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  • China continues to transfer, through its own territory, nuclear weapons technology involving both North Korea and Iran.

  • In April, North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submerged platform. The North Korean underwater launch test was closely related to the further development of a missile-firing submarine capable of hitting the U.S. -- "a first step," according to Uzi Rubin, "in achieving a very serious and dangerous new military capability... it will take many years to build up the missile defenses, so we had better use the time wisely."

  • Although the Chinese profess to be against nuclear proliferation, documented evidence illustrates just the opposite -- as a means of asserting Chinese hegemony, complicating American security policy and undermining American influence.

  • Unfortunately, no matter how attractive a strategy of diplomatically ending North Korea's nuclear program might look, it is painfully at odds with China's established record of supporting nuclear proliferation with such collapsed or rogue states as Iran, Syria, Pakistan, North Korea and Libya.

  • China's nuclear assistance to Pakistan did not stay just in Pakistan.

North Korea appears to have made significant progress in extending its capability as a nuclear-armed rogue nation, to where its missiles may become capable of hitting American cities with little or no warning.

What new evidence makes such a threat compelling?

North Korea claims to have nuclear warheads small enough to fit on their ballistic missiles and missiles capable of being launched from a submerged platform such as a submarine.

Shortly after North Korea's April 22, 2015 missile test, which heightened international concern about the military capabilities of North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China and our regional allies to restart the 2003 "six-party talks" aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and reining in North Korea's expanding nuclear missile program.

There are some "experts," however, who believe that North Korea's threat is highly exaggerated and poses no immediate danger to the United States. Consequently, many believe that, given China's oft-repeated support for a "nuclear weapons free" Korean peninsula, time is on America's side to get an agreement that will guarantee just such a full de-nuclearization.

But, if North Korea's technical advances are substantive, its missiles, armed with small nuclear weapons, might soon be able to reach the continental United States -- not just Hawaii and Alaska. Further, if such missile threats were to come from submarines near the U.S., North Korea would be able to launch a surprise nuclear-armed missile attack on an American city. In this view, time is not on the side of the U.S. Submarine-launched missiles come without a "return address" to indicate what country or terrorist organization fired the missile.

The implications for American security do not stop there. As North Korea is Iran's primary missile-development partner, whatever North Korea can do with its missiles and nuclear warheads, Iran will presumably be able to do as well. One can assume the arrangement is reciprocal.

Given recent warnings that North Korea may have upwards of 20 nuclear warheads, the United States seems to be facing a critical new danger. Would renewed negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea really be able to address this threat?

Two years ago, Andrew Tarantola and Brian Barrett said there was "no reason to panic;" that North Korea was "a long way off" -- in fact "years" -- before its missiles and nuclear weapons could be "put together in any meaningful way."

At the same time, in April 2013, an official U.S. assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency stated the U.S. had "moderate" confidence that "North Korea had indeed developed a nuclear device small enough to mount on a ballistic missile."

That was followed up two years later, on April 7, 2015, when the commander of Northcom, Admiral Bill Gortney, one of the nation's leading homeland security defenders, said the threat was considerably more serious. He noted that, "North Korea has deployed its new road-mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile and was capable of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead on it."[1]

At a Pentagon press briefing in April, Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander of the US Strategic Command and America's senior military expert on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, said it was important to take seriously reports that North Korea can now make small nuclear warheads and put them on their ballistic missiles.[2]

And sure enough, in April, North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submerged platform. Media reaction to the North Korean test has been confused. Reuters, citing the analysis of two German "experts," claimed the North Korean test was fake -- a not-too-clever manipulation of video images.

The Wall Street Journal, on May 21, 2015, echoed this view, noting: "[F]or evidence of North Korea's bending of reality to drum up fears about its military prowess," one need look no further than a consensus that North Korea "doctored" pictures of an alleged missile test from a submarine. This, they claimed, was proof that the "technology developments" by North Korea were nothing more than elaborately faked fairy tales.

However, Israeli missile defense expert Uzi Rubin -- widely known as the "father" of Israel's successful Arrow missile defense program -- explained to this author that previous North Korean missile developments, which have often been dismissed as nothing more than mocked-up missiles made of plywood, actually turned out to be the real thing -- findings confirmed by subsequent intelligence assessments.

