The tremor out of the far north of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea was unremarkable. It registered a magnitude 4.2, a light earthquake. Its significance had to be declared by its perpetrator, the unpredictable regime of Kim Jong Il. North Korea, one of the poorest and most hermetic nations on earth, was claiming a successful underground nuclear bomb test and entry into the once exclusive club of nuclear powers as member No. 9. "More fizzle than pop," said a U.S. intelligence source dismissively, though he conceded the blast was likely to have been nuclear. A sniffer plane would later pick up hints of radiation in the atmosphere. Days of diplomatic consternation ensued at Pyongyang's announcement, and after stops and starts, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea, demanding that it dismantle its nuclear-arms program. It also banned the sale of conventional weaponry and luxury goods to the country. Pointing at Washington as its nemesis, Pyongyang said any increased American military pressure would be deemed a declaration of war.
What we have now is not a tight club of nuclear powers with interlocking interests and an appreciation for the brutal doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" but an unpredictable host of potential Bomb throwers: a Stalinist Bomb out of unstable North Korea; a Shi'ite Bomb out of Iran; a Sunni Bomb out of Pakistan; and, down the road, possibly out of Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well; and, of course, an al-Qaeda Bomb out of nowhere. Israel is a nuclear power already. And Turkey may just decide it had better be too. Even Japan and South Korea could eventually move toward the Bomb, if they feel the U.S. nuclear umbrella begins to fray in East Asia. What are the consequences for the U.S. and the rest of the world? Are we in an era of barely controlled proliferation, in which countless nations must at least consider the possibility of going nuclear? Or are those fears, in the wake of the North Korean test, overblown? Is there still time to manage the situation?
THE CASCADE STARTS HERE
The North Korean incident impetus to what appears to be a determined push by Iran to acquire the capability to produce its own nuclear bomb. Tehran insists it is interested only in a civilian nuclear program for energy purposes. The main outside players--the U.S., the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)--are increasingly skeptical about those claims but thus far have been powerless to do much about it. Western intelligence agencies assume Iran could become the next nuclear power if it proceeds undeterred with its clandestine program. Like North Korea, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the diplomatic edifice erected in 1970 precisely to deter countries from going nuclear. (Pyongyang formally withdrew from the NPT in 2003.) The North Korean test, says General Giora Eiland, Israel's former National Security Adviser, means "Iran will reach the obvious conclusion--that nobody will stop them."
"If Iran goes nuclear militarily," says an Egyptian official, "others will not sit idly by." The official says Turkey would think seriously about going nuclear, and if "Iran, Israel and Turkey are all nuclear, the Arab states would feel they have no choice but to follow. Forget about eradicating poverty, all efforts will go into acquiring nuclear technology." In a private memo he wrote on May 1, which was reported in a Bob Woodward article in the Washington Post on Oct. 8, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that at least two Middle Eastern states--which he did not name--have been thinking about developing nuclear weapons. In all likelihood, he was referring to Egypt--which has a civilian nuclear program for its energy needs--and Saudi Arabia. The leaders in the Arab world have made due note of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's success in using the pursuit of nuclear power as a way to rally popular support.