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.
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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After a painstaking, months-long process, one of the issues still being hashed out at the end of the deliberations on Barack Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review was whether his administration could finally go public with the precise number of nuclear warheads held by the United States.
Those arguing to disclose the total said it would set an example for the rest of the world. Obama's report was the first in the post-Cold War era to be entirely unclassified, and the document called on China, in particular, to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and intentions. An accounting of the total number of American warheads would be a highly symbolic move.
Those arguing to keep the number secret said it was too dangerous to reveal, offering states or terrorists seeking to build their own weapons a clue to the amount of fissile material necessary for a bomb. The fear was they might be able to calculate this by comparing the warhead total with previous statements on stocks of fissile material. (Update: the number was declassified on May 3, 2010.)
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It was a cold autumn in Russia in 1998. The country had recently defaulted on its debts and devalued the ruble, millions of bank depositors lost their savings, and the banks closed their doors. The economic crisis had also created a sense of uncertainty about nuclear security. Erik Engling, who had been working on the problem of loose fissile material for several years for the U.S. Energy Department in Washington, was attempting to visit as many of the Russian institutes with uranium as he possibly could that fall.
One day in early November, he arrived at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, spread over 89 acres on a beautiful old estate in Moscow. The institute was one of the oldest in the Soviet Union's archipelago of nuclear research facilities. A large amount of weapons-grade uranium, enriched to 90 percent, was stored there inside in aluminum-clad canisters 6 inches long, which had been used for a heavy-water research reactor and physics experiments.
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Arms control is not magic, even if it seems to have high priests and secret codes.
The lesson of the Cold War is that all those complex negotiations and treaties are not by themselves agents of change, but the result of much deeper, underlying forces and the actions of people. Sure, a treaty is vital to lock in decisions and prevent cheating. But of far greater importance are the reasons that brought the two sides to the table in the first place: economics, politics, technology, and military power, as well as the role of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The most effective nuclear arms-control measure of all time was not a treaty, but rather the demise of the Soviet Union and the superpower competition along with it. What caused it? A dysfunctional economic and political system imploded.
So let's hold off on the overheated hyperbole about the Prague treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are set to sign Thursday. As long as the weapons are still around and on alert, it is unquestionably worthwhile to limit them in a treaty with solid verification provisions. Obama promised last year in his speech in Prague to deliver a treaty that is "sufficiently bold." This one is sufficient, but it's modest, not bold.
Laying out a nuclear weapons strategy for the decade ahead, President Obama struck bold notes on rhetoric and promises in the Nuclear Posture Review report issued Tuesday. The document is filled with laudable goals that mark a change from the past and may help advance his dream of a world without nukes. But flying at high altitude also has certain advantages; you can avoid the rough terrain below. And down on the ground, the president stopped short of changing the status quo on critical issues that have lingered since the Cold War, such as tactical nuclear weapons and keeping missiles on alert.
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Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.
The Davy Crockett was one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever made by the United States. Built in the late 1950s, and designed for the battlefields of Europe to stop a possible Warsaw Pact invasion, the warhead looked like a watermelon, being only 30 inches long and weighing about 76 pounds. From a portable tripod launcher, it could be fired at the enemy as close as 1,000 feet or up to 13,000 feet away. It was a weapon for nuclear war at close range.
But the little nuclear watermelon is a reminder of the big work still to be done in arms control.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.