- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

There is much head-scratching in Washington over the timing of North Korea’s twin announcements it has nuclear weapons and will suspend participation in the Six-Way [U.S., China, Russia, Japan, North and South Korea] talks. Why now, everyone wants to know?

Certainly a precipitating factor would be the recent visit to Beijing by high-ranking members of the Bush National Security Council. For the past several years, the Bush administration has warned its allies and others that North Korea is dangerously far along the nuclear road and its history of proliferation make it a matter of deep concern. Unfortunately, the fall-out from the erroneous Iraq weapons of mass destruction (WMD) intelligence has made this a much more difficult sell, even to friends like the Japanese.

In the Beijing visit, as reported in the press, NSC officials told Chinese Communist Party Chief Hu and associates that certain Libyan nuclear materials had been scientifically tested. The Libyans obtained them through the smuggling network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. But the tests showed the materials originated in North Korea, not Pakistan as everyone had assumed.

The scientific tests set off two sets of alarm bells in Washington. First, they confirmed suspicions North Korea had, indeed, produced nuclear-weapons-grade materials. Second, they confirmed our greatest concern: North Korea had secretly exported nuclear-weapons-grade materials to another rogue state. That, in turn, led to new questions, the most important being, “Who else, besides the Libyans?”

Immediate attention turned to Iran, currently awash in dollars from high-priced oil. But the real nightmare for Washington, Tokyo and London is the possibility the North Koreans might sell enough nuclear materials to a terrorist group such as al Qaeda, which could use them to produce a “dirty bomb.”

Such a device need not create a large explosion. For terrorist purposes, it would be enough to simply set the thing off in London’s financial district and let the radioactive materials render large areas of the city uninhabitable.

Certainly we have made major strides against smuggling since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. But our borders remain porous enough for this to be a major threat.

And the North Koreans have an established line to Osama bin Laden. In 2000, Philippine intelligence discovered he had financed a North Korean small-arms sale to an Islamic terrorist organization. Once this smuggling conduit came into being, it was much easier to send something through it.

Truthfully, the administration’s options on North Korea are limited. We don’t have really good intelligence on what set of tunnels in North Korea the Dear Leader hides his WMD. So the administration is trying to play its “China Card” — convince the Chinese it is in their interest to ensure North Korea [1] stops exporting WMD and related materials, and [2] provides details on those WMD already shipped.

Instead, Beijing seems to be playing its North Korea card against the U.S. and Japan. In a war over Taiwan, our Okinawa-based U.S. Air Force F15E interceptors and Japanese F-15s would be on the front line in the air battle over East China.

Russia has sold China hundreds of modern jet fighters based on the SU-27 and SU-30 platforms. They are excellent aircraft, but the Russian avionics and targeting systems are not as good as American and European systems. If the battle were fought today, we believe our quality would defeat their quantity.

But if the European Union lifts the arms embargo, allowing sale of modern avionics systems to China, U.S. and Japanese pilots would face comparable quality and overwhelming numbers. A tradeoff of American and Japanese lives for European greed.

Beijing wants us to acquiesce on the EU arms issue in return for its supposed help on North Korea, and there are signs the administration may be falling into this trap.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted in Europe as saying the United States would have to decide “how to deal with the prospect of lifting the EU arms embargo on China.”

If that is happening, Miss Rice is ill-advised. In my view, this is a fool’s errand. In the end, North Korea is a Chinese problem. They are to blame for this communist stepchild. They are responsible for the nuclear weapons design proliferating.

Much of North Korea’s illicit business [drug dealing, counterfeiting and arms smuggling] is done via Chinese territory and institutions. China’s failure to use all its means to eliminate this problem says something about the kind of power Communist China is becoming.

William C. Triplett II is the author of “Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America.” Regnery, 2004.

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