April 26, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East, National Security and Defense

Weapons Wal-Mart

Intelligence officials yesterday briefed key members of Congress on evidence that North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear reactor like the one that cranks out plutonium for Kim Jong-Il's nuke factory. US and Israeli evidence even includes a damning covert video.

The Israelis took the place out last year - with justification. Any nation with a nuclear weapon can hold its neighbors hostage - and Syria's rulers are about as civilized as your average mafia don.

No one should be particularly surprised that North Korea continues to serve as the world's Wal-Mart for weapon technology. We've been down this road before.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan struggled to keep Pakistan from getting the bomb. But at the same time, he sent the country bucket-loads of cash to finance the muhjahadin's fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistan took the money and built the bomb.

Then Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, started peddling nuclear secrets to North Korea in a cash-and-carry deal that also brought longer-range ballistic missiles to Pakistan. Khan also marketed missile and nuclear technology to Syria and other Mideast countries, notably Iran.

US intelligence eventually figured out what was going on. In 2004, no longer willing to stand by as Khan hawked the world's most dangerous weapons, the United States got Pakistan to shut Khan down.

You'd think we would've learned a lesson. But now the Bush administration seems to be playing a double game - trying to keep North Korea from proliferating weapon and missile technology, while at the same time negotiating in the Six-Party talks (among the US, North Korea and neighboring countries) to get Kim Jong-Il to give up his nuclear-weapons program.

Here's the problem. Desperate for cash, Kim has tried everything from selling nuclear secrets to counterfeiting US money to keep himself in cognac and DVDs. North Korea's ruling elite has only one ideology: Stay in power and keep themselves plush and secure. The one thing we can trust is: Never trust Kim Jung-Il.

Some will argue that, after its intelligence debacle on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the United States has no credibility in producing evidence of nuclear cheating. That's just whistling past the graveyard.

Nuclear smuggling is just too serious a business to ignore - the cost could be a lot higher than getting involved in a ground war. It could be the death of a nation.

Others will declare the Six Party talks officially dead. That's a bad idea, too. The world can't ignore the problem of North Korea.

What we can do is to return to some Reagan-era wisdom: "Trust, but verify." Reagan didn't win every battle in the Cold War, but he did win more than he lost, and we ought to sustain his passion for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the reckless.

What we should do is keep talking to North Korea and carry a big stick. First, insist that any agreement be crystal clear about what Kim is required to do: Shut down any and all nuclear programs (not just the specific sites we know about) and stop sharing or selling the know-how. And the deal must include rigorous verification measures against cheating - because he will try to cheat again.

At the same time, America needs to press ahead with building robust missile defenses and maintaining a strong conventional military capability in Northeast Asia.

Keeping Kim in a small box is the best way to keep mushroom clouds off Manhattan.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. is senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the New  York Post