North Korea has proven adept at selling missiles around the world -- to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, among others. Most of them are modified Soviet-era Scud missiles, but for many years, there’s been speculation about the North Korean modifications. How did a country so poor manage to reverse-engineer and manufacture a complex missile?
Now, Robert H. Schmucker and Markus Schiller of Germany have come up with an answer: the North Koreans didn’t do it on their own. In a draft paper just posted at the missile proliferation blog Capabilities times Intentions, the two experts argue that North Korea managed to procure the technology from the former Soviet Union and Russia.
They don’t offer proof, but their paper is likely to raise questions once again about how much know-how and how many rocket scientists leaked to Pyonyang as the Soviet Union imploded. In The Dead Hand, I described how the Russian authorities stopped a group of designers:
In one extraordinary case, North Korea attempted to recruit an entire missile design bureau: in 1993, the specialists at the V. P. Makeyev Design Bureau in the city of Miass, near Chelyabinsk, were invited to travel to Pyongyang. The bureau designed submarine launched missiles, but military orders had dried up. Through a middleman, North Korea recruited the designers, who were told they would be building rockets to send civilian satellites into space. One of them, Yuri Bessarabov, told the newspaper Moscow News that he earned less than workers at a local dairy, while the Koreans were offering $1,200 a month. About twenty of the designers and their families were preparing to fly out of Moscow’s international airport in December when they were stopped by the Russian authorities and sent home. “That was the first case when we noticed the North Korean attempts to steal missile technology,” a retired federal security agent said years later in an interview. If you look at a missile, the security agent said, the North Koreans recruited a specialist to help them with every section, from nose cone to engine.
In their draft paper, Schmucker and Shiller speculate that other Russian experts and some leftover Soviet-era missiles may have nonetheless made it to North Korea. “All of the North Korean missiles were procured from Russia or at least realized with foreign support,” they write. They don’t point fingers at the Russian government, but “a connection to Russian institutions.”
“Much happens in dark alleys,” they note, recalling how Saddam Hussein’s representitive bought missile guidance gyroscopes from a Russian military institute.
Schmucker is one of the world’s leading specialists on missile technology, and the paper argues that it was impossible for North Korea to make great progress by reverse engineering a few Soviet and Russian designs. “Reverse engineering is so difficult that there is not one single proven example for successfully reverse-engineered missiles and rockets,” he writes. And it might be especially difficult in a country so impoverished and troubled as North Korea.
Schmucker is not the first to suspect that North Korea drew on the Soviet and Russian rocket technology. Others have also speculated about it in the past. In the case of Iran, some of the Russian engineers talked openly about going to Tehran. So far, there is no solid evidence of a similar underground railroad of engineers showing up in Pyongyang. But Schmucker and Shiller say this is the only possibile explanation for North Korea’s missile arsenal. The weapons and technology were procured by North Korea, which then successfully sold them on to others.
Proliferation in, proliferation out.
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In a world without nuclear weapons, wouldn’t the rogue be king? And if there were international controls in such a world, would it be hard to detect the bad guys building a bomb?
One way to find out: be the bad guy yourself. The Henry L. Stimson Center has just put together an online simulation that allows the user to play rogue state decision-maker in the year 2040, navigating the pathways to building a bomb without getting caught. It’s called Cheater’s Risk.
Every day, we’re swamped by the news about nuclear nonproliferation. But this simulation is refreshingly clear on the major topics. You decide which country you want to play, the pathways, and roll the dice on the chances of getting caught at such things as obtaining the fissile material or assembling a weapon. Along the way there are short explanatory videos.
The underlying argument of Cheater’s Risk is that, in the event of disarmament, cheating on a treaty “is not a piece of cake,” in the words of Barry M. Blechman, co-founder of Stimson, who introduced the simulation on Thursday at Stimson’s offices in Washington. For a deeper look, there’s Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, edited by Blechman and Alexander K. Bollfrass, on which Cheater’s Risk is based.
This is a project which seems to say: disarmament is possible with the right precautions and procedures. Some may argue with the larger goal, but in the simulation, the facts are presented clearly with sources and additional information a click away.
I took Cheater’s Risk for a spin, and selected the Russian Federation as my candidate for going rogue. In the end, I managed to assemble one to five nuclear weapons without getting caught. I had to weigh the risks at each stage of going faster or slower, of taking the uranium or plutonium route to a bomb, and other factors. At each stage, my choice was then tested on a grid that resembles the old game Minesweeper. You decide which square to click on. The grid is populated with success or failure squares corresponding to the risk of detection of your given choice.
The world is far more complex than Cheater’s Risk. There are no unpleasant coups or small wars in this game. The simulation focuses attention on the big choices. Can you, nuclear renegade, outfox the rest of the world?
So the world still has 22,500 nuclearweapons. Could we turn swords into ploughshares just once and drop an ICBMwarhead down that tube gushing oil at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico?Wouldn’t that just stanch the leak and save the environment?
No.Quite the opposite, this would make things even messier. As the New York Timesquotes a blogger in a piece thismorning, the one thing that’s worse than an oil spill is a radioactive oilspill. Aside from whether a nuclear explosion would work, it might well leavebehind radioactive materials that would be an environmental nightmare fordecades to come.
Ask the people who live near theSemipalatinsk test range in Kazakhstan, a 19,000 square-kilometer zone where theSoviet Union carried out 456 nuclear blasts from 1949 until 1989. Eighty-six ofthem were exploded in the air, 30 at the surface, and 340 underground intunnels and boreholes. Contamination poisoned the population. They would surelytell us today: Don’t do this! And they would surely be joined by those whosuffered from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
In the event of a nuclear missile attack on Russia, three hard-shell briefcases filled with electronics are set to alert their holders simultaneously. Inside each is a portable terminal, linked to the command and control network for Russia's strategic nuclear forces. One of them accompanies the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, wherever he goes. It is known as the Cheget, and allows the president to monitor a missile crisis, make decisions, and transmit those decisions to the military. It's similar to the nuclear "football" that accompanies the American president.
