North Korea's recent missile tests (NYT) elicited harsh words from diplomats and alarmist headlines in newspapers. Japan introduced a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions, and attention focused on whether China could use its influence to bring Pyongyang to curb its arms program (Reuters). The real concern over North Korea is not its missile stockpile, but its nuclear program. In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, CFR Fellow Michael Levi explains North Korea's nuclear capability is the "number one danger."
North Korea is not the only state with nuclear ambitions to test its ballistic missile prowess recently. India test-fired a long-range nuclear-capable missile on Sunday, but the launch failed (Stratfor). The test is not expected to upset U.S. support for a deal to share civilian nuclear technology with India. Meanwhile, Iran, whose nuclear program has been the source of much diplomatic chest-beating, is deliberating whether to accept a Western package of incentives and begin direct negotiations. The effectiveness of direct talks is discussed in this Online Debate.
Aside from the India deal, the Bush administration has been pursuing a range of measures to try to keep nuclear materials under tighter wraps. Chief among these is the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), described in this new Backgrounder, which was launched by the Bush administration three years ago. As a Washington Qarterly article explains, the PSI was designed to function in a new era (PDF) in which smugglers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are aided by improved technologies and expanding global trade.
Among the PSI's most notable successes was the 2003 interception of a shipment of nuclear centrifuge parts from the A.Q. Khan network to Libya. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, headed one of the world's most notorious proliferation operations (The Atlantic), selling nuclear technology to any nation that would buy it, including North Korea and Iran. Though Pakistani officials have declared the Khan case closed, nuclear proliferation expert Leonard Weiss told the House International Relations Committee in May that "at least some parts of the network are definitely still functioning." (PDF)
When confronting regimes with nuclear ambitions, it is comforting to have at least one success story. Shortly following the centrifuge seizure, Libya agreed to abandon all of its WMD programs. On May 15, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the United States would resume normal diplomatic relations with the longtime state sponsor of terrorism. The slow process of welcoming Libya "in from the cold" is described in this Backgrounder.