President Bush has stated that the U.S. would prevent attempted transfers of nuclear weapons from North Korea to Iran or Al-Qaida, warning of "grave consequences" for such an act, although he refused to specify what those consequences might be.
In light of the recent North Korean nuclear test--and Pyongyang's reported plans to test additional devices--the President said that any nuclear transfer would represent "a grave threat" to the security of the United States. Readers of the linked AP article will note that the wire service reporter couldn't resist pointing out that Bush last used the term "grave threat" in describing Saddam Hussein's Iraq, suggesting that the President is either (a) over-hyping the threat, or (b) laying the groundwork for another war. In either case, the folks at the DNC are happy to see their talking points integrated into a supposedly "straight" news story.
While Mr. Bush refused to outline how North Korea might be held accountable for attempting a nuclear transfer, he was very clear on how the shipments would be interdicted:
"If we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer, and we would deal with the ships that were taking the - or the airplane that was dealing with taking the material to somebody," the president said.
Mr. Bush's comments suggest that he is seriously considering an air and naval quarantine of North Korea--perhaps the only feasible option for disrupting potential nuclear shipments to other rogue states or terrorist organizations. We have supported this proposal in the past. Without a quarantine, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify specific ships or flights that are transporting nuclear weapons or materials. Pyongyang has one of the world's most effective denial and deception (D&D) programs, and has a fairly detailed knowledge of our intelligence systems and capabilities. A naval quarantine would allow the U.S. and its allies to board and search more North Korean ships on the high seas; vessels with non-WMD cargoes would be allowed to proceed, while ships with suspicious cargo, personnel or manifests could be diverted to friendly ports and detained.
An aerial quarantine is more difficult to enforce, and (quite frankly) the U.S. needs help to make it work. For starters, Washington should lean on Russia, China and other nations in eastern and southern Asia to deny overflight rights to any non-stop service between North Korea and Iran. Flights making a refueling stop between the two countries will be subjected to rigorous searches, and suspicious cargoes will be immediately impounded. Imposition of those requirements--and stringent enforcement--are really the only hope for an effective air quarantine of the DPRK. Without them, Pyongyang will simply shift most of the shipments to air freight. Both North Korea and Iran operate Russian-built IL-76 Candid transports, similar in size and configuration to the recently retired USAF C-141. Candids are more than capable of hauling nuclear cargo between North Korea and the Middle East.
We should hope that Secretary of State Rice is at least discussing the quarantine option during her current visit to the Far East. If the Bush Administration is serious about stopping potential transfers, the time to implement the necessary steps is now. While Pyongyang's nuclear technology is apparently crude, the threat of a quarantine might prompt the DPRK to attempt a transfer at the earliest opportunity, before naval and air restrictions go into effect. Mr. Bush has the right idea about limiting the potential proliferation of North Korean nukes, but (as always) the devil's in the details, and the window for action is very narrow.
Addendum: In addition to "official" measures, the Bush Administration can take other, less formal steps to block a potential North Korean nuclear transfer. Option one is "buying out" the flight schedule for heavy lift aircraft (IL-76, AN-124) assigned to Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian air cargo firms for, say, the next couple of years. Many of these firms already haul freight for the U.S. government; all would welcome the sudden influx of revenue, and (most importantly) reserving them through 2008 would prevent Pyongyang and Iran from "outsourcing" transfer operations to a third-party air cargo company.