But a new book by a leading Russian security analyst points to a surprising disconnect in the system, a potential flaw that has not been widely understood. Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, the president is the commander in chief, and if incapacitated in any way, all of his duties fall to the prime minister. Yet the prime minister does not have a nuclear briefcase at his disposal. The other two Cheget briefcases are actually held by the defense minister and the chief of the general staff, as was the case in Soviet times. The resulting ambiguity, warns Alexei Arbatov, could be dangerous in the event of a nuclear crisis. In today's Russia, neither of the military men has the constitutional or legal responsibility to make a decision about how or whether to launch a nuclear attack. Certainly, they would be among the top advisors to the president at a time of crisis, but they are not decision-makers.
Why the danger? The United States and Russia still maintain nuclear-tipped missiles on alert for rapid launch. The land-based U.S. missiles can be ready to launch in four minutes. Warning of an imminent attack might require a president to make very rapid decisions with limited information. In such an emergency, whether in the White House or the Kremlin, you'd want very precise roles for each decision-maker, without ambiguity or uncertainty.
For the full article click here.
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The National Security Archive has released a fresh installment of the diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, who was the top advisor on foreign affairs to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Translated into English, the diary for 1990 is a fascinating read. Chernyaev admired Gorbachev greatly, and he recounts moods, trends, and his long talks with Gorbachev in a way that is understanding, sympathetic, yet realistic.
This was the year that Gorbachev tried to satisfy the hardliners. Chernyaev could see the drift and was disappointed. He wrote in an entry March 3, 1990:
There is confusion in my heart. Society is falling apart; so far the rudiments of a new society are nowhere in sight. Judging by my latest observations, Gorbachev is losing a sense of control over the processes. It seems also has “gotten lost” (one of his favorite expressions) in what is going on and is beginning to look for “simple solutions” (another favorite formula)."
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Take a substance that is sought all over the world for cosmetic purposes, to smooth wrinkles and make people look better. It can be produced without sophisticated equipment, doses are infinitesimal, and there is a huge commercial market.
In pure form it is also one of the deadliest poisons on Earth.
This is botulinum neurotoxin, the active ingredient in Botox. The results of a two-year investigation to be published next week by a team at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies suggest that counterfeit Botox, as well as counterfeit versions of its competitors, is cropping up around the world and could pose a serious security threat if its producers decide to sell the active ingredient to the wrong people. Writing in the June issue of Scientific American, Ken Coleman and Raymond A. Zilinskas warn that the combination of a deadly toxin, illicit producers, and high global demand for their products spells potential trouble.
They found signs that illegal Botox operations are underway, mainly in China, but also possibly in Russia and India. The producers and middlemen are often difficult to track, but they found a "substantial increase in internet vendors in the last two years." In China alone, they found 20 web sites claiming to be "certified" suppliers of the toxin and offering cosmetic products for sale. "The addresses provided on the sites often proved to be non-existent locations or small offices that appeared to be empty fronts," they write.
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It is an enduring calculus of the atomic age: When nations seek to build a nuclear weapon, they also want to deliver it long distances and with great speed by a missile hurtling through the air. Compared to other means of delivery, such as via bombers or a battleship, the missile is the equivalent of a bullet: fast off the mark, deep penetration, and most terrifying to potential victims.
If Iran is on a quest to become a nuclear-armed power, its missiles will reflect its intentions. An important new study just released by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London contains a wealth of detail from open sources about Iran's missile program, and how Iran might match those missiles to a nuclear warhead. The study concludes that Iran is probably aiming first to perfect a solid-fuel, medium-range missile that can carry a nuke to hit regional targets, such as Israel, rather than attempting to launch a continent-spanning weapon aimed at the United States.
Iran denies it is seeking an atomic bomb. But its long string of deceptions regarding its uranium enrichment program, as well as leaks of documents and the claims of defectors, have alarmed much of the world -- and especially Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear weapons power.
The new study points out that Iran's acquisition of the fissile material for building a nuke -- getting the uranium and plutonium -- is not the only factor worth watching. Iran's missile development ambitions also provide tell-tale clues. For example, are the missiles being built large and powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead?
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Donald A. Henderson at the Center for Biosecurity in Baltimore
Thirty years ago, on May 8, 1980, a special session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva declared that smallpox had been eradicated. A disease that killed hundreds of millions of people, and haunted humans for more than 3,000 years, had been wiped out. It was the result of a global campaign that took more than a decade. Biological weapons expert Jonathan B. Tucker noted in his 2002 book, Scourge, that "the conquest of smallpox, the first-and so far, only-infectious disease to have been eradicated from nature by human effort, was among the greatest medical achievements of the twentieth century."
The man who spearheaded the smallpox eradication is Donald A. Henderson, now a distinguished fellow with the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center. Known to most as simply "D. A.," he ran the World Health Organization's campaign against smallpox for a decade, defying predictions it could not be done, and building an organization and methods that overcame many obstacles to eradication.
The smallpox campaign raised hopes about fighting disease, and helped launch a greatly expanded vaccination effort around the world against other illnesses. But in an interview at his office in Baltimore last week, Henderson said, "I really have my doubts about a disease being eradicated" today. The reason: the smallpox campaign brought together many factors that are absent in other efforts.
Photo: David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.