7 Reasons to Worry About North Korea's Weapons

Is the country bluffing or issuing real threats? Why we should pay attention either way.

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North Korean soldiers salute in Pyongyang on April 15, 2013, the birthday of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung. (Reuters)

It is getting so you need a scorecard to keep track of the North Korea crisis. Every day there are reports of new moves on both sides-- U.S. bombers flying to the Korean peninsula, interceptors shifting into position to shoot down missiles, North Korea restarting a nuclear reactor to produce bomb-making material and preparing for missile tests, and of course louder threats. Even harder to figure out are the real dangers; one day the White House says that there are no signs of disturbing military moves by the North, the next day Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel trumpets that Pyongyang represents a "clear and present danger to the United States," and the next North Korea is warning foreigners to leave the peninsula.

The situation is confusing, but one thing is sure. These weapons are not going away and neither are the North Koreans. Pyongyang's arsenal could grow from a few bombs to, according to some estimates, as many as 50 by 2016, quite a lot for a small country, or any country for that matter. Also, odds are North Korea will adopt a dangerous strategy for using these weapons, similar to what NATO did during the Cold War. Faced with superior conventional military forces, just as NATO was with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, Pyongyang might threaten to "go nuclear" very early in a conflict to forestall defeat.

Of course, all may not go well for the North; Pyongyang's close friend China may head it off at the nuclear pass; the North might experience problems building more nuclear weapons; or the U.S. could strike a deal with the North that stops its growing arsenal. In short, we can hope for the best but should be prepared for the worst.

Why then should we be concerned about North Korea's WMD arsenal now and in the future? It boils down to seven reasons.

1) The threat of a nuclear attack : Right now, a North Korean attack on the continental United States is not likely because its missiles cannot fly far enough carrying a heavy nuclear warhead. However, they may make progress in the future, and Secretary Hagel's announcement that the U.S. plans to position interceptors in Alaska and possibly on the east coast to shoot down North Korean missiles is important.

The more immediate danger, however, is that the North could use nuclear weapons against its neighbors, South Korea and Japan. If there is a war on the peninsula, experts believe Pyongyang could probably put nuclear warheads on shorter-range missiles and attack major population centers. A North Korean nuclear bomb dropped on Seoul or Tokyo would inflict enormous devastation, killing or injuring an estimated two million people in each city, not to mention radioactivity that would last for decades. Pyongyang's ability to inflict horrendous damage is only going to grow if it builds new and more powerful bombs.

2) The potential for increased WMD exports. The North has already tried to help Syria build a nuclear reactor that could produce materials for nuclear weapons. Luckily, that reactor was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2006. But if Pyongyang's inventory of nuclear bombs grows, its technological base expands, and its need for hard currency to help cope with international sanctions increases, the North will have a larger inventory of merchandise, plus the incentive to look for overseas buyers. It's worth noting that some exports can be done just with the push of a button -- that's all it takes to transfer a bomb design in today's connected world.

Even if we detect transfers, because Pyongyang's own nuclear security blanket may grow, the international community will be less able to stop exports. While some Americans argue that the U.S. should simply attack North Korea if it is caught sending nuclear bombs or technology to our enemies, launching military strikes against a North Korea that has a bristling arsenal of weapons and is not afraid to threaten or even use them would be extremely risky.

3) Growing strains on the U.S. nuclear umbrella provided to our allies. America's alliances with South Korea and Japan are designed to protect them from attack. That includes not just stationing U.S. troops in those countries, but also a willingness to threaten and even use nuclear weapons in their defense against other nuclear-armed countries. While some experts question how effective our "nuclear umbrella" has been, South Korea and Japan see it as vital. It stands to reason that if the threat from North Korea's nuclear arsenal grows, the stress on the U.S. umbrella will also grow, requiring constant reassurance for our allies. The U.S. sent B-2 and B-52 bombers able to carry nuclear weapons to South Korea during the current crisis to calm our ally's growing security concerns while telegraphing a warning to the North. Whether such an approach will remain effective in the future is unclear.

Washington's moment of truth may come if North Korea develops nuclear-armed missiles able to reach the United States and South Koreans ask themselves whether the U.S. will risk sacrificing Los Angeles to protect Seoul. Many South Koreans doubt American reliability even today, despite 50 years of alliance. And some cite the distressing example of Washington pulling out of Vietnam during the 1970s. With confidence in U.S. security guarantees already in question, an emboldened Pyongyang could erode that confidence even further.

