Nuclear weapons scholars closely watching North Korea, Iran

Nuclear weapons scholars closely watching North Korea, Iran

North Korea and Iran, two of the nations that former President George W. Bush once characterized as the “axis of evil,” recently have taken their own menacing actions involving nuclear and conventional ballistic missile tests.

North Korea’s state media reported March 24 the successful test of a solid-fuel rocket engine that would boost its ability to attack South Korea and the United States. Since a nuclear test Jan. 6, the nation has launched a total of 15 short-range projectiles and tested a long-range ballistic missile.

Meanwhile, Iran tested ballistic missiles with enough range to target Israel on March 8 and 9. Some in the international community called for sanctions on grounds that Iran had violated United Nations resolutions and the international agreement signed last July to restrict Iran’s nuclear activity. Most authorities agree, however, that Iran did not violate the nuclear agreement because the missiles were not designed for carrying nuclear weapons.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientists Tyler White and Rupal Mehta study nuclear proliferation as part of their work with the National Strategic Research Institute.

The two nations have little in common, White and Mehta said.

Kim Jong Un may be trying to control the North Korean military and enhance his domestic support with his bellicose actions against South Korea and its allies, White said.

In Iran, however, hardliners and the Islamic Republican Guard Corps may have fired the missiles to undermine the nuclear agreement and thwart moderates who have been gaining power in the Iranian regime, White said.

Another key difference between the two regimes, Mehta and White agree, is that North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons while Iran has agreed not to seek them.

“Iran’s actions all have been on the conventional front – there’s no indication they’re pursuing a nuclear program,” Mehta said. “While it’s alarming and concerning to Israel and other actors in the region, it doesn’t violate the nuclear agreement.”

It is not clear whether North Korea poses a growing threat to international security.

“We’ve studied North Korea pretty extensively,” White said. “The ground that we thought was pretty solid is changing. We’re watching Korea more closely now.”

Although North Korea has short range missiles and weapons with nuclear warheads, international experts doubt Kim Jong Un’s claim that North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb in January.

“What they say they’re doing is not what our intelligence tells us,” Mehta said. “This has to do with satisfying domestic political constituents and the military. What we’re seeing are efforts to insure the survivability of the Kim Jong Un regime. What is concerning is that a lot of this is directed toward South Korea.”

Based upon purges and executions that have taken place since Kim Jong Un took power, some observers believe he is struggling to consolidate his hold on the nation. North Korea’s military chief, Ri Yong-gil was executed in February, the latest of about 70 executions of top government officials, according to South Korean reports.

Some of North Korea’s recent actions respond to ongoing mass joint military exercises in South Korea.

The exercises involve almost 290,000 South Korean soldiers and 15,000 U.S. Marines, who are drilling under a scenario of Kim Jong Un declaring war on South Korea and the collapse of the North Korean regime.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has taken a hard-line stance against North Korea, calling for an end to the “tyranny that has deprived North Koreans of their freedom and human rights.”

South Korea recently suspended its operations at the Kaesong industrial complex, run in cooperation with North Korea just inside the North Korean border. Opened in 2004 as a reconciliation effort, the complex featured more than 120 South Korean companies, employed tens of thousands of North Koreans and generated an estimated $515 million in revenue for North Korea.

South Korean officials said they acted to prevent funds being used by North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.

More allies are needed to manage tensions in the Korean peninsula, Mehta said.

China agreed to tough new sanctions against its long-time ally but has said more diplomacy is needed to curb North Korea’s weapons program. White, who noted that much of North Korea’s economy depends on the black market and drug trade, said sanctions have not stopped North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“Under some of the most crippling sanctions in world history, they continue to prioritize this nuclear program – and it appears they’re making some progress,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating, to say the least.”

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” Mehta said. “I don’t see normalization of relations between South Korea and North Korea in the near future. It’s always one step forward, two steps back.”