say we have a “go-it-alone foreign policy.” The problem is not that we are going it alone. On the contrary, the problem is that we seek the assistance of unrepentant despots in solving the world’s most urgent problems.

So here is a question to ponder as we think about the coming year: Is it really a good idea to give increasingly aggressive autocrats a commanding role in shaping the global order?

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Faith-Based Diplomacy on North Korea

On Wednesday, the State Department’s Christopher Hill told Senators that any past transmittal of nuclear weapons technology from North Korea to Syria would not undermine current efforts to disarm Pyongyang. “I came away with the sense that whatever, if anything ever had occurred in the past, it is not occurring now, and I think our negotiators feel that with good confidence,” said Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat.

If there is any confidence that North Korea is not currently proliferating, it is only because Israel struck and destroyed from the air a Syrian nuclear facility on September 6. David Albright, the former UN weapons inspector, thinks it was a reactor of North Korean design. Others have adopted the more ominous assessment that the target was a facility for processing North Korean plutonium. High-level consultations between Damascus and Pyongyang occurred in the immediate aftermath of the raid. And it is now known that the North Koreans, despite their prior agreement reached in February, are refusing to provide information about sensitive aspects of their nuclear program, especially their links to other rogue states. North Korea has merchandised every conventional weapons system it has ever produced—recent disclosures relate to sales to Hizballah—so it is prudent to wonder about transfers of nuclear tech as well, especially because Iranians were in North Korea to witness its only known detonation of a nuke, in October of last year.

Hill makes the technical point that it is only the present and future that matter when it comes to Pyongyang’s sales of dangerous technologies. In a strict sense, he is perfectly correct. Yet he is asking Senators—and the rest of us—to ignore the conduct of North Koreans in the immediate past, even though such conduct is the best indication of what they will do in the future. In September 2005 the North Koreans promised to give up their most destructive weapons. In February of this year they agreed to specific steps to do so. If Pyongyang was actively selling fissile material and technology as late as this September—and would be doing so now but for the Israeli raid—there is great reason to doubt the value of its current promises.

Short of the use of force, we can assure ourselves that Kim Jong Il has disarmed only if we send inspectors into every corner of his miserable country. If we don’t do that, we must trust the word of a leadership that has continuously lied to the international community about its nuclear weapons efforts since 1985, when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Bush administration no longer talks about “CVID”—complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament of North Korea, its old formulation and the only basis on which we should proceed. With the way things are going, Christopher Hill will soon declare that China has become a democracy, the Palestinians really want peace, and North Korea has already disarmed.

On Wednesday, the State Department’s Christopher Hill told Senators that any past transmittal of nuclear weapons technology from North Korea to Syria would not undermine current efforts to disarm Pyongyang. “I came away with the sense that whatever, if anything ever had occurred in the past, it is not occurring now, and I think our negotiators feel that with good confidence,” said Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat.

If there is any confidence that North Korea is not currently proliferating, it is only because Israel struck and destroyed from the air a Syrian nuclear facility on September 6. David Albright, the former UN weapons inspector, thinks it was a reactor of North Korean design. Others have adopted the more ominous assessment that the target was a facility for processing North Korean plutonium. High-level consultations between Damascus and Pyongyang occurred in the immediate aftermath of the raid. And it is now known that the North Koreans, despite their prior agreement reached in February, are refusing to provide information about sensitive aspects of their nuclear program, especially their links to other rogue states. North Korea has merchandised every conventional weapons system it has ever produced—recent disclosures relate to sales to Hizballah—so it is prudent to wonder about transfers of nuclear tech as well, especially because Iranians were in North Korea to witness its only known detonation of a nuke, in October of last year.

Hill makes the technical point that it is only the present and future that matter when it comes to Pyongyang’s sales of dangerous technologies. In a strict sense, he is perfectly correct. Yet he is asking Senators—and the rest of us—to ignore the conduct of North Koreans in the immediate past, even though such conduct is the best indication of what they will do in the future. In September 2005 the North Koreans promised to give up their most destructive weapons. In February of this year they agreed to specific steps to do so. If Pyongyang was actively selling fissile material and technology as late as this September—and would be doing so now but for the Israeli raid—there is great reason to doubt the value of its current promises.

Short of the use of force, we can assure ourselves that Kim Jong Il has disarmed only if we send inspectors into every corner of his miserable country. If we don’t do that, we must trust the word of a leadership that has continuously lied to the international community about its nuclear weapons efforts since 1985, when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Bush administration no longer talks about “CVID”—complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament of North Korea, its old formulation and the only basis on which we should proceed. With the way things are going, Christopher Hill will soon declare that China has become a democracy, the Palestinians really want peace, and North Korea has already disarmed.

