Washington, Jan. 19 (Reuters): North Korea’s arms bazaar soon may boast an enticing new product — a nuclear bomb which US officials fear could be available to the highest bidder.
With the communist nation’s decision this month to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the pact aimed at curbing the spread of atomic weapons, US defence officials and military analysts are worrying that North Korea might sell a nuclear bomb to a willing customer with a lot of cash.
They say North Korea, through its past arms sales, has shown a willingness to sell just about anything to anyone, and fear that potential customers for a nuclear bomb could include hostile countries or even groups such as al Qaida.
“Look at what North Korea’s doing with respect to the possible production of additional nuclear weapons,” defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a briefing. “Here’s the world’s biggest proliferator of ballistic missile technology. If it ends up with additional nuclear weapons, it might very well be in the business of proliferating them to other countries.” Rumsfeld has said the US believes North Korea already “may have one or two” nuclear weapons.
North Korea has denied US charges that it is covertly developing nuclear weapons. A US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Is it a potential threat' Yes it is. Is it a likely scenario given where North Korea is now' Probably not. If they crank up production, then the situation changes.”
Experts estimate that cash-starved North Korea sells about $500 million annually in weapons to other nations, mostly Scud missiles and Scud missile parts. Its best customers are Iran and Pakistan, experts said, but it also may have sold missiles to Yemen, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
“Certainly by past experience, we’ve seen that North Korea has been willing to sell virtually anything that it has produced. It’s a country that wants the hard currency. And if they have enough of whatever the (military) system is for their own security, additional ones they’ll sell for sure,” said Baker Spring, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
North Korea on January 11 became the first country to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty, doing so just weeks after ordering the expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The US is worried that North Korea will extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods en route to producing nuclear bombs.
Some experts note that while North Korea has sold missiles, there is no evidence that it has sold chemical or biological weapons, which it is thought to have in large quantities.
“I think, to a large degree, they are an arms bazaar,” said Joel Wit, a former state department official who served as the coordinator for the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework, the pact under which North Korea froze and pledged to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme in return for 500,000 tonnes annually of fuel oil and a project to build two nuclear reactors poorly suited for military purposes. “But it seems even they have drawn a line somewhere, and that has to do with weapons of mass destruction,” added Wit, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“What will happen over time is that as they accumulate more and more plutonium, maybe more and more weapons in their stockpile, there may be a temptation to sell some of it to others, whether they are countries or even terrorist groups.”
North Korea’s best-selling items are two versions of the Scud missile: the Scud-B, with a range of about 300 km, and the Scud-C, with a range of about 550 km. The Scud is a mobile, ballistic, surface-to-surface missile system originally developed by the Soviets in the mid-1950s.