Rubin, as well as the South Korean Defense Ministry, insist that on April 22, the North Korean military did, in fact, launch a missile from a submerged platform.[3]

Kim Jong Un, the "Supreme Leader" of North Korea, supervises the April 22 test-launch of a missile from a submerged platform. (Image source: KCNA)

What gave the "faked" test story some prominence were the misunderstood remarks of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James Winnefeld. He had said, on May 19, that the North Korean missile launch was "not all" that North Korea said it was. He also mentioned that North Korea used clever video editors to "crop" the missile test-launch images. Apparently, that was exactly what the editors did. The Admiral, however, never claimed in his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies there had been no successful missile test.[4]

The same day, a high-ranking State Department official, Frank Rose -- Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance -- told a Korean security seminar on Capitol Hill that North Korea had successfully conducted a "missile ejection" test, but from an underwater barge rather than a submarine.[5]

To confuse matters further, additional pictures were released by the South Korean media to illustrate stories about the North Korean test. Those pictures, however, were of American missiles, which use both solid and liquid propellant; as a result, one photo showed a U.S. missile with a solid propellant smoke trail and one, from a liquid propellant, without a smoke trail. These photographs apparently befuddled Reuters' "experts," who may have jumped to the conclusion that the photos of the North Korean test were "faked," when they were simply of entirely different missile tests, and had been used only to "illustrate" ocean-going missile launches and not the actual North Korean test.[6]

According to Uzi Rubin, to achieve the capability to eject a missile from an underwater platform is a significant technological advancement. The accomplishment again illustrates "that rogue states such as North Korea can achieve military capabilities which pose a notable threat to the United States and its allies."

Rubin also stated that the North Korean underwater launch test was closely related to the development of a missile-firing submarine, "a first step in achieving a very serious and dangerous new military capability."[7]

Admiral Winnefeld and Secretary Rose, in their remarks, confirmed that the North Korean test was not the "dog and pony show" some have claimed. In other words, the U.S. government has officially confirmed that the North Koreans have made a serious step toward producing a sea-launched ballistic missile capability.

While such an operational capability may be "years away," Rubin warns that "even many years eventually pass, and it will also take many years to build up the missile defenses, so we had better use the time wisely."[8]

Will diplomacy succeed in stopping the North Korean threats? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to think it worth a try; so he began the push to restart the old 2003 "six-party" talks between the United States, North Korea, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan, to bring North Korea's nuclear weapons under some kind of international control and eventual elimination.

After all, supporters of such talks claim, similar talks with Iran appear to be leading to some kind of "deal" with Tehran, to corral its nuclear weapons program, so why not duplicate that effort and bring North Korea back into the non-nuclear fold?

What such a "deal," if any, with Iran, will contain, is at this point unknown. Celebrations definitely seem premature. If the "deal" with North Korea is as "successful" as the P5+1's efforts to rein in Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program, the prognosis for the success of diplomacy could scarcely be more troubling.

Bloomberg's defense writer, Tony Carpaccio, reflecting Washington's conventional wisdom, recently wrote that of course China will rein in North Korea's nuclear program: "What might be a bigger preventative will be the protestations of China, North Korea's primary trade partner and only prominent international ally. Making China angry would put an already deeply impoverished, isolated North Korea in even more dire straits."

Unfortunately, no matter how attractive a strategy of diplomatically ending North Korea's nuclear program might look on the surface, it is painfully at odds with China's established and documented track record in supporting and carrying out nuclear proliferation with such collapsed or rogue states as Iran, Syria, Pakistan, North Korea and Libya, as detailed by the 2009 book The Nuclear Express, by Tom C. Reed (former Secretary of the Air Force under President Gerald Ford and Special Assistant to the President of National Security Affairs during the Ronald Reagan administration) and Daniel Stillman (former Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

Far from being a potential partner in seeking a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, China, say the authors, has been and is actually actively pushing the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states, as a means of asserting Chinese hegemony, complicating American security policy and undermining American influence.

The problem is not that China has little influence with North Korea, as China's leadership repeatedly claims. The problem is that China has no interest in pushing North Korea away from its nuclear weapons path because the North Korean nuclear program serves China's geostrategic purposes.

As Reed and Stillman write, "China has been using North Korea as the re-transfer point for the sale of nuclear and missile technology to Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Libya and Yemen". They explain, "Chinese and North Korean military officers were in close communication prior to North Korea's missile tests of 1998 and 2006".

Thus, if China takes action to curtail North Korea's nuclear program, China will likely be under pressure from the United States and its allies to take similar action against Iran and vice versa. China, however, seems to want to curry favor with Iran because of its vast oil and gas supplies, as well as to use North Korea to sell and transfer nuclear technology to both North Korea and Iran, as well as other states such as Pakistan. As Reed again explains, "China has catered to the nuclear ambitions of the Iranian ayatollahs in a blatant attempt to secure an ongoing supply of oil".

