While the world’s attention has been focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling over Ukraine, two other long-standing threats to US national security have not so quietly augmented its ability to wreak international havoc.
In recent months, North Korea has tested an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles, and the US understands the country has immediate plans to resume nuclear testing after a five-year hiatus.
The UN’s nuclear watchdog announced this week that Iran is just weeks away from enriching enough uranium to potentially make a nuclear explosive device and is openly blocking its surveillance efforts.
The threats posed by Tehran or Pyongyang with weapons of mass destruction are formidable, and US diplomacy towards either country is nuanced.
But the key question facing the Biden administration is simple: what, if anything, can it do to prevent Iran and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers?
A cold shoulder from North Korea
The State Department has publicly told Pyongyang that the door to diplomacy is open, but the US special envoy to North Korea says the sentiment was also communicated through “high-level personal messages from senior US officials” through “private channels.”
Sung Kim revealed on Tuesday that officials have even tabled concrete proposals for humanitarian aid in response to the coronavirus outbreak in the Hermit Kingdom in recent weeks.
But those offers went unanswered, Kim said, as the country continues to “show no sign of being interested in getting involved.”
Pyongyang’s leadership’s silence stands in direct contrast to the explosive rocket launches that regularly light up the skies over the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
“North Korea has now launched 31 ballistic missiles in 2022. Most ballistic missiles it has ever launched in a single year, beating its previous record of 25 set in 2019. And it’s only June,” Kim said, adding that the country has “obviously done the preparations” to resume nuclear testing as well.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said earlier this week North Korea’s response to such a test would be “swift and forceful,” but so far no official has publicly stated what exactly the response would be.
State Department spokesman Ned Price downplayed Monday’s extraordinary violent demonstrations, calling them “cyclical.”
“We have seen periods of provocation; we have seen periods of engagement. It’s very clear right now that we’re in the former,” Price said.
But Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at RAND Corporation who has previously worked with the Department of Defense, says it may be time for the US to take a bolder approach.
Bennett argues that giving North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un the ability to decline an invitation from the US plays into his hands.
“He can just say no, makes him look superior, like he’s in control. So that doesn’t help us on the deterrence issue,” he said.
Similarly, Bennett argues that following up Kim Jong Un’s test launches by firing short-range missiles with South Korea, as the US did on Sunday, is unlikely to yield results. A better way, he says, would be to punish the dictator directly.
Some options? Bennett suggests threatening to fly recon planes along the country’s coast to play on Kim’s distaste for espionage. Or maybe he vows to drop hard drives laden with what he calls a “malignant cancer”: K-pop.
“This is where we need to get creative — with what Kim herself hates,” Bennett said.
While these strategies may seem light-hearted, Bennett says the threat North Korea poses is anything but.
“The last North Korean nuclear test involved a 230-kiloton nuclear weapon. The detonation of a weapon of this size aimed at the Empire State Building will kill or seriously injure nearly three million people,” he said. “We are talking about massive damage this North Korean threat can do if it is ever truly completed and made operational. And so the US should be very careful to stop and contain them. But we don’t seem to have figured out what to do about it.”
Iran on the edge
When the top of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned this week about Iran’s stockpiling of enriched uranium and non-compliance with UN inspectors, the US and its allies successfully pushed for censorship.
The rebuke is mostly symbolic, but it could be revealing when it comes to the administration’s dwindling hopes of returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Trump withdrew from in 2018.
As President Joe Biden entered the White House, top officials promised a “longer and stronger” deal. The government eased enforcement of some sanctions and held back in forums such as IAEA meetings to allow room for negotiations. But after more than a year of indirect, stop-and-go talks, the chances of a revival of the original JCPOA seem slim to non-existent.
The Biden administration said in February it would soon be “impossible” to return to the deal given the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances. But Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at The International Crisis Group and a former senior political affairs officer at the UN, says there is still time – but not by much.
“Iran has never been closer to the brink of nuclear weapons,” Vaez said. “And restoring the JCPOA is getting harder and harder over time.”
While Vaez notes that the material used to make an explosive is not the same as the ability to make a nuclear weapon, he says the US and other agencies have little control over those next steps.
“The reality is we don’t have insight into the armament part,” he said.
Despite the diminishing sunset clauses — expiration dates of provisions in the nuclear deal — Vaez argues that the JCPOA still has value and is the most direct way to contain Iran.
“The breakout time – if the original deal is restored with all its thresholds – will be around six months. But six months is better than six days,” he said, adding that many important restrictions would remain in place until 2031. “It basically puts this issue on the back burner for a long time.”
But given the time it will take to reach an agreement, the upcoming midterm elections and the possibility that Democrats could lose control of one or both houses of Congress, Vaez says if an agreement is to be reached it probably has to happen month or next.
Vaez also warns that failure for the president could spell political disaster if he is accused of allowing Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction under his oversight.
“In six months, that breakout time will be really close to zero. And so the President will face the impossible choice of either agreeing to a virtual nuclear weapons state in Iran or taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “So in six months it will be Biden’s war or Biden’s bomb.”
A more dangerous world
While the dangers posed by Iran and North Korea are separate from the Kremlin’s nuclear threats, Putin’s shadow stretches well beyond Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“There is a nuclear dimension to the entire conflict that will affect how we deal with Iran and North Korea and other proliferators,” said John Erath, senior policy director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a 30-year veteran of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We must stick to this idea that Russia must not benefit from the use of nuclear blackmail,” he added. “Because what happens if North Korea then says I’m going to atomize the South?”
Bennett adds that other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, are following suit in allowing adversaries to acquire operational nuclear weapons. Although these countries are US allies, more nuclear powers mean more opportunities for catastrophic wars and destruction such as the world has never seen.
“You have this dynamic in the region that’s really not what the US wants,” he said. “It’s a world we’re reluctant to let happen, but we kind of let it happen.”