North Korea’s Nuclear Parable

NEW DELHI – One of the great ironies of the twentieth century is that so significant a scientific advance as the ability to split the atom did not bring greater security. While North Korea has grabbed world headlines again with its failed launch of a long-range missile, and its threats to stage an underground nuclear test, Indians are protesting against the construction of nuclear power plants, owing to growing concerns about safety.

The nuclear bomb was the first technological advance to follow from splitting the atom, and countries that could adopt it quickly did so, without fully understanding its destructive power. Today, the complex engineering capacity needed to produce nuclear weapons – skills restricted to a few countries through the 1970’s – is rather commonplace. The number of countries that can build such devices has multiplied, as has the destructive power of these weapons.

This democratization of nuclear capacity has fueled anxiety about weapons proliferation among states – even a basket-case economy like North Korea has joined the club – and of “privatization” of weapons by terrorist groups. As a result, in October 2010, the United States and Russia – the world’s two largest nuclear powers – joined 80 other countries in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

In turn, retired US and Russian military and intelligence established the Elbe Group, named for the river where the two countries’ forces met in the closing days of World War II. By May 2011, the group produced a “Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism,” which outlines the threat in graphic detail.