How big a threat is North Korea?
Q&A: Kim Jong Il's drive to make his nation a nuclear power and how that threatens Asian neighbors.
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"There is an indication that [North Korea's] main focus is on the possibility of export as a vehicle by which to increase their access to foreign currency," says Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.Skip to next paragraph
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It is widely believed that a nuclear reactor recently constructed in Syria – and destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in October 2008 – was built with assistance from North Korea. Some also believe that the North is providing a small research reactor to Burma (Myanmar), says Daniel Pinkston, Northeast Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group.
He says the likelihood of North Korea providing nuclear assistance or devices to nonstate terrorist groups like Al Qaeda is unlikely, due to the difficulties of such a transaction. And if the goal of such a group was a bomb, the design of choice is a uranium bomb, which North Korea has not yet produced, says Mr. Pinkston.
"You can't rule it out, but I think it's a low-probability event," Pinkston says. "If you are interested in cash or cooperation, why would you bother with that?"
But Mr. Snyder says the risk of nonstate actors getting their hands on North Korea's nuclear material or technology is a concern.
"North Korea has made it known that they're willing to sell anything to anybody, and they're pretty desperate in terms of their economic situation," he says. "If they can find a buyer and they can assess that the risk is not too great in terms of being caught, I think they would consider a deal."
Might North Korea inspire a nuclear arms race?
Japan and Taiwan are believed to be well on their way to acquiring all the expertise needed to develop nuclear devices of their own. They both have nuclear power plants and scientists and engineers with vast experience in the field. The emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power could spur them to cast aside restraints and go nuclear militarily. South Korea also may be tempted – though the US over the years has severely restrained South Korean scientists.
Where is North Korea going from here in nuclear development?
The Yongbyon complex – believed to be able to produce about a bomb's worth of weapons-grade plutonium in a year – is no doubt old, but North Korea also is working on developing warheads using enriched uranium. It has other facilities hidden away, and it has acquired materiel – notably centrifuges – from Pakistan and elsewhere. Iran's nuclear program is all uranium, and North Korea is assumed to be sharing information and components with Iran.
Are domestic considerations a factor in North Korea's tests of nukes and missiles?
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, is clearly ill, and reportedly suffered a stroke last August. Many observers say that he is attempting to pass on power to his youngest son, still in his 20s, while fending off a power drive from his generals. Mr. Kim rules through his National Defense Commission, of which he is chairman, and he has been promoting the "military first" policy for years. Observers say that the nuclear and missile programs represent an effort to assert his own authority before his death. He may have a goal of securing Korth Korea's status as a global nuclear power by 2012 – the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, Kim Il Sung.