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More Idiocy from Zbigniew Brzezinski

In today’s Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski argues for a patient American approach to Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the Chinese can be our partner in helping to stop the Iranians. “China, despite its meteoric rise toward global preeminence, currently is geopolitically a status quo power,” Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser states.

Zbig, after his recent talks with Chinese leaders, tells us they are concerned about the fallout of “a major U.S.-Iran collision” and the Chinese are ardent supporters of “strategic patience.” Once we sit down with the Iranians at the negotiating table, “China could help break the stalemate.” In Brzezinski’s mind, negotiations with Iran would follow the North Korean model. We are on the path to peace in North Asia because the United States dropped its confrontational policy, he contends. Then he adds this: “Even more important, China’s abandonment of its initial reticence eventually proved vital to convincing Pyongyang that its own political intransigence could become suicidal.”

Too bad Brzezinski could not have read the New York Times before penning his op-ed. This morning the paper reports that everyone is hitting a dead end in dealing with the Iranians over their nuclear program. “The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working,” said a European official involved with Tehran. “As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed.” The Iranians, the Times reports, believe that renewed diplomatic effort on the part of others is proof that their defiance is working. That’s making any talks with them, in a word, counterproductive.

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In today’s Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski argues for a patient American approach to Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the Chinese can be our partner in helping to stop the Iranians. “China, despite its meteoric rise toward global preeminence, currently is geopolitically a status quo power,” Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser states.

Zbig, after his recent talks with Chinese leaders, tells us they are concerned about the fallout of “a major U.S.-Iran collision” and the Chinese are ardent supporters of “strategic patience.” Once we sit down with the Iranians at the negotiating table, “China could help break the stalemate.” In Brzezinski’s mind, negotiations with Iran would follow the North Korean model. We are on the path to peace in North Asia because the United States dropped its confrontational policy, he contends. Then he adds this: “Even more important, China’s abandonment of its initial reticence eventually proved vital to convincing Pyongyang that its own political intransigence could become suicidal.”

Too bad Brzezinski could not have read the New York Times before penning his op-ed. This morning the paper reports that everyone is hitting a dead end in dealing with the Iranians over their nuclear program. “The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working,” said a European official involved with Tehran. “As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed.” The Iranians, the Times reports, believe that renewed diplomatic effort on the part of others is proof that their defiance is working. That’s making any talks with them, in a word, counterproductive.

The other major flaw in Brzezinski’s reasoning is that the Chinese actually helped broker a deal with Pyongyang. There’s no question they sponsored dialogue with the North Koreans, arranging the multilateral talks that continue to this day. Yet that’s not the same as promoting a solution. Beijing, by dragging out the negotiations, gave Kim Jong Il the one thing he needed to construct his bomb: time. And after the detonation of the North Korean device in October 2006, the record shows that there was real progress—if we can call it that—only when Christopher Hill, the State Department’s point man, met with his North Korean counterparts without the Chinese present.

Now, Chinese leaders are proposing to Brzezinski that the Iranians get even more time to build a bomb. Tehran, which earlier this month announced that it has 3,000 centrifuges fully working, needs two years at most before it possesses the fissile material for its weapon.

Hasn’t Brzezinski learned from the mistakes of his old boss? In 1994, Jimmy Carter arranged a deal with the North Koreans that ended up giving them almost another decade to perfect their nuclear weapons technology. Zbig, at this moment, wants to provide to the Iranians a similar opportunity.

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China Tells Off Thomas Friedman

At the end of last week, Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum completed its Inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions in the Chinese port of Dalian. Perhaps the most interesting moment in the Forum’s three days of platitudes came when Thomas Friedman, prize-winning New York Times columnist, got “the middle finger in the Middle Kingdom,” as journalist-blogger Rebecca MacKinnon put it.

Friedman accused Beijing of being a “free loader” in the international system, letting the United States carry the burden of global “guardian” by itself. He specifically mentioned that China needs to do more to stop the Iranian nuclear program and to halt the genocide in Darfur. China’s most interesting diplomat, Sha Zukang, told Tom off—and showed how unprepared Beijing is to assume a helpful role in global affairs. Sha, now a U.N. undersecretary-general, said that China believes that countries should not assume world leadership but be elected to it. Beijing, he noted, treats all others as “equals.” China, therefore, is not going to lend a hand to the United States—or any other nation—to solve problems.

