Experts believe North Korea already has enough plutonium to build six to eight nuclear warheads. Iran — despite its protests to the contrary — is believed by many in the international community to be jockeying for membership into the nuclear weapons club.
North Korea’s belligerent government, headed by the mercurial Kim Jong Il, declared last summer that it would weaponize all of its plutonium after the United Nations slapped it with sanctions for its latest nuclear test.
Meanwhile, Iran has defied several U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering that it halt its uranium enrichment program. After a series of mixed responses in October, Iran firmly shot back at the West by announcing it would build 10 more enrichment plants. Iranian leaders insist they aim only to produce nuclear power for peaceful purposes, but President Obama and other world leaders are skeptical of that claim, to say the least.
The prospect of the notorious regimes in Iran or North Korea possessing nukes sends shivers of dread down the spines of anyone concerned about nuclear nonproliferation and world peace.
But which scenario is worse?
Experts interviewed by The Washington Diplomat said either is frightening, but all agreed that a nuclear Iran poses a greater threat to global stability, primarily because of its threat to Israel and its desire to be king of the block in an already unstable Middle East.
Jeffrey G. Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, told The Diplomat that choosing between a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran is “like choosing between cholera and the plague.”
“If you have to pick, you go with the devil you know [North Korea], but they are both unappealing,” Lewis said, adding that Pakistan, as U.S. ally that is nonetheless seething with radical Islamic fundamentalists, is also a big nuclear concern because it already has a well-established, but questionably secure, nuclear arsenal.
“It’s not hard to imagine a big truckload of goons rolling up to a nuclear facility in Pakistan — and that’s terrifying,” Lewis said.
But he added that it is still important for the United States and other leading nations to pressure North Korea to act more responsibly, noting that a carrot-and-stick approach has basically worked well to keep Pyongyang from acting in a way that could threaten the general stability of East Asia.
“The reason you engage in diplomacy with North Korea and cut deals with them is to try to get them to do things and to manage the problem,” Lewis said. “It’s probably unlikely that we will ever get a definitive resolution of the situation in North Korea without a lot of changes in the North Korean regime and the security situation there generally.”
The prospect of Iran or North Korea actually launching a nuclear missile is just one factor to consider in formulating an approach to each country. Security analysts must also consider the effect that simple possession of nuclear weapons would have on Iran and North Korea’s neighbors, whether the nuclear materials and technology might proliferate to other nations, and the frightening possibility that a nuclear weapon could end up in the hands of a terrorist.
“If we look at all those dangers, I would wager that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons poses a less serious threat,” said Sharon Squassoni, a senior associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Although North Korea is isolated from the rest of the world, leading to uncertainty about its reactions to other countries’ initiatives or policies, it doesn’t appear to have regional ambitions.”
Squassoni also argues there is no compelling evidence that North Korea is in the business of supporting terror networks (though speculation remains that North Korea supplied Syria with some nuclear technology, prompting an Israeli air strike in 2007). “Although many have been concerned that North Korea might further proliferate, as a state it has not supported terrorism for many years,” she said.
Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can be more easily managed than Iran’s.
“It’s no good that North Korea has rudimentary nuclear weapons, and we need to make diplomatic efforts and pair them with effective sanctions to press Pyongyang to give them up,” Paal said. “But, assuming failure, we can effectively deter their use and prevent their proliferation, and the North’s troubled industrial capacity will limit their numbers and range.”
He added that by maintaining extended deterrence for Japan and South Korea, “we should be able to discourage their temptation to build nuclear weapons as well.”
On the other hand, Paal said Iran “appears prepared” to pose an “existential threat” to Israel. “Israel cannot be expected to sit by until that threat becomes real,” Paal said. “If international efforts to divert Iran away from nuclear weapons fail, there will be a real danger of further proliferation by Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt.”
The implications for the entire region could be catastrophic, he argues. “War could erupt if Israel strikes, and that would threaten the world’s energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, with huge strategic and economic consequences,” Paal said. “So Iran would win the undesirable contest with North Korea over which is worse for the world.”
Squassoni said that fortunately, East Asia is not as unstable as the Middle East or else North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling could have more disastrous effects.
“In the aftermath of North Korea’s two nuclear weapon tests, there hasn’t been a rush by its neighbors to develop nuclear weapons, probably because of strong military alliances,” she said.
Iran, on the other hand “lives in another dangerous neighborhood, where states view its actions with high suspicion.”
“Although Iran is not as isolated as North Korea, its support for terrorism is disturbing and dangerous,” Squassoni said. “Little is known about what it might intend to do if it ever got such weapons.”
She added: “In terms of regional dynamics, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be highly destabilizing, and there is not an analogous, strong web of military alliances in the Middle East as there is in East Asia.”
Squassoni also pointed out that if Iran were to develop a nuclear arsenal, it would be the first nation to do so while a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “That would be a terrible precedent and quite damaging to the nonproliferation regime,” she noted.
Lewis though credits the Obama administration with doing a decent job managing the Iranian nuclear threat, considering the situation it inherited.
“They have been willing to talk to the Iranians but because of the domestic situation in Iran, that has been difficult,” he said. “I think they have done a pretty good job. They have played a bad hand pretty well.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.