Washington — North Korean agents are ransacking the global black market for nuclear technology and equipment to enable Kim Jong Il's regime to complete a uranium-enriched bomb on a crash basis, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
The in-your-face defiance by the North Koreans of U.S. demands to halt its covert nuclear program is both unsurprising and revealing: Pyongyang's characteristic belligerence points up the incomplete nature of the Bush administration's forceful campaign to limit the spread of nuclear weapons to the world's most dangerous dictatorships.
The administration has shifted its emphasis from confronting North Korea diplomatically to pressing China, Russia, Pakistan and other countries with potential nuclear suppliers to help cut off the North Koreans.
This emergency response usefully spotlights the long-term role that the merchants of atomic, biological and chemical death have played in constructing a destabilizing axis of proliferation. Effective, punishing action must be targeted on the suppliers as well as the users. The pushers cannot be let off the hook through neglect or expediency.
The dangers of greed driving proliferation is being underlined as well by the delivery this week of Iraq's 12,000-page declaration on its weapons of mass destruction to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. One section is reported to contain a detailed listing of foreign companies or governments that helped Baghdad acquire components of history's most deadly armaments.
"The Iraqis seem to be doing what an aggressive litigator would do in an American trial," said one U.S. official briefed on initial assessments of the Iraqi report. The official continued:
"They dumped a mountain of old and unresponsive documents on us - a lot of them can be identified as photocopies of photocopies previously submitted - and challenged us to find anything useful or new. And they reached out to implicate everybody else they could, to make it seem that everybody knew what was going on and if they are in the dock, their German or French suppliers should be, too."
In the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Washington paid little attention to Iraq's voracious pursuit of weapons systems, including nuclear-weapons components, poison gas that Saddam used on Iranian soldiers and his Kurdish citizens, and biological weapons that were systematically tested on Iraqi dissidents and other civilians. Until 1990, Iran was seen as the great threat in the Persian Gulf, and Iraq was supposedly an Arab bulwark that had to be forgiven for its deadly foibles.
A dozen years of intermittent hostilities with Iraq has been one consequence of that mistaken judgment, which President George W. Bush seems determined to put right :quot; through the United Nations if he can, unilaterally if he must.
But the pattern of postponing difficult anti-proliferation actions is being repeated in the context of axis-of-evil member North Korea: The United States will not invoke sanctions now against Pakistan, despite that country's established role as the principal supplier of centrifuges and technology to the North Korean secret uranium-enrichment program over an estimated five-year period.
"We have to deal with one urgent problem at a time right now," a U.S. official said. The implication was that Pakistan's past proliferation has to be overlooked while Washington pursues the war on global terrorism, disarming Iraq and shutting down any new nuclear leaks to North Korea. "What Pakistan does right now on those fronts is getting our intense attention."
China is another country of concern for the administration on North Korea. I am told that Bush delivered a private but crystal-clear warning to President Jiang Zemin in October that China's willingness - or lack thereof - to help contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions would now affect U.S.-China relations. But the Chinese have not applied pressure on Kim Jong Il since then. Their private inaction during a time of leadership transition matches their public statements that they can do nothing about North Korea, says one knowledgeable and therefore worried American.
Administration briefings to journalists and foreign officials have been opaque on how close the North Koreans may be to developing a workable uranium-based bomb. That is still something of a mystery. U.S. intelligence is in fact still not sure that the North Koreans have actually weaponized the plutonium they extracted to build one or two bombs in the early 1990s.
But conversations with senior officials suggest that from one to two years is a reasonable estimate. The suppliers have done their dastardly job, leaving the North Koreans only a short gap to fill and the world only a short time to come to terms with the need to tackle both the users and pushers of the means of mass murder.