West Mounts 'Secret War' to Keep Nuclear N. Korea Iran in Check
Michael Sheridan, The Times Online:
A programme of covert action against nuclear and missile traffic to North Korea and Iran is to be intensified after last week’s missile tests by the North Korean regime.
Intelligence agencies, navies and air forces from at least 13 nations are quietly co-operating in a “secret war” against Pyongyang and Tehran. READ MORE
It has so far involved interceptions of North Korean ships at sea, US agents prowling the waterfronts in Taiwan, multinational naval and air surveillance missions out of Singapore, investigators poring over the books of dubious banks in the former Portuguese colony of Macau and a fleet of planes and ships eavesdropping on the “hermit kingdom” in the waters north of Japan.
Few details filter out from western officials about the programme, which has operated since 2003, or about the American financial sanctions that accompany it.
But together they have tightened a noose around Kim Jong-il’s bankrupt, hungry nation.
“Diplomacy alone has not worked, military action is not on the table and so you’ll see a persistent increase in this kind of pressure,” said a senior western official.
In a telling example of the programme’s success, two Bush administration officials indicated last year that it had blocked North Korea from obtaining equipment used to make missile propellant.
The Americans also persuaded China to stop the sale of chemicals for North Korea’s nuclear weapons scientists. And a shipload of “precursor chemicals” for weapons was seized in Taiwan before it could reach a North Korean port.
According to John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations and the man who originally devised the programme, it has made a serious dent in North Korea’s revenues from ballistic missile sales.
But the success of Bolton’s brainchild, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), whose stated aim is to stop the traffic in weapons of mass destruction, might also push North Korea into extreme reactions.
Britain is a core member of the initiative, which was announced by President George W Bush in Krakow, Poland, on May 31, 2003. British officials have since joined meetings of “operational experts” in Australia, Europe and the US, while the Royal Navy has contributed ships to PSI exercises. The participants include Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Spain and Singapore, among others.
There has been almost no public debate in the countries committed to military involvement. A report for the US Congress said it had “no international secretariat, no offices in federal agencies established to support it, no database or reports of successes and failures and no established funding”.
To Bolton and senior British officials, those vague qualities make it politically attractive.
In the past 10 months, since the collapse of six-nation talks in Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the US and its allies have also tightened the screws on Kim’s clandestine fundraising, which generated some $500m a year for the regime.
Robert Joseph, the US undersecretary for arms control, has disclosed that 11 North Korean “entities” — trading companies or banks — plus six from Iran and one from Syria were singled out for action under an executive order numbered 13382 and signed by Bush.
For the first time, the US Secret Service and the FBI released details of North Korean involvement in forging $100 notes and in selling counterfeit Viagra, cigarettes and amphetamines in collaboration with Chinese gangsters.
The investigators homed in on a North Korean trading company and two banks in Macau. The firm, which had offices next to a casino and a “sauna”, was run by North Koreans with diplomatic passports, who promptly vanished.
The two banks, Seng Heng bank and Banco Delta Asia, denied any wrongdoing. But the Macau authorities stepped in after a run on Banco Delta Asia and froze some $20m in North Korean accounts.
Last week the North Koreans demanded the money as a precondition for talks but the Americans brushed off their protest.
Kim told Hu Jintao, the Chinese president in January that his government was being strangled, diplomats in the Chinese capital said. “He has warned the Chinese leaders his regime could collapse and he knows that is the last thing we want,” said a Chinese source close to the foreign ministry.
The risk being assessed between Washington and Tokyo this weekend is how far Kim can be pushed against the wall before he undertakes something more lethal than last week’s display of force.
The “Dear Leader” has turned North Korea into a military-dominated state to preserve his own inherited role at the apex of a Stalinist personality cult. Although he appears erratic, and North Korea’s rhetoric is extreme, most diplomats who have met him think Kim is highly calculating.
“He is a very tough Korean nationalist and he knows exactly how to play the power game — very hard,” said Professor Shi Yinhong, an expert in Beijing.
But the costly failure of Kim’s intercontinental missile, the Taepodong 2, after just 42 seconds of flight last Wednesday, was a blow to his prestige and to the force of his deterrent. Six other short and medium-range missiles splashed into the Sea of Japan without making any serious military point.
The United States and its allies are now preoccupied by what Kim might do with the trump card in his arsenal — his stockpile of plutonium for nuclear bombs.
“The real danger is that the North Koreans could sell their plutonium to another rogue state — read Iran — or to terrorists,” said a western diplomat who has served in Pyongyang. American officials fear Iran is negotiating to buy plutonium from North Korea in a move that would confound the international effort to stop Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme.
The prospect of such a sale is “the next big thing”, said a western diplomat involved with the issue. The White House commissioned an intelligence study on the risk last December but drew no firm conclusions.
Plutonium was the element used in the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. It would give Iran a rapid route to the bomb as an alternative to the conspicuous process of enriching uranium which is the focus of international concern.
American nuclear scientists estimate North Korea is “highly likely” to have about 43kg and perhaps as much as 53kg of the material. Between 7kg and 9kg are needed for a weapon.