North Korea is a partner with Iran in the missile and nuclear weapons development business, as Uzi Rubin has long documented. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that China may see any curtailment of North Korea's nuclear program as also curtailing Iran's access to the same nuclear technology being supplied by North Korea. Any curtailment would also harm the Chinese nuclear sales business to Iran and North Korea, especially if China continues to use the "North Korea to Iran route" as an indirect means of selling its own nuclear expertise and technology to Iran.

It is not as if Chinese nuclear proliferation is a recent development or a "one of a kind" activity. As far back as 1982, China gave nuclear warhead blueprints to Pakistan, according to Reed. These findings indicate that China's nuclear weapons proliferation activities are over three decades old.[9]

Reed and Stillman also note that nearly a decade later, China tested a nuclear bomb "for Pakistan" on May 26, 1990, and that documents discovered in Libya when the George W. Bush administration shut down Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi's nuclear program revealed that China gave Pakistan the CHIC-4 nuclear weapon design.

Unfortunately, China's nuclear assistance to Pakistan did not stay just in Pakistan. The nuclear technology made its way from Pakistan to North Korea. For example, high explosive craters, construction of a 50 megawatt nuclear reactor (finished in 1986) and a secret reprocessing facility begun in 1987 all were done in North Korea with major Pakistani help from the A.Q. Khan "Nukes R Us" smuggling group, as Reed and Stillman document in their book.

Reed and Stillman write that when, amid disclosures in 2003 of a major Libyan nuclear weapons program, the U.S. government sought help in shutting down the Khan nuclear smuggling ring, "Chinese authorities were totally unhelpful, to the point of stonewalling any investigation into Libya's nuclear supply network."

More recently, Chinese companies have now twice -- in 2009 and 2011 -- been indicted by the Attorney for the City of New York for trying to provide Iran with nuclear weapons technology.

The indictments document that Chinese companies were selling Iran steel for nuclear centrifuges and other banned technology. A leaked State Department cable, discussing the indictments at the time, revealed "details on China's role as a supplier of materials for Iran's nuclear program," and that "China helped North Korea ship goods to Iran through Chinese airports."

And more recently, in April 2015, the Czech government interdicted additional nuclear technology destined for Iran -- the origin of which remains unknown -- in violation of current sanctions against Iran.

From 1982 through at least the first part of 2015, the accumulation of documentary evidence on nuclear proliferation reveals two key facts:

First, despite literally hundreds of denials by Iran that it is seeking nuclear weapons, and amid current negotiations to end Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, there is solid evidence that Iran still seeks nuclear weapons technology; and that North Korea has nuclear weapons and is advancing their capability.

Second, China continues to transfer, through its own territory, nuclear weapons technology involving both North Korea and Iran.

Although the Chinese profess to be against nuclear proliferation, their track record from the documented evidence illustrates just the opposite.

In summary, it is obvious North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are a serious threat to America and its allies. And China, from its proliferation record for the past three decades, is making such a threat more widespread.

In this light, is dismissing North Korea's advances in military technology and ignoring China's record of advancing its neighbors' nuclear weapons technology really best for U.S. interests?


[1] The Washington Post, May 20, 2015, Anna Fifield, "North Korea says it has technology to make mini-nuclear weapons"; and Admiral Bill Gortney, US NORAD Commander, quoted in "NORAD commander: North Korean KN-08 Missile Operational", by Jon Harper, in "Stars and Stripes", of April 7, 2015; the Admiral said: "Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland." He said "Yes sir" when asked if the U.S. thinks North Korea has succeeded in the complicated task of miniaturizing a warhead for use on such a missile. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006.

[2] Department of Defense Press Briefing by Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, March 24, 2015.

[3] Personal communication with Uzi Rubin, President of Rubincon, May 21, 2015.

[4] Admiral James Winnefeld, Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Briefing on Missile Defense, May 20, 2015.

[5] U.S. Department of State, Daily Digest Bulletin, Frank Rose, Remarks on "Missile Defense and the U.S. Response to the North Korean Ballistic Missile and WMD Threat", May 20, 2015.

[6] Explanation provided by Israel missile expert Uzi Rubin, personal communication, May 20, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] According to Reed and Stillman, in "The Nuclear Express," none of China's nuclear help to Pakistan and Iran could have been possible without China's transfer of the nuclear technology through Chinese airspace.

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