- - Monday, April 22, 2019


Extraordinarily high stakes ride on the pending denuclearization agreement with North Korea. And there is also an immense time-urgency about concluding the agreement far greater than almost anyone realizes. Here’s the situation.

The nuclear weapons era is now in its 75th year. For the first half-century the nations wrestled — fairly successfully — with the world-destroying issue of proliferation. At this Cold War’s end, there were only six nuclear-weapons states, the five U.N.-approved nations and Israel. India and Pakistan acquired nukes shortly thereafter, but the number then remained stable at eight for another quarter-century.

But the Cold War had caused the nations of the world to shift their focus — totally — from nonproliferation (which was eminently achievable) to nuclear disarmament (which is totally unachievable).

As a result, when two irresponsible and belligerent rogue states began determined crusades to acquire nuclear weapons — North Korea in the 1990s and Iran a decade later — there was no global nonproliferation regime left to oppose them. Hand-wringing, tame diplomacy and unenforceable sanctions were the best the world could muster. These were no match for the absolute, sacrificial persistence of the two rogues.

At any point in the following two decades, the United States could have easily denuclearized North Kores by military force (which would also have prevented Iran’s nuclear adventures); but American voters, after suffering the nuclear terror of four decades of Cold War, elected a generation of arms controllers and anti-nuclear activists as our national security leaders.

President after president promised that North Korea would never gain nuclear weapons, but it was always easier to leave actual military strikes to a successor. It also allowed Iran to reach a nuclear weapons threshold, doubling the imminent threat the world faces.

America has never understood that these two rogues are the harbingers of doom. Unless stopped, they will bring a world of nuclear horror and chaos. It’s not that they will use their new nukes that would be suicidal. It’s that North Korea will sell them to any buyer; and that Iran will give them to proxies for use. Nukes will become the weapon of choice by aggressors, fundamentalists, terrorists, criminals and extortionists. This imminent threat will trigger a global cascade of proliferation, as every nuclear-capable entity acquires them for protection.

Many dozens of states, large and small, will have nukes. They’ll be everywhere, uncounted, uncontrolled, and in worldwide black markets. The globe will be dotted by radioactive, deserted, ruins of cities. And there’s no way back.

The issue is clear. North Korea and Iran must not be permitted to acquire nukes. And as North Korea goes, so goes Iran.

North Korea’s first test of a nuclear device was in 2006, and over the next 10 years they conducted four more. These were fission tests, with relatively low yields — although increasing. And in all probability they were test devices, not weapons. Weaponization of a proven device is an immense task, requiring integrated testing with the delivery system. Their sixth test, in September 2017, surprised the world. It was a high-yield thermonuclear device. Now they were ready for weaponizing and production.

North Korea started developing missiles for nuke delivery years earlier, but it was slow work initially short-rang, then intermediate-range, with many failures. But in July 2017 they had their first two successes with intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now missiles also were ready. All they needed was time for integration and production.

For the United States, also, time was critical. There could be no delay. We must launch a hard, sustained series of conventional strikes to denuclearize as much of North Korea as possible. If we moved fast enough, North Korea might not be able to make any nuclear response. Temporary evacuation would prevent significand casualties in Seoul. It would be a limited, conventional conflict. Multiple U.S. aircraft carriers moved into the northwest Pacific. U.S. bombers from many bases overflew the Korean peninsula.

At this point, Kim Jong-un — trained by his father and grandfather since birth — proposed to the United States that the Korean peninsula be denuclearized. His proposal has already gained him a year. Only the future knows what the outcome will be.

But the United States is running a high-stakes gamble. If the agreement fails, the United States will have no alternative but to strike conventionally, as fast and as hard and as comprehensively as possible. North Korea cannot be permitted to become a nuclear weapons state, even if it means our fighting against North Korean nuclear weapons.

Once the two rogues are denuclearized, and America has shown that U.S. military force can defeat proliferation, the world will learn to live comfortably with controlled but unused nukes.

• Robert R. Monroe, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, is the former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.

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