Siegfried Hecker, former head of the US Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, has warned that North Korea’s plutonium would fit into a few suitcases and would be impossible to detect if it were sold.
For the first time since the crisis over its nuclear ambitions began in 1994, North Korea has made enough plutonium to sell a quantity to its ally while keeping sufficient for its own use.
North Korea is known to have sold 1.7 tons of uranium to Libya. It has sold ballistic missiles to Iran since the 1980s. American officials have said Iran is already exchanging missile test data for nuclear technology from Pyongyang. The exchanges probably involve flight monitoring for Scud-type rockets and techniques of uranium centrifuge operation.
Relations deepened between the two surviving regimes in Bush’s “axis of evil” after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s military and scientific links with North Korea have grown rapidly.
Last November western intelligence sources told the German magazine Der Spiegel that a high-ranking Iranian official had travelled to Pyongyang to offer oil and natural gas in exchange for more co-operation on nuclear technology and ballistic missiles. Iran’s foreign ministry denied the report but diplomats in Beijing and Pyongyang believe it was accurate. At the same time evidence emerged through Iranian dissidents in exile that North Korean experts were helping Iran build nuclear-capable missiles in a vast tunnel complex under the Khojir and Bar Jamali mountains near Tehran.
So while one nation, North Korea, boasts of its nuclear weapons and the other, Iran, denies wanting them at all, the world is on edge. If the stakes are high in the nuclear terror game, they are equally high for the balance of power in Asia and thus for global prosperity.
North Korea’s aggressive behaviour and a record of kidnapping Japanese citizens have created new willpower among politicians in Tokyo to strengthen their military forces. To China, Japan’s wartime adversary, that signals a worrying change in the strategic equation. Nationalism in both countries is on the rise. Relations between the two are at their worst for decades.
One scenario is that Japan abandons its pacifist doctrine and becomes a nuclear weapons power. “The Japanese people are very angry and very worried and, right now, they will accept any government plan for the military,” said Tetsuo Maeda, professor of defence studies at Tokyo International University.
The mood favours the ascent of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s hawkish chief cabinet secretary, the man most likely to take over from Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister, who steps down in September. “He will be far more hardline on Pyongyang and I’m firmly of the opinion that he intends to make Japan into a nuclear power,” Maeda said.
The government is already committed to installing defensive Pac-3 Patriot missiles in co-operation with the Americans. But radical opinion in Japan has been fortified by Kim’s adventures.
“The vast majority of Japanese agree that we need to be able to carry out first strikes,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.
“I spoke to Mr Abe earlier this week and he shares my opinion that for Japan, the most important step would be for Japan to have an offensive missile capability.”
Such talk causes severe concern to Washington, which has sheltered Japan under the umbrella of its nuclear arsenal since forging a security alliance after the second world war.
Divisions within the Bush administration — which even sympathisers concede have paralysed its nuclear diplomacy towards the North — also served to undermine Japanese confidence in America, as have the well-documented failings of American intelligence.
Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, a think tank with ties to the Pentagon, says: “There’s no human intelligence in North Korea. Zero. Zippo. It’s like looking at your neighbour’s house with a pair of binoculars — and they’ve got their blinds shut.”
Last week Bush was working the phones to the leaders of China and Russia. But British officials think it unlikely that either will support a Japanese proposal for UN sanctions on the North Koreans.
That leaves the Bush administration with the same unpalatable choices that existed a week, a month or a year ago. The military option, to all practical purposes, does not exist. “An attack is highly unlikely to destroy any existing North Korean nuclear weapons capability,” wrote Phillip Saunders of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in a paper analysing its risks.
“The biggest problem with military options is preventing North Korean retaliation,” Saunders said. He believes half a million artillery shells an hour would be rained on Seoul in the first day of any conflict from North Korean artillery hidden in caves. The North Koreans could fire 200 mobile rocket launchers and launch up to 600 Scud missiles. American and South Korean casualties, excluding civilians, are projected at between 300,000 and 500,000 in the first 90 days of war.
Like former president Bill Clinton’s team, the Bush administration has therefore realised that a diplomatic answer is the only one available.
But years of inattention, division and mixed messages robbed the US of diplomatic influence. One observer tells of watching the US envoy Christopher Hill sit mutely in an important negotiation because policy arguments in Washington had tied his hands.
Yesterday Hill compromised by offering the North Koreans a private meeting if they came back to nuclear talks hosted by China. But American faith in China’s powers of persuasion may have been misplaced.
“China is the source of the problem, not the source of the solution,” argued Edward Timperlake, a defence official in the Reagan administration and author of Showdown, a new book on the prospect of war with China.
Kim ignored Chinese demands to call off the missile tests and some American officials now think Beijing is simply playing off its client against its superpower rival.
The clearest statement of all came from the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK) itself. The state news agency said America had used “threats and blackmail” to destroy an agreement to end the dispute. “But for the DPRK’s tremendous deterrent for self-defence, the US would have attacked the DPRK more than once as it had listed it as part of an ‘axis of evil’.”
The lesson of Iraq, the North Koreans said, was now known to everyone.
Additional reporting: Sarah Baxter, Washington; Julian Ryall, Tokyo