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Going nuclear? Iran and North Korea are the two most visible--but not the only--threats in an age when it has become easier to build and hide nuclear weapons. How will President Bush respond?

During the Cold War, teachers used to drill their classes on how to survive a nuclear attack, getting them to "duck and cover" under their desks. It was a ridiculous exercise: A school desk does not provide much protection against the fearsome power of a nuclear bomb, much less against the radiation it leaves in its wake. But at least then the teachers knew who the enemy was: the Soviet Union.

Now, it's a more complicated world. The United States is the sole superpower, and Russia's nuclear arsenal seems more a quaint artifact than a direct threat. But some of Russia's nuclear materials are so poorly guarded that there is fear they could fall into the hands of America's current enemies, including Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The scientist who made Pakistan a nuclear power in the 1980s and '90s, Abdul Qadeer Khan, went into business for himself and started selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and perhaps to other countries that have not yet been found out. Khan even sold Libya the blueprints for an old but reliable bomb design.

It's not yet time to get back under the desk, but the problem is growing more and more pressing. "People understood the old Cold War threat," says Robert Einhorn, a nuclear-proliferation specialist who spent years working on the issue at the State Department. "They don't yet understand the new threat because it comes from a lot of different places."


The most immediate threats are two of the countries that President Bush once called part of an "Axis of Evil": North Korea and Iran. Both countries have seen America's troubles in Iraq (the third "Axis" country) as an opportunity to push ahead with their nuclear programs, figuring that once they have nuclear arms, the U.S. would never risk attacking them the way it invaded Iraq. That poses a challenge to America and the rest of the world: What is the President going to do about it in his second term? What can he do about it?

Bush has said that he will rely on diplomacy, not military force, to disarm both countries. The reality is that he doesn't have a choice: Iran and North Korea are far more powerful than Iraq ever was, and have ways of striking back that Saddam Hussein could only dream about. If the U.S. attempted to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, for instance, the country could shoot missiles at Israel or at U.S. forces in the Middle East, including Iraq. And while no one doubts that the U.S. could swiftly win a war with North Korea, that country could destroy Seoul, South Korea's capital, only 35 miles from the North Korean border, which is heavily fortified with American troops.


If North Korea and Iran are allowed to build and hold nuclear weapons, other countries are likely to follow, making the world much more dangerous. We may, in fact, be on the leading edge of a new era in which more and more countries race to get nuclear weapons which are a lot easier to design, build, and hide than they were years ago.

Right now there are five "declared" nuclear states: the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, and France. The U.S. was the first to develop nuclear weapons and the only one to use them in war--destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, near the end of World War II, and killing an estimated 200,000 people. Between the late 1940s and 1964, the other four got the bomb, but have never used it. And ever since the Cold War ended, the U.S. and Russia have been reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals, which grew so big that each could blow up the other--and the world--many times over.

To keep nuclear weapons from spreading, other nations signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreeing never to build their own weapons--as long as the rest of the world helped them use peaceful nuclear technology to produce electric power. But three of the countries that refused to sign the treaty--Israel, Pakistan, and India--each sped ahead with nuclear programs, and now they have nuclear arsenals, though their governments have not officially acknowledged them under the terms of the nonproliferation treaty. They are the "undeclared" states.

Soon, they may have company. While some countries raced to build nuclear weapons and then gave their projects up--South Africa and Libya, for example--many others are still trying, and no doubt watching closely how the United States handles North Korea and Iran.

North Korea is a strange throwback to the age of Communism--a place cut off from modernity, with no freedom of movement, a dying economy, and a dictatorial leader who throws opponents into prison camps. The Korean War officially ended in an armistice in 1953, but North Korea and South Korea are still not at peace and thousands of U.S. troops remain in South Korea as a protective force.

The CIA thinks North Korea secretly built one or two nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, before signing a deal with President Clinton to "freeze" activity at the country's main nuclear site. In 2002, the U.S. caught North Korea cheating on the agreement, though the North claims the U.S. didn't fulfill its promise to provide oil and nuclear power plants to help its impoverished economy.

American and South Korean intelligence services believe the North bought equipment from Pakistan to develop weapons from enriched uranium. Confronted with the evidence by the U.S., the North Koreans dropped out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and threw international inspectors out of the country. More than two years later, it seems likely--but is still unproven--that the North has built up to six more weapons.


Iran is an Islamic state, run by mullahs (Muslim clerics) who have for years called America "the Great Satan." Unlike in North Korea, there is a reform movement in Iran, fueled by young people who aspire to far more freedom. But Iran's leaders, like North Korea's, think nuclear weapons will keep America from invading.

Iran also bought equipment from Pakistan, and it, too, got caught--by American intelligence services and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations organization that monitors whether countries abide by their promise not to make nuclear weapons. The Iranians are still a few years away from producing a weapon--they are still making the ingredients, most experts believe.

What can be done about these threats?

