Fears North Korea Will Share Nuclear Technology

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North Korea stirred tensions in the world this week when it conducted a nuclear bomb test. David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, talks with David Greene about how the world is responding to the test. Sanger says there are concerns that North Korea will ship nuclear technology around the world.


When it comes to North Korea, the Obama administration may not be talking specifics, but it has warned North Korea that there are consequences for its actions. And joining us to talk about these developments this week is David Sanger. He's chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and also author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power." And in his book he characterizes North Korea as the nuclear renegade that got away.

David, welcome to the program. Good to see you.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Author, "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power"): Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So what should Americans be afraid of here when they've been hearing all this news about North Korea this week?

Mr. SANGER: You know, I don't think it's the concern that North Korea would lob a nuclear arm missile at Japan or South Korea or American forces in the area, because the North Koreans care most about survival at this point, particularly in a moment of transition for them in their own leadership.

So the biggest concern is just the one that General Jones was talking about last night, which is that they would ship nuclear material or nuclear technology around the world. And remember it was only two years ago that the Israelis bombed a reactor in Syria quite secretly that turned out to have been a reactor of North Korean design, probably with North Koreans working there at the time.

GREENE: So if that's their plan, shipping these materials, tell us these actions this week. We've had some missile tests. We've had a nuclear test. How are they related and how exactly do they fit into that whole plan?

Mr. SANGER: Well, the first nuclear test that they conducted, which was in October of 2006, was a bit of a fizzle. It was something of an embarrassment by the time the world sort of picked apart the details.

So they needed to demonstrate, first of all, that they could actually make a real nuclear weapon detonate. And if you're thinking of this in terms of sales, and the North Koreans have sold just about everything they're ever developed, proving that the product works might be a first step.

The missile tests are more of a case of trying to show that they could actually deliver a weapon, and we don't know that yet. It's one thing to detonate a nuclear device. It's another thing to make it small enough that you could actually put it on a weapon.

GREENE: And did we get a hint of their abilities this week?

Mr. SANGER: Well, we think that this nuclear test from the early signs probably was a lot larger than the test in 2006. But as nuclear weapons go, it was still fairly small. It was less than the yield of the bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. That said, even a small nuclear weapon can ruin your entire day.

GREENE: I mean, it's hard to count the number of times we've seen headlines come up in the papers talking about progress, back-stepping one direction or the other. I mean it seems like we see this all the time. Anything different here? Is this just one more step, one more example of acting out by the North Koreans?

Mr. SANGER: Well, the traditional thinking about this is that every time that the North Koreans feel that they are being ignored by the world, they act out like this. And then…

GREENE: Get attention.

Mr. SANGER: Right, and then go renegotiate the same deal that they just cut with the previous administration and basically try to sell the same horse in a different auction. In this case it might be different, David.

It could well be that because Kim Jong Il, the nation's leader, had this stroke last year and he looks quite ill when you see the photographs of him, it could be that they're trying to get the rest of the world to back off for a while while they sort out what may be a very messy succession, because there's some thinking that the North Korean army isn't really interested in having the Kim family continue to run the family business here.

GREENE: We're speaking to David Sanger from the New York Times. We have about a minute left. Let's talk about President Obama. Anything surprised you so far about the way he's managed these events?

Mr. SANGER: Well, a few things have been interesting in what he hasn't said. When President Bush reacted to the first test in 2006, he stepped out and said right away if we find any nuclear material around the world that's being used for a weapon that appears to come from North Korea, we're going to treat it as an attack from North Korea. He hasn't said that. He's said nothing right now about enforcing a U.N. resolution that would enable the United States and other countries to intercept shipping coming in and out of North Korea.

I think that they are stepping back to wait and see what the allies will go along with. And in this case both Japan and South Korea are both inclined to be significantly more aggressive, it seems, in enforcing these resolutions than they were a year - two years ago.

GREENE: David, thanks so much for being here this morning.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you, David.

GREENE: We've been listening to David Sanger. He's chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and also author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power."


Now, amid their deliberations on North Korea, American diplomats have also been meeting a woman just back from Iran. Roxana Saberi is the journalist for NPR and other news organizations who was imprisoned for months, convicted of espionage, and then released.

She's in Washington and met yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She also sat down to talk with NPR's Melissa Block. It's the first time she is telling her story in detail in public and you will hear their conversation later today on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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