U.S. military commanders in the Pacific warned Congress yesterday that North Korea could provide nuclear arms to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, leader of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Army Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, testified about the danger of nuclear terrorism at a budget hearing for the House Armed Services Committee.
“I think our largest concern would be if nuclear material was sold to al Qaeda, clearly,” Adm. Fargo said. “They have the will and the skill, obviously, to carry out a devastating terrorist attack. So that is kind of a nightmare scenario, and that’s why we feel so strongly about a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula.”
Other terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda-affiliated organizations, have fewer chances of getting nuclear arms, Adm. Fargo said, “but should it fall into their hands, they probably would have the capability to do great damage also.”
A nuclear-armed North Korea “threatens the entire Northeast Asia region as well as other nations in the Pacific,” Gen. LaPorte said.
“In addition, they’re a known proliferator of missiles, missiles technology, narcotics and other illegal activities. What’s to prevent North Korea from deciding to sell to other nations or terrorist organizations nuclear-grade — weapons-grade material? That’s a significant concern to all of us.”
Adm. Fargo said North Korea has two programs that can be used for building nuclear weapons, one based on highly enriched uranium and a second derived from reprocessed plutonium.
The programs “raise the specter of nuclear weapons either in armed conflict or proliferated into the hands of terrorist groups — perhaps our biggest fear and one that clearly would threaten all nations,” the admiral said.
Said Gen. LaPorte: “I agree totally with Admiral Fargo that a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist organization is one of our greatest concerns. And given the history of North Korea relative to selling missiles and missile technology, it’s a concern we must address.”
Adm. Fargo said the potential for al Qaeda-North Korea nuclear cooperation is one of several threats in the region. Others include North Korea’s conventional forces, the potential of a conflict between China and Taiwan that could involve the United States, and terrorists operating in Southeast Asia.
About Taiwan, Adm. Fargo said U.S. forces are “well-postured” to respond to any use of force by China against the island.
“We understand the problem,” he said. “Our forces are well-trained, so our ability to dissuade and deter China, I think, is really very good.”
On another issue, Adm. Fargo said plans are under way to reposition U.S. forces in the Pacific, including basing an additional attack submarine in Guam and possibly moving an additional aircraft-carrier battle group further west in the Pacific. The USS Kitty Hawk group currently is based in Japan.
Gen. LaPorte said that in addition to the nuclear danger, North Korea has been involved in illegal drug trafficking for many years.
“We have detailed information on that,” he said. “And there are government-sponsored chemical labs, methamphetamine labs in particular, but a lot of other drugs.”
Much of North Korea’s “working capital” is generated from profits of such illegal activities, he said. On North Korea’s military, the general said the threat from its artillery and missiles “will remain constant.”
However, a growing danger comes from what he termed the asymmetrical threat of North Korean nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and special-operations commandos.
Adm. Fargo also said the problem of piracy is growing in Southeast Asia, where armed pirates operate in large numbers. The problem is acute in the Malacca Strait, where a major portion of the world’s shipping traffic regularly passes.