North Korea’s march toward becoming a nuclear power continues rapidly and without delay. Pyongyang’s recent threat to use its “nuclear sword of justice” has intensified the widespread fear that North Korea will use its new weapons against the United States or South Korea, but focusing solely on this possibility diverts attention from another potential danger: nuclear trafficking. This is important to consider, because the danger lies not just in the possibility of North Korea using a nuclear weapon, but also in the possibility of such weapons and technology falling into the wrong hands. Whether through the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime or from the state-sponsored sale of technology, nuclear trafficking poses a grave threat to global security.
Debate about the stability of Kim Jong-un’s regime has been raging since 2013, when the dictator reportedly had his uncle executed for planning a coup. A recent defector has asserted that the regime is on the road to collapse, while South Korean intelligence officials have stated that the regime is relatively stable. In either case, as was demonstrated by the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, it takes a great deal of effort to clean up a suddenly orphaned nuclear program.
The chaos caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse created a breeding ground for criminal activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Organized crime persists in the region, and one of the greatest profit potentials lies in the trafficking of nuclear materials. Thanks to US-led initiatives, such as the Nunn-Lugar program, and the efforts of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, much of the Soviet arsenal has been secured, but not all of it. The continued presence of fissile materials on the black market shows that the acquisition of nuclear materials by a terrorist organizationremains a substantial concern. The Black Sea area remains a vibrant marketplace for nuclear materials – and the situation could get much worse. A North Korean collapse would create even more opportunities for trafficking, especially when one considers the fundamental differences between the Soviet and Kim regimes.
The Alma-Ata Declaration and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts were important factors in making the Soviet Union’s collapse more of a reformation, creating some order amongst the chaos. With all the power tied into the persona of Kim Jong-un, a North Korean collapse would truly be a collapse, with no alternative state structure to fall back on. A situation similar to Libya could develop, in which powerful generals are competing for control of not just the state, but also its weapons of mass destruction stockpile. Add South Korea’s desire to unify the peninsula with China’s desire to keep US allies away from its border, and the potential for chaos is several times greater than the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is also important to note that, as a signatory of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Soviet Union took nonproliferation seriously. North Korea, however, withdrew from the treaty in 2003, and has since developed its nuclear program through clandestine and illegal means.
In January 2004, a clandestine proliferation network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was exposed and revealed to have assisted nuclear programs in Iran, Libya, and North Korea. While Libya gave up its program, and Iran’s program has been restricted since it signed an international plan of action, North Korea has vigorously pursued nuclear weapons.
In response to the threat of illicit proliferation, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540). UNSCR 1540 mandates that all nations enact trade controls to keep sensitive materials from being illicitly trafficked to rogue states and organizations. The Security Council notes in its 2016 review of UNSCR 1540 that, while progress has been made, there is still a substantial amount of work to do in closing trade loopholes.
North Korea’s increasingly provocative behavior, most recently a new ballistic missile test, shows Kim Jong-un’s desire to challenge the United States and its regional allies. It is entirely within reason to believe that the Kim regime could seek to emulate A.Q. Khan and spread nuclear weapons technology and knowledge to states or entities that are hostile to the United States. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the point before Congress in unclassified testimony that North Korea may, in the future, seek to do just this. After all, there is evidence that North Korea assisted the Bashar al-Assad regime’s nuclear program in Syria back in the early 2000s, before it was destroyed by Israel.
Whether from willful action on the part of Kim Jong-un’s regime, or from its collapse, the danger of technology or materials from North Korea’s nuclear program falling into the wrong hands is very real. The United States, along with China and its regional allies, must fully cooperate on a Nunn-Lugar program-like initiative that can be rapidly implemented in the event of the collapse of North Korea. To counter North Korean efforts to export proliferation, the world must rally behind the nonproliferation efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNSCR 1540. As North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons, the world must stand ready for any possibility from the unpredictable and secretive state.
About the author: John Ashley is the Nuclear Security Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John received a Master of International Policy from the University of Georgia in 2015, where he concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation and international security.