Drawing a nuclear red line

It seems to me the odds are about 50-50 that North Korea or Iran - two of the nations most hostile to the United States - will acquire nuclear weapons, if they haven't already.

North Korea, whose official statements are not always notable for their veracity, may be bluffing when it suggests it already has them. Iran, which also takes considerable license with the facts, may be bluffing when it says it doesn't have them.

But whatever the actual state of nuclear weapons development in each country, the fact is that both have aspired to possess such weapons, both have been working on their development, both have hidden such development, and both are stubbornly rejecting deterrence by a string of nations who think it would be dangerous to let either one of them get a nuclear arsenal.

Military action is not presently an option for the Bush administration.

Diplomacy is in play, but it is not going well. In the case of North Korea, the US is pinning its hopes on six-party talks between the US, North and South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. Recently there were some direct, lower-level discussions between North Korean and US officials, but the US believes it's critical for China to use its leverage on North Korea, because China plays a significant role in meeting Pyongyang's urgent need for food, fuel, and money.

The happy scenario is that North Korea might respond to a carrot-and-stick approach. If it suspends its development of nuclear weapons, its interlocutors will do significant things to improve its wretched economy. If it doesn't, it will face sanctions and other punitive measures.

The problem is that while there is unity among the interlocutors with North Korea that the Korean peninsula should be a nuclear-free zone, there is not unity about punitive measures. China does not want a destabilized North Korea and a flood of refugees. South Korea is acutely aware of the unpredictability of an armed, dangerous northern neighbor just up the road from Seoul.

Meanwhile North Korea goes its way, playing a stalling, cat-and-mouse game with the diplomats, and pressing ahead with its nuclear program.

There has long been evidence of North Korea's interest in uranium enrichment for nuclear purposes. But by 2002, State Department, Pentagon, and CIA analysts were at one in determining that a laboratory program using tens of centrifuges for enrichment had escalated to an ominous one using thousands of centrifuges, according to my informed sources.

With Iran, the US has been relying on the European Union to take the lead in a similar diplomatic carrot-and-stick approach: economic goodies if Iran suspends the program, but the threat of UN action and sanctions if the nuclear development program continues.

Iran has suspended enrichment during negotiations, but has emphasized that this is only temporary to see what the talks yield. It refuses to permanently abandon uranium enrichment, arguing that its interest is only in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Such protestations ring hollow to the Americans and Europeans because Iran has concealed key parts of its nuclear development for some 20 years and dissembled about their existence.

Just in the past few days, Iran was accused of circumventing international export bans by smuggling in a graphite compound that can be used in nuclear weapons production.

If diplomacy is unsuccessful in halting the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, what would this portend? Nothing comforting for Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries neighboring North Korea, nor for the Israelis and some neighboring Islamic countries that might be at odds with Iran.

Should either of them use a nuclear weapon against the US - either directly, or by terrorist surrogate - they must surely be aware of the probability of terrible retaliation bordering on extinction.

But the experts point out that while intelligence can generally chart the movement of missiles, the traffic in fissile material and nuclear devices is much more difficult to detect, or interdict.

In discussions in 2003, the North Koreans did offer an assurance that there would be no "transfer" of nuclear material to any foreign government or entity.

Such assurances by a duplicitous regime that acquires nuclear weapons are hardly much consolation. But it does suggest they are aware of a red line, which, overstepped, would have awesome consequences.

Should the present regimes in North Korea and Iran, despite diplomatic efforts, acquire such weapons, the existence of that red line should be made strikingly clear to them.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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