provenance: unknown

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Something's rotten

Yesterday, while the world giddily anticipated Colin Powell's address to the U.N. Security Council, North Korea announced its Yongbyon nuclear facility had resumed normal operations. Today's newspapers remarked this more or less casually, not allowing it to distract from the building momentum toward Iraq— instead of deeming it front-page news, they "stuffed" it, in newspaper speak, inside their paper editions.

Normal operations for the Yongbyon plant essentially means producing a negligible amount of electricity and a lot of spent nuclear fuel. This spent fuel is more valuable than the electricity itself, however: It can readily be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. And the difficulty acquiring or producing weapons-grade fissile material is one of the most significant obstacles between wanting a nuclear weapon and having one — it's significantly scarcer than electricity.

If you've been following the news, of course, you know that this is simply the most recent step North Korea has taken in pushing its nuclear weapons program. Experts believe it may have already produced one or two nuclear weapons through an illicit uranium enrichment program. It has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And satellite data just last week revealed what appeared to be trucks moving some 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods from the Yongbyon complex — rods that had happily sat in a storage pool for years, peacefully decaying under the eye of the U.N. nuclear agency, but that experts say could be used to make enough material for four to six nuclear bombs in a matter of months.

In other words, North Korea has an active, functioning nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein, to take a not-so-arbitrary counter point, most likely has an active but non-functional nuclear weapons program. No doubt he'd love to have such devices, but there's little evidence that he does, or is very close to making them. The so-called "WMDs" he probably does have are chemical and biological weapons. These are horrific and deadly, but — thankfully — they do not quite compare.

The weapons North Korea is so aggressively pursuing are the ones that, you will recall, can vaporize entire cities (and the people in them), permanently contaminate entire regions, and in darker times evoked such terms as "nuclear winter" and "nuclear holocaust." And no one knows what North Korea intends to do with them. It may want to sell them (or the material to make them), to raise funds to support its badly failing economy. It may want them just as a defense against attack (dictatorships are admittedly sometimes worried about that sort of thing). And it may want them as the ultimate high-stakes bargaining chips in future negotiations for support from the United States and the international community.

Whichever the case may be, one would think some sort of response would be appropriate. If North Korea sells this material, it could easily be to a terrorist organization or belligerent nation — and the world cannot afford either possibility. Nor can North Korea be trusted to want such weapons, and in such quantity, merely for defensive purposes. And there is nothing — nothing — we should be prepared to give North Korea to keep nuclear weapons safely locked up that we should not also be willing to give them to keep those fuel rods in their little storage pool. If anything, there is greater value to the rest of the world in keeping them as rods, and not letting a volatile, belligerent nation turn them into bombs.

The Bush administration, of course, is busy lining up its ducks in Iraq. Bush doesn't want to be distracted from his chosen aim. And the rest of the world is, inevitably, following the United States' lead. We are all doing nothing.

What's worse, however, is it's not just the international community that's blindly following Bush's outstretched finger as he points the way into another Gulf War: The entire wretched media establishment is plunging along right with it. All the rhetoric points at Iraq, but all the evidence, when it comes to actual, horrific threats to the world, points to the Korean peninsula — but the news industry takes one look and says, Stuff it.

This is unbelievable. This is ridiculous. This is scandalous.

North Korea is almost certainly building nuclear weapons — nuclear fucking weapons — as we speak. We have no way of knowing where they are doing it or where the weapons will be or how many or into whose hands they might fall. And we are watching dumbly. We are moving airplanes around. We are doing nothing. And this isn't bigger news than the latest episode of "As the U.N. Turns," or whatever you want to call that unspeakably idiotic soap opera that is the U.N. Security Council?

What the hell is going on here?

February 6, 2003 3:24 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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