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Analyst on N. Korea: Arms race greater danger than terrorism

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(CNN) -- North Korea's purported test of a nuclear device has set off alarms around the world, sparking intense diplomatic efforts and concerns of a regional arms race and terrorism repercussions.

CNN.com's Steve Almasy recently conducted a phone interview with Hans M. Kristensen, project director for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, about the impact of the North Korean crisis.

CNN.com: Why does this [purported test] raise fears of a regional arms race?

KRISTENSEN: The most immediate one beyond what North Korea's own intentions are is that other countries in the region will react the way that countries sometimes react when they feel threatened. South Korea and Japan are the countries mostly of interest here. [The concern is] they would react by reconsidering their own pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.

South Korea had a nuclear weapons research program back in the 1970s. And so there is a history there.

The United States has throughout the years always tried to [assure] the South Koreans that if something happened, not only do we have forces in the country ourselves, but we would also apply our nuclear deterrent against North Korea. That nuclear umbrella has been in place over the Korean Peninsula essentially since the 1950s.

The same goes for Japan. Japan has a huge nuclear power industry and large quantities of plutonium that could readily be turned into nuclear weapons. There is a very serious interest on the part of many different countries to try to persuade those two countries not to take the next step, so to speak.

If you look at the statement that President Bush gave [after North Korea's purported test], one of the interesting things that he does in there is that he reaffirms the U.S. will meet "the full range of our deterrent and security commitments," and that means to them our nuclear umbrella is in place.

CNN.com: How likely is it that South Korea would develop its own nuclear weapon? And then, how dangerous would that be?

KRISTENSEN: If they did, it would obviously be a next step in this escalating arms race that could happen between the North and the South. That's always the concern, just like it is between India and Pakistan and it was between the United States and the Soviet Union. So that would be a potentially very dangerous situation.

Whether it is likely? That's the hard one. It's probably not as likely that they do it because the considerable international pressure that's on against countries that take those kind of steps.

In terms of Japan, the main thing there is that Japan has this strong nuclear taboo because it was the country that was nuked twice during World War II. And in Japan there has always been the assumption that there is a large position in the population against it.

But over the last 10 or 15 years, you've seen more cases where politicians come out in some shape or form, specifically referring to North Korea but also to the Chinese long-term situation, saying Japan needs to do something else. But it's not at the level where you'd say, "Golly, the Japanese are about to do it."

CNN.com: How likely is it that North Korea would share its nuclear technology with Iran?

KRISTENSEN: One of the ironic things that tend to happen when countries begin to develop icon weapons like nuclear weapons is that they become very protective about them. It's the sort of the ultimate thing you can develop, and North Korea is a [proliferating] nation when it comes to missile technology. But everybody sells missiles in some shape or form to other countries.

That's not necessarily the big item there. Whether North Korea would hand over nuclear weapons technology -- it's a big if. But you can't rule it out, given the fact that they have handed over ballistic missiles and ballistic missile technology.

There's a lot of automatic assumptions where people say that because North Korea has done A, that B, C and D will happen. It's probably a good idea to take a step back and try to read what's going on here because one thing that's been completely missed is that when North Korea announced plans to do this test it also announced a whole list of what you could call confidence-building measures -- one of them being that they pledged not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

That's a policy just like India and China have. The other issue is whether you believe them or not. The fact of the matter that they took that step and announced they have a no first-use policy. That's an important new development.

They also said we would only do this in a peaceful or defensive manner -- whatever their words were. They took steps in several cases there to try to signal that they were a responsible nuclear power.

CNN.com: You said you don't think the threat of nuclear terrorism is necessarily higher because of this. Why?

KRISTENSEN: North Korea at this stage is more interested in building and showing what it has and what it can than to try to hand this stuff out left and right. The other thing is, if you hand it over to someone else you lose control of what happens with it. You never know how this comes back to haunt you.

It's a concern, yes. But I haven't seen anything out there in the unclassified world that says North Korea is feeding nuclear weapons or nuclear warhead technology into terrorist networks. Just because they have been doing bad things in the past doesn't mean that the worst thing we can imagine will also happen.

CNN.com: How does this change North Korea's relationship with China?

KRISTENSEN: The Chinese have been very somewhat grumpy over this latest development and for good reasons since they have been somewhat [an ally] of North Korea. In the six-party talks, they were the ones that would go to talk to North Korea. When they would talk to them, they would try to get concessions out of them the other parties [Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States] couldn't get.

It feels like something of a slap in their face, that the North Koreans just go right ahead and do it. China, its interest is principally to try to see that the region not escalate somewhere where that becomes not in its security interests. And if North Korea triggers a development in Japan, for example, China would be hugely concerned about that.

CNN.com: What kind of technology is required to confirm a nuclear test? How does this long-range assessment work?

KRISTENSEN: There are several things [you take into consideration]. Obviously the most immediate is the seismic analysis. Nuclear test explosions look very different from earthquakes, for example. On an earthquake you have the majority of things happening over a period of time; in a nuclear explosion, you have a big bang upfront.

There are a number of ways that you can see quite clearly that it's not a natural phenomenon.

The other thing is, obviously I assume there is an attempt to send sniffers -- aircraft or other [devices] that will try to pick up anything they can in terms of vents and radioactive trace material from the event itself.

Or wait for it to come across the border if the wind blows in a certain direction. These things always tend to come from nuclear tests in one way or the other, sooner or later. So that's probably what they are waiting for now, and why the U.S. is holding back on its official confirmation on what it was.

And there's always the good ol' put some spies on the ground but who knows about that. The more different sources you can get together, the more of a picture you can construct. I think that's what they're very busy doing now.

CNN.com: Is it possible that the veracity of North Korea's claim may never be confirmed?

KRISTENSEN: It's possible that it will always remain murky in the sense that you can't quite conclude one way or the other. If you look, for example, at the Indian and the Pakistani nuclear tests back in 1998, there are several of those tests or those events that are still not confirmed as positively nuclear tests.

Some of them were happening at the same time as other events, and some of them were not clear enough.

For example, in the Pakistani case, they announced five tests, but I think the data was only solid on two of them. And so what happened to the others was a little bit iffy.


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Hans M. Kristensen of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists

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