4) Increased risk of war by miscalculation . Pyongyang may believe that its nuclear arsenal gives it more freedom to conduct limited military provocations--such as the 2010 sinking of a South Korean ship and artillery attack on the South's Yeonpyeong Island -- without reprisal. That was true then, although Washington seems to have restrained the South from launching a serious military response to those actions for fear of triggering a second Korean war. However, now Seoul is working with the U.S. on a new proactive strategy. This means launching "preventive attacks" if intelligence indicates that the North is preparing for a limited strike. It also means responding militarily to provocations like those in 2010. In either case, the dynamic set in motion could trigger an all-out war. What if a mistake is made in identifying North Korean preparations for a strike? And why does anyone think the North is going to roll over and play dead? While some argue that Pyongyang would not respond because war with a stronger U.S. and South Korea would mean suicide, the North may be willing to take the risk. Not responding after all would show a fatal weakness. It's a tough spot for the United States and South Korea to be in, but the cure may be worse than the disease.

5) The aggravation of fault lines in U.S.-Chinese relations. Every time North Korea does something wrong, there is an inevitable outcry that China should solve this problem for us. The logic is, as the North's closest political and economic ally, Beijing has more influence with Pyongyang than anyone else. China, however, is right in claiming that its influence is limited, not only because the North Koreans are adept at resisting pressure from all comers, but also because Beijing has its own national interests. China's top priority has been to avoid instability on its borders--not the U.S. prime objective of denuclearization of the North--and that means making sure North Korea stays solvent in order to avoid collapse and the emergence of a unified Korea aligned with the U.S. on its doorstep.

If Pyongyang's arsenal continues to grow and China does not join in efforts to stop it, chances are this problem will aggravate fault lines already appearing between Beijing and Washington on a whole raft of issues in Asia and elsewhere. The split between the two will deepen, as will the divide between China and South Korea and Japan, who remain the target of threats by Pyongyang. That will create more tensions in a vital region already beset by a host of other problems.

6) A breakdown of the international regime intended to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea's nuclear program, while a setback for efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, may trigger far worse developments. In South Korea, where discussion of building nuclear weapons was almost unheard, public opinion polls show two-thirds of Korean citizens now support the idea. As one Seoul dweller told the New York Times, "Having a nuclear North Korea is like facing a person holding a gun with your bare hands." Of course, the downsides would be serious. A nuclear-armed South Korea would not only suffer from the economic blowback from its trading partners but its building of nuclear weapons might convince Japan, which has not always been on the best of terms with the South, to follow suit. That in turn, would create further tensions with Japan's rival, China.

At the end of the day, faced with a bullying, nuclear-armed Pyongyang, whose ultimate objective is reunification of the Korean peninsula on its terms, Seoul may have no choice but to rely on its own nuclear umbrella. Where the nuclear dominos fall will depend on Washington's ability to cope with the dangers posed by a nuclear North and to shield its ally.

7) Instability leading to a nuclear coup, nuclear civil war or bombs leaking beyond the North's borders. Pundits have been predicting for decades that North Korea would collapse just like the Soviet Union. They have been proven wrong, although instability remains possible. North Korea could experience convulsions, perhaps because the military is fed up with the young leader pursuing policies contrary to its interests; new food shortages could lead to unrest and the unraveling of the government; or factional fighting between those supporting reform and others who want to maintain the status quo could break out.

The more weapons Pyongyang has, the more dangerous instability becomes. Nuclear bombs could be pawns in a power struggle, even used by different factions against rivals, or they might simply disappear, smuggled abroad and sold to the highest bidder. Moreover, there is nothing that could be done to stop it from happening; restoring order in a collapsing North would require hundreds of thousands of outside troops, and finding the bombs before they are used or exported would require almost 100,000 more. And what would the Chinese do if these troops approach the Yalu River like American soldiers did during the Korean War? Talk about mission impossible.

The bottom line is that, even if this current crisis recedes, North Korea's WMD programs pose serious security risks in the region and to the U.S. that will continue to grow if not addressed in a direct and compelling way. Warning Pyongyang against aggression and reacting to nuclear and missile tests with sanctions, while tactically necessary, is strategically inadequate. The challenge for statesmen is to find a strategy that does not just wait for the North's next bellicose outburst, but seeks to moderate its behavior and goes beyond military countermeasures and economic sanctions. It may be distasteful given the nature of the North Korean regime, but there is no substitute for diplomacy and direct contact with Pyongyang. Only through such contacts can the United States and the international community figure out whether there is a peaceful way forward.