Opinion

Their View: North Korea, Iran and bitter lessons

What’s North Korea done lately besides rage against Hollywood over the “The Interview”?

Build more nuclear bombs.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, Chinese nuclear experts have told some American counterparts that North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile is larger than previously estimated and expanding quickly. Kim Jong Un could possess 20 nuclear warheads, plus the capacity to have double that number by next year, the Chinese warned in closed-door meetings earlier this year.

No one knows for certain what the secretive regime in Pyongyang is up to, but the Chinese have the closest ties to the North. Their estimate outstrips the U.S. consensus, which says North Korea has 10 to 16 bombs plus the ability to produce several more each year.

One U.S. expert, Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the Journal that China’s higher number count matters: “The more (the North Koreans) believe they have a fully functional arsenal and deterrent, the more difficult it’s going to be to walk them back from that.”

You can question the estimates, but that obscures the larger point: The North Korean nuclear threat is real and growing. Joel Wit, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University, co-authored a report this year that says Kim could have anywhere from 20 to 100 nuclear bombs within five years.

Earlier this month, U.S. Adm. William Gortney, commander of NORAD, said he believes the North Koreans have the capacity to put a nuclear weapon on a mobile missile launcher and shoot it at the U.S. mainland. The North Koreans haven’t tested the KN-08 intercontinental missile, so maybe it doesn’t work. But miniaturizing a warhead is a technological feat of its own.

That’s sobering news about North Korea and a stark lesson about how the world is dealing with a would-be nuclear threat. Long before the world’s powers began negotiations with Iran over its incipient nuclear program, there was Pyongyang’s defiant, wily leadership using brinkmanship and lies as its primary tool of diplomacy.

Here’s a short history of past nuclear negotiations with the North (spoiler alert, they all fail):

1994: North Korea signs the Agreed Framework, promising to shut down its nuclear development program in exchange for energy. Within years North Korea is secretly enriching uranium.

2005: “Six-party talks” result in a new North Korea promise to end its nuclear program. The next year, the country tests its first nuclear bomb.

2012: After the collapse of previous negotiations, Pyongyang agrees to suspend nuclear testing and enrichment in exchange for aid. In early 2013 North Korea tests its third nuclear bomb. There have been no talks since, just bluster.

And now comes word of the assessment from China that North Korea could have as many as 20 nuclear warheads.

Paper agreements with North Korea were worthless because the world couldn’t verify that the rogue nation was living up to its word. North Korea doesn’t care much that the world has tried to squeeze it with economic sanctions, and it possesses the threat of nuclear retaliation should any nation attempt military action.

Keep that in mind as the U.S. and other world powers negotiate with Iran.

Back to North Korea. There’s little prospect for change there unless China tries to force it.

Beijing is the North’s economic lifeline to the outside, but China’s leaders have historically been ambivalent about calling out the father-son madmen on its border. Better to have stability than confrontation, even if the people of North Korea starve.

If China were to decide there’s too much risk in allowing Pyongyang to continue to expand its nuclear arsenal, then China might get serious about forcing negotiations. Beijing does have some desire for global credibility, and coddling Kim Jong Un doesn’t provide it.

Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes there is a small window for diplomacy this year surrounding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September visit to Washington.

But the prospects seem dim.

Now we return you to that minuet with Iran. ...

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