This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
WASHINGTON -- The international community is faced with the threat of "dangerous" instability in North Korea and the potential for the unpredictable regime to carry out new provocations, according to a former U.N. panel chief (see GSN, April 8).
Masahiko Asada of Japan is the former chairman of the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea. The legal expert, who headed the panel from 2009 to 2010, said he is concerned by the "many rumors" that North Korea might conduct its third nuclear test at some point. However, he added it would be difficult to predict when any such event could occur (see GSN, Feb. 22).
Asada also said he is also concerned about a potential non-nuclear "dramatic incident" as North Korea transitions to a new young leader. Kim Jong Un is believed to be being groomed to take over for his father, dictator Kim Jong Il (see GSN, April 8).
In an interview with Global Security Newswire, Asada also explored issues that include North Korea's potential nuclear weapons capability, the possibility of new U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and the regime's efforts to evade sanctions. Asada also explained in edited excerpts below why countries might turn a blind eye to enforcing U.N. sanctions, North Korean arms smuggling techniques and future threats from the insular state.
Q: The experts panel that you used to chair recently said that North Korea might be conducting undeclared or secret uranium enrichment activities. What does that mean for their potential nuclear weapons arsenal?
Asada: When we count the number of nuclear bombs that North Korea has, plutonium is what we have to focus on. They have the potential, but I don't believe they have already produced one bomb based on highly enriched uranium. My concern is that [North Korea] will have another nuclear test. I don't believe that they have already made the bomb small [enough] so that a nuclear-tipped missile is possible for them to launch. So, I think another nuclear test is needed. There are many rumors they are thinking about having another test, but I really think it is difficult to say when or what occasion.
If you have only a nuclear bomb, the threat is relatively small compared to if you have a nuclear-headed missile.
Q: How do you view the ability to introduce new U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Will China block them?
Asada: There is a perceived reluctance that some [Security Council] members are not really interested in sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions committee operates on a consensus rule. If anyone casts a negative vote, there is no decision. So it is really difficult to [introduce] new sanctions.
Q: What did you learn about North Korea during your time on the experts panel?
Asada: I was surprised to know how sophisticated they are in evading sanctions. They use front companies and a very complicated process was followed in hiding the original exporters. They sell conventional arms to other countries. They get money and they use that money to continue development of WMD [programs] including nuclear. The arms embargo is one very important element for nations to ensure that North Korea will not [continue] their nuclear development.
Q: Where are these North Korean arms going? Can they end up in the hands of terrorists?
Asada: They have a route to sell arms to some of the Middle Eastern countries and they can resell some of these arms to dissidents. Africa is also another region.
Q: Are U.N. sanctions against these arms sales being enforced?
Asada: It depends on whether and how member states will cooperate with these activities. ... Member states are not really obligated to conduct inspections. So if they are not interested in getting involved in the rather difficult issue of seizure or disposal, they may not conduct the inspection, even if they receive information regarding potential noncompliance.
If you seize arms, then you have to store them somewhere and you have to pay for the guards and their disposal may cost you. And the inspection is not obligatory, so if you are clever enough, you may just close your eyes.
Q: What does the transition from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un mean?
Asada: In November, the North shelled [South Korea's] Yeonpyeong Island. This shows the transitional period is very dangerous.
Kim Jong Un is very young. We should think about the possibility that some dramatic incident will occur anytime in the near future. I don't think a nuclear-related incident, but conventional arms or terrorism activities will be used to show how strong the new young leader is.
I don't think North Korea is [going] to use a nuclear missile very easily. But by having such weapons, North Korea will be more aggressive in saying and doing anything.