In the aftermath of this week’s apparent nuclear weapons test by North Korea, President Barack Obama faces a daunting challenge to ensure rogue states don’t transfer a weapon or nuclear materials to a terrorist group.
That was one of the observations Tuesday night by a pair of experts on nuclear weapons issues who spoke at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas while Obama delivered a fundraising speech a few miles away for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“A major problem is we don’t know their bottom line. Both North Korean and (Iranian) diplomats are very successful in maintaining to be obscure on what their bottom line is,” said Robert Litwak, who was director for nonproliferation on the National Security Council staff during the first Clinton administration.
“So to test their intentions, North Korea and Iran should be presented with a structured choice between the tangible benefits of behavior change and the penalties for noncompliance with international nonproliferation norm,” he said.
“North Koreans don’t respond to pressure but without pressure they don’t respond, and the same holds for Iran,” Litwak said, paraphrasing one of his former colleagues on the National Security Council staff.
Litwak shared the stage at the UNLV Student Union Theatre with Stephen M. Younger, president of National Security Technologies, the company that manages and operates the Nevada Test Site.
Younger, a technical expert on nuclear weapons and author of “The Bomb: A New History,” said it probably will take up to a month for U.S. scientists to analyze seismic data and air samples from Monday’s reported nuclear detonation in North Korea to confirm whether a nuclear test occurred and, if so, how powerful the blast was compared to North Korea’s first attempt in 2006 that essentially fizzled.
Younger presented several scenarios the United States could pursue as its nuclear weapons stockpile continues to age with warheads that were designed to last roughly three decades.
He advocates keeping a moderate number of nuclear weapons with smaller yields as opposed to keeping an arsenal that’s too small or too large and, as such, have inherent dangers.
In addition, he said, “I think we should take a serious look at the abolition of nuclear weapons.”
As someone who has been associated with nuclear weapons for more than 25 years this might sound strange, he said.
“But I agree with the president in that the United States has conventional military superiority. The only weapons that can threaten us, let’s take a look at eliminating this only weapon that can threaten us,” he said.
He noted that an argument can be made “that you can’t uninvent the bomb,” and that much of the challenge in a worldwide effort to eliminate nuclear bombs through a treaty lies in verifying that a country doesn’t have nuclear weapons.
A second objection is that a country that keeps a few bombs can blackmail the world. “Well, with a few bombs, actually probably not. But they could inflict serious destruction. … But they could not destroy the United States as an entity.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.