THREE DAYS AGO, CHRIS NELSON OF THE NELSON REPORT gave early warning of South Korea’s now formally admitted nuclear activities. He wrote:
South Korean authorities have informed a visiting IAEA inspections team of a previously undisclosed nuclear fuel enrichment program using lasers. Since laser enrichment has no commercial viability, it is commonly assumed to be part of a nuclear weapons program, even though, if properly declared, it would be allowed under the Non Proliferation Treaty.
This ROK program was secret. Informed sources say the South Korean government has told the IAEA that it was a “rogue program” carried out in a government lab, but without government funding.
U.S. experts express surprise, admit consternation at the news, argue it is “inconceivable” that either the current South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, or his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, knew or approved. In any event, the IAEA, and experts in and out of the Administration, concede serious potential ramifications for the on-going 6-Party nuclear talks with North Korea, and a peaceful resolution of the Iranian situation. (The Nelson Report; September 1, 2004)
Chris Nelson seems always on top of what is going on in the two Koreas. His newsletter is subscription based and not on line, but it is one of the best resources out there — and he beat major news outlets by several days. I wish I had posted what he sent the moment I got it.
James Brooke in the New York Times today writes:
Officials in South Korea continued Friday to try to assure the world that the nation had no nuclear arms program, with its top nuclear researcher saying government scientists had enriched a speck of uranium “smaller than a sesame seed” merely “to satisfy their curiosity.”
“Some misunderstood this experiment as a step to build nuclear weapons, but atomic energy experts would probably laugh at such claims,” Chang In Soon, director of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, the government laboratory where the experiment took place, told the Seoul newspaper JoongAng Ilbo.
Acknowledging that his institute was not authorized to enrich uranium, he said the scientists performed the work using equipment that had been assembled for a different experiment.

My take on this is that no nation or researchers who have the capacity and competency to do nuclear systems fuel research just stumble into experiments of this consequence. South Korea may not be developing a full-fledged weapons program, but they are sending signals that they have the capacity to move towards such a program.
I had lunch several days ago with a knowledgeable person who knows well the global field of non-proliferation committed policies, programs and institutions. He agreed with me that we seem to be in a new era of proliferation, and there are few that are willing to acknowledge this and to organize strategically to deal with the realities of this emerging proliferation trend.
It seems that those worried about proliferation remain in old boxes, talking to the same people that they have always talked with, and that there is little new policy development or intellectual capital building directed at reconceptualizing a major new non-proliferation architecture.
On several fronts, America seems to be walking away as well from its own nuclear weapon systems governance. Last year, the Bush administration closed down the National Nuclear Security Administration Advisory Committee. Julian Borger, Washington Bureau Chief of The Guardian, wrote at the time: “Hawks in the Pentagon and the energy department are pushing for the development of tactical nuclear weapons with yields of less than 5 kilotons and hardened “bunker buster” nuclear bombs, designed to penetrate deeply buried targets, where enemy leaders or weapons may be hidden.”
According to famed nuclear weapons expert Sidney Drell, the Bush administration decided that it just didn’t want to listen to a board of experts about its nuclear weapons development programs or its stockpile stewardship policies anymore. Such experts were getting in the way of the administration’s intentions.
When one considers Libya’s rescinded efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons program; the revelations about North Korea’s warheads and Iran’s presumed intention to build a program; Hussein’s unconsummated interest in nuclear weapons development; al Qaeda’s clear efforts to acquire a warhead and/or nuclear fuel; South Korea’s admission of nuclear play to the IAEA; Israel’s undeclared but known program of 200 plus warheads; and Pakistan’s role in providing nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea — one sees powerful proliferation forces eroding what used to be a fairly stable non-proliferation regime.
For those media out there paying attention to this, ask George Bush and John Kerry what they really think about efforts at the weapons laboratories and in the military to secure a new generation of bunker-busting “mini-nukes.” American profligacy in producing a new generation of field-useable nukes can only enhance the proliferation forces we are seeing. Self restraint by the U.S. on this front might be turned into leverage at preempting what we are seeing around the world.
We need a lot more honesty about this important proliferation discussion as well.
When the revelations emerged about Pakistan Nuclear Program Director A.Q. Khan‘s role in supplying technology and counsel to Iran, Libya, and North Korea — the New York Times and Washington Post played subordinate roles pretending that this was all new news. The U.S. government acted shocked, and a complex but fascinating charade took place between the U.S. and Pakistan on how to punish, but not punish, Khan.
