(WASHINGTON) — While the world’s focus has been trained on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling over Ukraine, two other longstanding threats to U.S. national security have been not so quietly amplifying their ability to wreak international havoc.
In recent months, North Korea has test-launched an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles, and the U.S. assesses the country has imminent plans to resume nuclear testing after a five-year hiatus.
The U.N.’s atomic watchdog announced this week that Iran is mere weeks away from enriching enough uranium to potentially manufacture a nuclear explosive device and is blatantly blocking its surveillance efforts.
The threats posed by a Tehran or Pyongyang with weapons of mass destruction are vast, and the U.S. diplomatic approach to both countries is nuanced.
But the core question facing the Biden administration is straightforward: What — if anything — can it do to stop to prevent Iran and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers?
A cold shoulder from North Korea
The State Department has publicly messaged to Pyongyang that the door for diplomacy is open, but the U.S. Special Representative to North Korea says that sentiment has been communicated through “high-level personal messages from senior U.S. officials” via “private channels” as well.
Sung Kim revealed on Tuesday that in recent weeks, officials have even laid out specific proposals for humanitarian assistance in response to the Hermit Kingdom’s coronavirus outbreak.
But these offers have gone unanswered, Kim said, as the country continues “to show no indication that is interested in engaging.”
The silence of Pyongyang’s leadership is in direct contrast to the explosive missile launches that regularly light up the sky over the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula.
“North Korea has now launched 31 ballistic missiles in 2022. The most ballistic missiles it has ever launched in a single year, surpassing its previous record of 25 in 2019. And it’s only June,” Kim said, adding the country has “obviously done the preparations” to resume nuclear testing as well.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said earlier this week the response to any such test by North Korea would be “swift and forceful,” but so far, no official has publicly stated what exactly the reaction would be.
State Department Spokesperson Ned Price downplayed the extraordinary displays of force on Monday, calling them “cyclical.”
“We’ve seen periods of provocation; we’ve seen periods of engagement. It is very clear at the moment that we are in the former,” Price said.
But Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at the RAND Corporation who has previously worked with Department of Defense, says it might be time for the U.S. to take a bolder approach.
Bennett argues that giving North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un the opportunity to rebuff an invitation from the U.S. plays into his hand.
“He’s just able to say no, makes him look superior, like he’s in control. So that’s not helping us on the deterrence issue,” he said.
US stresses allied cooperation in face of N. Korea threats
Similarly, Bennett argues that following up Kim Jong Un’s test launches by firing off short-range missiles with South Korea, as the U.S. did on Sunday, is unlikely to yield results. A better route, he says, would be directly punishing the dictator.
Some options? Bennett suggests threatening to fly reconnaissance aircraft along the country’s coast, playing off Kim’s abhorrence for spying. Or perhaps vowing to drop hard drives loaded with what he has called a “vicious cancer”: K-Pop.
“That’s where we’ve got to get creative — with what Kim hates himself,” Bennett said.
While those strategies might seem lighthearted, Bennett says the threat North Korea poses is anything but.
“The last North Korean nuclear test was of a 230 kiloton nuclear weapon. That size weapon detonated, focused on the Empire State Building will kill or seriously injure just under three million people,” he said. “We’re talking about massive damage that this North Korea threat can do if it’s ever really completed and made operational. And so the U.S. should be very anxious to stop and to rein it in. But we don’t seem to have figured out what we need to do to do that.”
Iran on the verge
As the top brass of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned of Iran’s stockpiling of enriched Uranium and failure to comply with U.N. inspectors this week, the U.S. and its allies successfully pushed for a censure.
The rebuke is largely symbolic, but it may be telling when it comes to the administration’s dimming hopes of returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the 2015 nuclear agreement former President Trump withdrew from in 2018.
When President Joe Biden entered the White House, top officials promised “a longer and stronger” deal. The administration loosened the enforcement of some sanctions and held back in forums like IAEA meetings in order to create space for negotiations. But after more than a year of indirect, stop-and-go talks, the odds of reviving the even the original JCPOA seem slim to none.
The Biden administration said in February it would soon be “impossible” to return to the deal given the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances. But Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director at The International Crisis Group and former Senior Political Affairs Officer at the U.N., says there is still time—but not much.
“Iran has never been closer to the verge of nuclear weapons,” Vaez said. “And restoring the JCPOA is going to become more and more difficult as time passed.”
While Vaez notes that having the material to make an explosive isn’t the same as having the capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon, he says the U.S. and other agencies have little oversight of those next steps.
“The reality is that we have no visibility over the weaponization part of this,” he said.
Despite the diminishing sunset clauses—expiration dates of provisions in the nuclear agreement—Vaez argues the JCPOA still holds value and is the most straightforward path to curbing Iran.
“The break out time — if the original deal is restored with all of its thresholds — will be about six months. But six months is better than six days,” he said, adding that many key restrictions would remain in place until 2031. “It basically puts this issue on the back-burner for a long period of time.”
But because of the time needed to lock in an agreement, the approaching midterm elections, and the possibility that Democrats may lose control of one or both chambers of Congress, Vaez says if an agreement is going to be reached, it likely needs to happen this month or next.
Vaez also warns that failure could spell political disaster for the president if he is blamed for allowing Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction under his watch.
“Six months from now, that breakout time will be really near zero. And so the president will face an impossible choice of either acquiescing to a virtual nuclear weapons state in Iran or taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “So six months from now, it will be Biden’s war or Biden’s bomb.”
A more dangerous world
While the hazards posed by Iran and North Korea are separate from the nuclear threats posed by the Kremlin, Putin’s shadow extends far beyond Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The whole conflict has a nuclear dimension that is going to have an effect on how we deal with Iran and North Korea, with other proliferators” said John Erath, Senior Policy Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a 30 year veteran of the State Department.
“We need to maintain this idea that Russia should not be allowed to benefit from using nuclear blackmail,” he added. “Because what happens when North Korea then says I’m going to nuke the South?”
Bennett adds that if adversaries are allowed to acquire functional nuclear weapons, other countries following suit, like South Korea and Japan. Although these countries are allies to the U.S., more nuclear powers means more opportunity for catastrophic wars and destruction unlike the world has ever seen.
“You have this dynamic going on in the region which is really not what the U.S. wants,” he said. “That’s a world which we’re reluctant to have happen, but we’re kind of letting happen.”
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