More North Koreas? Get Used to It

William Langewiesche, international correspondent for Vanity Fair, is the author of "Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear-Armed Poor," to be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in the spring.

THERE IS NO DOUBT that the acquisition of atomic weapons by North Korea is the worst development yet in the ongoing story of nuclear proliferation by upstart states. The regime in Pyongyang is arguably the spookiest in the world today — bellicose, repressive, unstable and so mentally isolated that it sometimes appears to be outright insane. A nuclear North Korea is definitely a dangerous place; it increases the chances in Asia for all sorts of trouble and threatens to kick off a regional arms race. This needs to be acknowledged.

Nonetheless, what’s done is done, and though we may protest and bluster, there is very little the U.S. can do to stop it from proceeding. Rather than making a show of our weakness, we would do well to calm down. After all, this was not unexpected; the fact is, the spread of nuclear weapons is, and always has been, inevitable.

A little perspective might help. In the months after World War II, a group of men responsible for producing the atomic bomb — including Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard and others — created the Federation of American (Atomic) Scientists, or FAS, to educate the public about this new breed of weapon. Washington at the time harbored the illusion that it possessed a great secret and could keep the bomb for itself.


The founders of the FAS disagreed. They argued that with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, any engineering doubts had been emphatically answered and, because the basic science of nuclear reactions was already widely known, other nations could invest in nuclear programs and be certain of the returns. There were any number of physicists and engineers worldwide capable of guiding them through the process. FAS members warned the American people in stark and simple terms. In essence, they said that the whole world would soon be nuclear-armed. There is no secret here, they said, and there is also no defense. The Nuclear Age is upon us, and it cannot be undone.

They got the timing wrong. Nuclear proliferation did proceed, but for 50 years it was slowed (and in some cases stopped) by diplomacy and, more fundamentally, by the Cold War itself, with the guarantees it offered to nonnuclear nations of surrogate nuclear strength under the U.S. and Soviet retaliatory “umbrellas.”

Since then, however, the umbrellas have frayed, and the world has become a more fractured and complicated place, no longer bound by the old alliances, where independent nuclear arsenals have greater meaning than before. Paradoxically, the desire for nuclear weapons is spreading in inverse relation to the lowered risk of an all-out global nuclear war. This is a trend that began even before the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is accelerating in a world where countries must turn to themselves for protection and where the U.S., especially after the invasion of Iraq, is seen as an aggressor and a threat. For these reasons and others, new nuclear players are emerging to challenge the rules of the game.

What the new players have in common is that they are poor and undeveloped nations, with weak economies and precarious political systems. If this seems counterintuitive, consider the fact that nuclear weapons are not only simple but cheap.

Earlier this year in Moscow, a Russian nuclear official put it this way to me: “Nuclear weapons technology has become a useful tool, especially for the weak. It allows them to satisfy their ambitions without much expense. If they want to intimidate others, to be respected by others, this is now the easiest way to do it.” Once a country decides to become a nuclear weapons power, he said, it will do so regardless of international sanctions or incentives.

Oppenheimer warned of this implicitly 60 years earlier. He wrote in 1945: “Atomic explosives vastly increase the power of destruction per dollar spent, per man-hour invested; they profoundly upset the precarious balance between the effort necessary to destroy, and the extent of the destruction…. None of the uncertainties can becloud the fact it will cost enormously less to destroy a square mile with atomic weapons than with any weapons hitherto known to warfare.”


Oppenheimer talked about it in terms of the “evil that a dollar can do,” but of course, one person’s definition of evil may be another’s definition of self-defense — or, more generally, a demand for equality among nations. The most succinct criticism of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty came from the Argentines when they refused to sign it, that it amounted to “the disarmament of the disarmed.”

In Islamabad, an official close to the nuclear-armed Musharraf regime said to me: “The best way to fight proliferation is to pursue global disarmament. Fine, great, sure — if you expect that to happen. But you cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places like Pakistan, poor countries which have legitimate security concerns — every bit as legitimate as yours. And yet you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons, while you have nuclear weapons, and you have everything else? It is not a question of what is fair, or right or wrong. It is simply not going to work.”

The man was right. When focused on the U.S., his point becomes an argument not for standing down from the diplomacy of nonproliferation but for finding the courage to accept the dangers of a changing world in which new countries have acquired nuclear weapons, and some may actually use them.

Has North Korea joined the ranks of nuclear powers? If so, so be it. There will be other nuclear newcomers in the decades to come. Iran will be next, but it will not be the last. Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia are believed to be interested and could easily proceed, depending on regional events. So could Algeria. So could Brazil and Venezuela. The future is unknowable, but there is no limit to where these weapons could spread.

The good news, however perversely, is that no nuclear-armed regime (and certainly not Iran’s) is likely to be as reckless as North Korea’s. In that sense, the developments in North Korea can serve as an exercise not in stopping nuclear proliferation but in learning how to live with it after it occurs. The ideal, of course, would be to desist from policies of preemptive invasion and to engage the upstart powers respectfully through economic and diplomatic ties.

If that is not feasible, however, other options exist, based on the premise that nuclear weapons are defensive in nature and that regimes even as strange as Pyongyang’s are generally fairly conventional players with infrastructures at risk and subject to restraint through the guarantee of retaliatory strikes.

There is one move we can make right now that would sharply reduce, if not eliminate, another risk: that a regime like North Korea’s or Iran’s might hand off a functional bomb to stateless terrorists who, with nothing to lose, would have every reason to use it. We can make it emphatically clear that if we or our most important friends are ever hit by terrorists with a ready-made nuclear device, we will immediately devastate whatever regime is to blame.

Ultimately, however, it is important to recognize that the spread of nuclear weapons is a condition over which we do not have control and for which there is no solution. It does no good to bemoan the folly of it all or to belabor the fact that we are the ones who ushered in the Nuclear Age. The world is an unsafe place, and we have no choice but to live in it. Pretending otherwise, or imagining that we can impose order when we lack the power to do so, is the surest recipe for self-destruction and disaster.