The Wall Street Journal reports: The twin nuclear crises the Obama administration faces in Asia and the Middle East underline a harsh reality for U.S. strategists: North Korea’s weapons capabilities are far more advanced than Iran’s.
Pyongyang, as a result of decades of covert atomic work, is close to mastering the technology to mount one of its estimated dozen nuclear warheads atop medium-range missiles that are capable of striking U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, American officials and international nuclear experts believe.
Iran, by comparison, has no atomic bombs in its military arsenal, nor the ability to deliver them, say U.S. and United Nations experts. Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes, although the Obama administration has charged Tehran with trying to develop nuclear weapons.
“By many estimates, North Korea will have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons using long-range ballistic missiles to distant targets within four to five years,” said Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official who follows Korean affairs at the Brookings Institution. “This will drastically change the security environment in Asia.”
North Korea also is able to produce dozens more nuclear bombs by employing two separate programs to create weapons-grade fuel—plutonium and highly enriched uranium, said U.S. and U.N. officials.
Iran has so far only developed uranium-enrichment technology. The U.N. is concerned, though, that Tehran could begin separating plutonium from spent fuel produced by a nuclear reactor Iran is building in Arak.
This gap between North Korea and Iran, which is widely recognized in Washington, is exposing what many Western diplomats and security analysts believe has been the U.S.’s muted response to Pyongyang’s nuclear advances in recent years, as compared with Iran’s.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to engage diplomatically with North Korea because Pyongyang has backed out of previous disarmament deals and because it wants to avoid a direct confrontation with North Korean ally China, officials say. Congress has also been more aggressive against Iran, partly in response to Israel’s concerns.
But these officials said the U.S. position risked signaling to Tehran that Washington will take a tougher line on countries that are developing nuclear weapons capabilities, rather than those that have actually acquired them. [Continue reading…]