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Belmont Club

Unproven

November 21st, 2010 - 3:12 pm

The Wall Street Journal describes a NATO agreement to expand a missile defense shield to cover all member countries in Europe. “Speaking to reporters on the summit’s sidelines, President Barack Obama said the allies had for the first time ‘agreed to develop a missile-defense capability that’s strong enough to cover all NATO European territory and populations, as well as the United States.’” This announcement came as the administration pushed an arms control treaty with Russia and discovered a new threat from North Korea.

The shield agreement will set up communications links to various missile-defense systems the allies, including the U.S., already have or are putting place. It will also set up a command and control network along the lines of that currently protecting NATO airspace.

The shield is being extended as the administration tries to get the Senate to approve the START arms-control agreement. The agreement aims to cap U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals at lower levels. The obvious benefit of the treaty would be to allow the U.S. to concentrate defensive assets against other threats. But  START has been criticized largely on whether it can be robustly verified. Some doubts remain. Pete Hoekstra has suggested that consideration of the START treaty should wait until the newly elected senators are installed.

The developments suggest a pivot in U.S. concerns away from an attack by Russia to an attack by newly emerging nuclear powers. In the Pacific, the obvious threat is North Korea. The New York Times says that evidence of additional North Korean nuclear facilities means that Pyongyang has not given up its nuclear ambitions.

“This validates a long-standing concern we’ve had with regard to North Korea and its enrichment of uranium,” he said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week With Christiane Amanpour.”

The new plant, whose modernistic technology, rich collection of centrifuges and up-to-date control room astonished Dr. Hecker, did not exist in the spring of 2009, just before international weapons inspectors were thrown out of the country. While North Korea has already tested two atomic bombs and produced other nuclear weapons, those were manufactured from the spent fuel harvested from a nuclear reactor, not from enriched uranium.

The New York Times itself detected Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment efforts — the “second path” to nuclear weapons aside from plutonium — in late 2009. However, Wired reports that the U.S. suspected that North Korea was on the second path as early as 2002.  The NYT wrote:

SEOUL — North Korea’s announcement on Friday that its experiment in enriching uranium is at “completion stage” marks the strongest signal yet from Pyongyang that it is racing to develop a second method of making nuclear bombs. … For years, officials in Washington and elsewhere have debated whether North Korea was pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. After years of denial, North Korea announced in April that it intended to enrich uranium.

“Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory who is regularly given rare glimpses of the North’s secretive nuclear program, said the program had been built in secret and with remarkable speed.” He described North Korea’s uranium enrichment facilities as “stunning.” The fact that the signal was purposely sent by North Korea to the press in advance of a U.S. announcement of these stunning facilities suggests that either the administration wanted to keep hidden what North Korea intended to showcase or that it was genuinely surprised.

Reacting to these developments, the State Department dispatched a diplomat to Asia to talk to allies about the situation.

The U.S. State Department dispatched its North Korea envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to discuss the development with North Korea’s neighbors. He will arrive in Seoul on Sunday night local time for meetings on Monday with South Korean diplomats, then visit Japan and China later in the week.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association called the North Korea development a “tipping point” and urged the administration to ramp up its “engagement.” He characterized each previous crisis as a ploy by North Korea to move towards normalization and improve trade, which have led to agreements with verifiable constraints.

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