In the case of North Korea, the Bush administration is privately considering seeking a "grand bargain," whereby North Korea would drop its nuclear arms program in return for security guarantees, energy, and investments.

On Iran, President Bush's team has been divided. Some in the administration want to negotiate with Iran's leaders, while others put their hopes on forcing out the mullahs, along with the hardliners in the Iranian military, who believe Iran needs nuclear weapons because Israel has them. (Israel could render any negotiations moot if it decided to attack Iran's nuclear sites, just as it destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.)

In November, pressed by European nations, the Iranians offered to halt production of nuclear material for a while, but said they won't stop for good. "This right is enshrined in the nonproliferation treaty and we will not give it up," said Iran's President, Mohammad Khatami.

So the test for the next term is what President Bush meant when he said last year he would not "tolerate" a nuclear North Korea or a nuclear Iran. But he has never said what he means by "tolerate." Does that mean he is willing to do whatever it takes to disarm North Korea, as he did in Iraq? That he will use his second term to tighten sanctions against the two countries? So far, he won't say, and the problem won't go away.
Nuclear Nations


1 China
2 France
3 Great Britain
4 Russia
5 United States


1 India
2 Israel
3 Pakistan


1 Iran
2 North Korea



To help students understand the nuclear threats from Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, and the hurdles the U.S. faces in trying to deal with them.

BEFORE READING: Explain a key concern about nuclear proliferation: Iran and North Korea are just two of the countries that are seeking nuclear weapons, and the odds of nuclear war--or an accidental firing of nuclear weapons--increase as the number of players increases. During the Cold War, each side came close several times to accidentally firing its nuclear weapons.

ROLE-PLAY/WRITING 1: The article reports that the Bush administration is privately considering a "grand bargain," in which it would guarantee security, energy, and investment to North Korea to persuade its leaders to give up nuclear weapons development.

Ask students to describe two or more promises or guarantees the U.S. might make to help induce change in North Korea. Should these include outright financial payments to North Korea's government? Why or why not?

ROLE-PLAY/WRITING 2: The article reports that members of the Bush administration are deeply divided over whether to negotiate with Iran's religious leaders or to try to force them out of power.

Ask students to write another brief outline in which they list a few of the pros and cons of using force to oust Iran's leaders. (How might ordinary Iranians view such an overt action?)


* Is it fair that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows only a few nations to possess nuclear weapons?

* Why do you think President Bush has not explained exactly what he means when he says he will not tolerate Iran and North Korea developing nuclear weapons?

FAST FACT: At the end of 2002, the latest year for which there is data, there were about 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, nearly 11,000 belonging to the U.S. and 9,000 to Russia.

WEB WATCH: provides background on Iran and North Korea. Click on "World Factbook," then scroll to either country.

(Quiz 1)

Going nuclear?

1. In addition to the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea, the U.S. and its allies fear that

a European countries wet obtain nuclear weapons.

b mid-level powers like Brazil will obtain nuclear weapons.

c Russia will build more nuclear weapons.

d terrorist groups may obtain nuclear weapons.

2. The spread of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and perhaps other countries resulted from

a discoveries of uranium in those countries.

b the work of spies in the U.S. defense industry.

c sales of the technology by a Pakistani scientist.

d studies released by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

3. Under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, countries that did not have nuclear weapons agreed not to build them in exchange for

a grants of other weapons to their militaries.

b Large cash payments.

c aid in developing peaceful nuclear technology.

d favorable trade deals with the U.S.

4. What is the Bush administration privately considering to get North Korea to end nuclear arms research?

a Providing the North Koreans with energy, security guarantees, and investments.

b Threatening a U.S. invasion, similar to the invasion of Iraq.

c Increasing arms aid to South Korea.

d Threatening to have North Korea expelled from the United Nations if it does not comply.

5. The best description of the Bush administration's strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons program is

a providing Iran with economic aid.

b threatening to go to war with that country.

c persuading Israel to threaten Iran.

d deeply divided between those who want to negotiate with Iran's leaders and those who want to force them out of power.

Upfront Quiz 1

1. (d) terrorist groups may obtain nuclear weapons. 2. (c) sales of the technology by a Pakistani scientist. 3. (c) aid in developing peaceful nuclear technology. 4. (a) Providing the North Koreans with energy, security guarantees, and investments. 5. (d) deeply divided between those who want to negotiate with Iran's leaders and those who want to force them out of power.

Going nuclear?

Efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons include the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and current U.S. strategies to prevent nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea.

Offer reasons why (1) some countries might voluntarily agree not to develop nuclear weapons, and (2) efforts to curb the spread of these weapons might prove impossible.

Upfront Essay

Answers will vary, but one reason might be that nuclear weapons are costly to develop and protect. Another possible reason: There are so many weapons. it is inevitable that some be stolen. Also, information about such weapons is now widely available.

David E. Sanger is White House correspondent for The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Author:Sanger, David E.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 24, 2005
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