Amusing as it is to see Friedman told off, we have to ask ourselves seriously: should he really be encouraging a disruptive force to take an even larger role in world affairs? His theory (and the Bush administration’s) is that the Chinese, as they become enmeshed in the international system, will become a “responsible stakeholder” in it. But the Chinese are not yet ready to play this role. They’re still supplying small arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, still providing material and diplomatic support to the North Korean regime, and, in all probability, still transferring nuclear weapons technology to Iran. Engagement with China may be a necessary long-term plan, but it’s the wrong approach for a world in need of immediate relief. Beijing is a large part of the problem, not the solution. Tom, did you hear that? Mr. President, did you?

At the end of last week, Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum completed its Inaugural Annual Meeting of the New Champions in the Chinese port of Dalian. Perhaps the most interesting moment in the Forum’s three days of platitudes came when Thomas Friedman, prize-winning New York Times columnist, got “the middle finger in the Middle Kingdom,” as journalist-blogger Rebecca MacKinnon put it.

Friedman accused Beijing of being a “free loader” in the international system, letting the United States carry the burden of global “guardian” by itself. He specifically mentioned that China needs to do more to stop the Iranian nuclear program and to halt the genocide in Darfur. China’s most interesting diplomat, Sha Zukang, told Tom off—and showed how unprepared Beijing is to assume a helpful role in global affairs. Sha, now a U.N. undersecretary-general, said that China believes that countries should not assume world leadership but be elected to it. Beijing, he noted, treats all others as “equals.” China, therefore, is not going to lend a hand to the United States—or any other nation—to solve problems.

Amusing as it is to see Friedman told off, we have to ask ourselves seriously: should he really be encouraging a disruptive force to take an even larger role in world affairs? His theory (and the Bush administration’s) is that the Chinese, as they become enmeshed in the international system, will become a “responsible stakeholder” in it. But the Chinese are not yet ready to play this role. They’re still supplying small arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, still providing material and diplomatic support to the North Korean regime, and, in all probability, still transferring nuclear weapons technology to Iran. Engagement with China may be a necessary long-term plan, but it’s the wrong approach for a world in need of immediate relief. Beijing is a large part of the problem, not the solution. Tom, did you hear that? Mr. President, did you?

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Is an al-Qaeda Nuclear Suitcase Bomb On the Way?

Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

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Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

I’ve long been skeptical that these things could be floating around. States that build nuclear weapons are well aware of their destructive potential and go to extraordinary lengths to keep them under control.

To be sure, there have been reports pointing in the other direction. In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian national security adviser, told CBS’s Sixty Minutes that the Russian military had 250 such weapons and had lost track of more than 100 of them. But was Lebed in a position to know? As James Kitfield pointed out in National Journal, other Russian authorities have asserted that the KGB was in charge of these devices, which would explain why the Russian military could not offer an accurate accounting of their numbers and whereabouts.

In his 2000 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Yossef Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” But this claim was unsourced and seems difficult to credit. Although bin Laden has openly expressed interest in getting the bomb, and also obtained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric giving him divine permission to use one against American civilians, presumably, if he already had one in the 1990’s, we would have seen or heard it go off by now.

Still, the fact that there has been some sensationalist reporting does not mean there is no reason to worry. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains a chief concern. The country hemorrhaged nuclear-weapons technology for years when its atomic-energy program was being run by A. Q. Khan, who remains a national hero. Even if Khan is no longer in the loop, other elements within the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment might well offer to supply one to al Qaeda either for cash or to earn a place in heaven.

George Tenet adds significantly to our anxieties on this score. Although there are many things wrong with his recent memoir—and I point out some of them in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) —what he writes about this problem seems credible. Immediately after September 11, it turns out, the U.S. government was uncertain whether or not al Qaeda already had such a device:

In late November 2001, I briefed the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser on the latest intelligence. . . . I brought along with me my WMD chief, Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, and Kevin K., our most senior WMD terrorism analyst. During the ensuing conversation, the Vice President asked if we thought al Qaeda had a nuclear weapon. Kevin replied, “Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qaeda nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can’t assure you that they don’t.”

Tenet continues for many pages laying out precise intelligence about al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and from Russia. Whatever his flaws as a CIA director, Tenet was in a position to know all that can be known about this issue. His memoirs show that we do have reason to be afraid. But we shouldn’t be quivering in our boots. Rather, even as we work to avert a disastrous vacuum from forming in Iraq, we should be prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and allied Islamic terrorists with a vigor commensurate with what is at stake.

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