North Korea celebrated its 71st Foundation Day on Oct. 10, but the rest of the world had little to cheer on the occasion. South Korean military observers detected increased military activity around the country's main rocket launch site, indicating preparations for a long-range missile launch in the near future.
No country has exposed the world's strategic paralysis against nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles as North Korea. In 1993, America had a "terrifying encounter" with what seemed a possible nuclear attack. U.S. Navy representative Mark Kirk recalls: "It was a no notice, no warning missile launch out of North Korea, and for the first and only time in my career in the National Military Joint Intelligence Center, I got to see all of the panoply of the United States military wake up in a few seconds.
"We did not know what kind of missile it was, so the impact area, at the beginning, was the entire United States, and you thought about what we might be doing in the next 12 minutes: Would we be notifying the president that we had lost an American city? We were going to know the answer in 12 minutes."
North Korea may have just enough weapons-grade fuel for 20 bombs, with a capacity to make six to seven more annually, but magnifying the danger is Pyongyang's illicit partnership with Pakistan.
Initially, North Korea only had missiles, but no nukes. Pakistan had the warheads, but lacked missiles. Together they were able to supply what the other lacked. For over 30 years, this nuclear-ballistic nexus continued because of the nod and wink given by the world's leading powers, when instead they should have curbed the dangerous ambitions of these two rogue nations.
Desperately poor, North Korea and Pakistan constantly need infusions of food, aid and cash. This leverage could have been used by their patrons to make them abandon their WMD dreams. Instead, the world looked the other way. Thanks to this cynical attitude, today there exists the very real possibility that rogue leaders, scientists and generals from North Korea and Pakistan could pass on WMDs to al-Qaida, the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In Soviet times, Russia supplied North Korea with a small enriched-uranium research reactor, which became operational in 1966 and was under international safeguards. The reactor was meant for generating power for civilian use. Since Pyongyang had signed the NPT, Moscow did not believe it would pursue nuclear explosive devices.
However, in a secret report, KGB experts had provided the following assessment: "From a reliable source, the KGB has received information that scientific and experimental design work on the development of atomic weapons is actively continuing in the DPRK. According to this data, the development of the first atomic explosive device has been completed at the Institute of Nuclear Research of the DPRK, located in Yongbyon... For the time being, tests are planned in the interests of hiding the fact of the DPRK's production of an atomic weapon from the world community and from international organizations responsible for nuclear safeguards."
The nuclear genie may be out of the bottle, so all that can be done now is to contain the fallout. Russia, which is one of the few countries North Korea deals with, can apply some economic pressure on Pyongyang to stop ratcheting up the nuclear threat.
Russia is North Korea's third-biggest partner in terms of imports; its financial institutions carry out regular transactions with Pyongyang; Russia allows the North's fishing fleets into its exclusive economic zone; and tens of thousands of North Korean laborers earns billions for their country. These economic levers can be calibrated to curb Pyongyang's nuclear testing and its provocative missile launches.
Beijing and the bomb
The Oscar for proliferation goes to China, which has done more to destroy the non-proliferation regime than any other country. In 1982 it made a policy decision to flood the developing world with atomic knowhow. Its identified clients include Algeria, Pakistan and North Korea. It has become the leading supplier of WMD technology to rogue regimes around the world. In October 2006, even after the North Korean nuclear test, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. said, "China does not approve of inspecting cargo to and from the DPRK." That is not surprising. China has allowed many a proliferant state to overfly its territory when picking up illicit goods in North Korea.
Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung once described the relationship with North Korea as close "as lips to teeth." Beijing would like nothing more than the current state of things to continue with the North's nuclear missile rattling constantly worrying the West. It does not want the country to collapse as it would mean the loss of a buffer between China and U.S.-backed South Korea, which is home to 30,000 heavily armed American troops.
More dangers ahead
With North Korea rattling its nuclear sabre, it could encourage other countries in northeast Asia to follow its steps to pursue their own nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan currently enjoy the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but if North Korea lobs a nuclear warhead against Seoul or Tokyo, will the United States risk one of its cities by retaliating against Pyongyang? That is a big if, which will only be answered when the shooting begins. The question is, do South Korea and Japan feel 100 percent safe or do they feel the need for acquiring their own strategic nuclear forces?
The other beneficiary of North Korean nuclear and missile technology is Iran. If Tehran one day succeeds in its pursuit of atomic weapons, it is a no-brainer that Saudi will go nuclear. The Saudi sheikhs are known as the real owners of made-in-Pakistan nukes.
A BBC report says Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will. It quotes a senior NATO decision maker who claims to have seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are sitting ready for delivery.
According to a report by the New American Century, "Domestically, the Saudis would have to consider the prospect that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of violent jihadist extremists opposed to the regime. Regionally, the kingdom would face the possibility that Israel would strike Saudi facilities to prevent the emergence of another nuclear state in the region, just as Israel did in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria in 2007."
If Saudi Arabia and Iran go nuclear, it could lead to a "mad dash," with Turkey and Egypt starting their nuclear weapon programs.
Capping and rolling back North Korea's nuclear program may be difficult. (No state with the exception of South Africa has given up its arsenal of nuclear weapons.) But unless the hotheads in North Korea can be persuaded to sit at the same table with the hegemons from the USA, the world will see many nuclear flashpoints in the years ahead.
This article originally appeared at Russia Beyond the Headlines.