The fact is that American intelligence had known for years that Khan was engaged in these activities. Why was nothing said? I happen to know that the intelligence community was well informed about Khan, well before the public revelations, through two instances.
The first came via a retired Indian general on a fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace. This general was unusual for his honest and somewhat critical self critique of India’s national security policies at that time and was more positive about Pakistan’s direction than I would have expected.
But he was quite forthcoming, concerned, and knowledgeable about Khan and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. I passed this information on to government friends and was informed that the government was well aware of Khan’s activities.
The second occasion involved an email exchange with a friend then working in the Office of International Security Affairs in the Pentagon, which Peter Rodman now heads but which used to be Soft Power purveyor Joseph Nye‘s perch. After a meeting where this unnamed individual spoke about the roster of national security threats facing the United States, and in which Pakistan went unmentioned, I posed the question of whether or not Pakistan’s proliferation activities — privately known by many sources but still not officially acknowledged — worried this person and the Pentagon.
The individual responded that the direction of my question was right and that in his mind “there was no more dangerous place in the world today, threatening American interests, than Pakistan.”
I am not anti-Pakistan, just to get that on record for all of those who will email me after this post. But I do know that the American government and media have a problem dealing with substantive rather than contrived or politically opportune threats.
By failing to deal with the Khan/Pakistan problem long ago, when I know that the U.S. national intelligence and security apparatus had consciousness of it, that problem metastasized in several other nations.
We also need honesty about Israel’s nuclear program. As long as Israel sits on a pile of warheads, other rival powers in the region will try to balance them. Either Israel needs to come into the global non-proliferation architecture — or there needs to be some understanding of the costs of maintaining a preemption policy against would be rivals trying to balance Israel’s nuclear capacity. Or alternatively, the world will witness the development of Iran’s full fledged weapons program.
Recently, I asked Afshin Molavi, a very well informed thinker regarding Iran and the Middle East, whether deterrence would work between Iran and Israel if both had nukes. In other words, was it more stable, or less stable, for two powers in the Middle East to have nukes pointed at each other — or for just one country (Israel) to have them? We discussed this for a while but didn’t come to a conclusion.
Those opposed to any proliferation understandably believe that all proliferation is ultimately bad and destabilizing, but most fail to deal with the Israel part of this equation in the fluid dynamics of power and competition in the Middle East. Those who oppose proliferation and completely support Israel’s monopoly of power in the region don’t think that the costs are too high for America and Israel to keep swatting down the pretensions of other potential rival powers in the region. This is probably where American policy is now.
But if that strategy unwinds in an ambiguously directed Iran nuclear energy program, and America’s military remains distracted and at near full capacity with our Iraq and Afghanistan activities, then Iran may compel a strategic reassessment. Eventually, we may have to opt towards some embrace of graduated rivalry with Israeli power in the region. While many will now accuse me of endorsing this, just know that I don’t. I think it is important to be unsentimental and level-headed about trends that are happening as they are, not as we would like them to appear.
For those of you into proliferation questions, check out Jon Wolfsthal’s article yesterday about the Russians dispatching troops to deepen the security around Russian nuclear arsenals. After the tragic end to the Russian school hostage crisis in which so many died, Wolfsthal speculates that the government is worried about Chechen terrorist attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon.
We need a serious discussion of these issues that includes an assessment that the old non-proliferation regime has failed. We need to understand what leverage America has globally if it either pursues or foregoes a new generation of new nuclear weapons systems. We need to look at regional balance of power trends elsewhere in the world and consider whether the nuclear club needs to be redefined to generate a modern membership that is committed to responsible nuclear weapons management and stewardship.
Basically, we need to develop a new strategy that gets us back towards credibly deterring the development and use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
This debate seems eerily quiet when so much is going on — and the only WMD debate that is playing is one regarding a country that had no systems.
Another question that would be interesting to know — and which I don’t think anyone has publicly asked of Joe Wilson — is whether while looking for Iraq’s activitiy in Niger he ran into evidence of Iran’s efforts to acquire materials from Niger’s mines. Did he see A.Q. Khan’s handiwork down there?
Joe Wilson could not respond to these questions publicly as the responses would be classified, but the Congressional intelligence committees could ask and decide to fill the public in on his findings, or the administration could share what it knows from his trips.
If the answers were positive — that Wilson had run into evidence of A.Q. Khan’s work and Iran’s interests there — then what is the administration doing?
So far, the administration seems to have an inconsistent start and go strategy with Iran, and we seem to be completely ad hoc on Pakistan. We need a strategy.
— Steve Clemons