By Eric Margolis, The Toronto Sun
Here comes another huge nuclear embarrassment for Washington. UN nuclear inspectors just caught close U.S. ally South Korea enriching small amounts of plutonium and uranium to weapons grade.
This revelation comes when the Bush administration's neocon hawks are clamouring for war against Iran over its unproven nuclear weapons program. These are the same hawks who raised a hue and cry over Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
South Korea's six-year-old program was far ahead of Iran's; various deceptions were used to conceal it from UN inspectors. North Korea, to no surprise, has been crowing over this embarrassing revelation, claiming its nuclear program has been justified.
This is the second time South Korea has been found secretly working on nuclear weapons. In the early 1970s, under the rule of strongman Park Chung Hee, the CIA discovered a covert South Korean weapons program. Washington forced Gen. Park to shut it down.
This column has reported for a decade that South Korea had continued a covert nuclear program. Japan, according to my Asian intelligence sources, also developed a covert program capable of producing nuclear weapons in under three months. North Korea has 2-9 nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them over all Japan and as far as Hawaii and the U.S. I also believe Taiwan likely has an advanced, secret nuclear weapons program.
Heightening tensions, there was a mammoth explosion in the far north of North Korea that reportedly produced a giant mushroom cloud with a 4-km diameter. The explosion coincided with the 56th anniversary of the founding of Stalinist North Korea and recent reports of heightened activities around that nation's nuclear installations. Could it have been a gigantic "happy birthday" bang for Beloved Leader, Kim Jong-il? North Korea claimed the explosion was part of dam construction. There are persistent rumours North Korea soon plans a nuclear test.
The U.S. and South Korea were quick to deny the explosion was a nuclear test, suggesting an accident in a missile base or munitions depot. But nerves in North Asia were clearly rattled, most of all in Japan, whose long-discussed anti-missile system is still only in the planning stage.
The mysterious mushroom cloud comes soon after worrying intelligence reports North Korea is deploying two new ballistic missiles: A road-mobile missile with a 2,500-4,000-km range, and a ship or submarine-mounted version with a 2,500-km range. Both are based on the Soviet R-27 (SS-N-6) submarine launched missile that carries a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead.
North Korea is reportedly working on ships and a submarine design to bring the nuclear-armed R-27 missile within range of the continental U.S. and all U.S. bases in Asia. North Korea's 1-3 Taepo-dong ICBMs can already reach North America, according to the CIA.
Reports that South Korea enriched uranium four times higher than Iran and violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were dismissed by Washington, which accepted Seoul's response that the extractions were only harmless laboratory tests.
George Bush's born-again cold warriors apparently have two standards for covert nuclear states. If they're U.S. allies, like Israel, India, Japan, Pakistan or South Korea, exposure of nuclear hanky-panky incurs only a few tut-tuts.
If the culprit is in Washington's black book, like Iraq or Iran, any accusations of nuclear delinquency are enough, as we have seen, to bring invasion or threats of war.
This would also apply to North Korea, except the tough northerners already have nuclear weapons that could be fired at South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii, where some 100,000 U.S. military personnel are based.
Exposure of Seoul's nuclear ambitions undermines Washington's efforts to mobilize its Asian allies, China and Russia, to compel North Korea to end its nuclear development -- and reinforces the Beloved Leader's determination to keep making nukes.
This raises a fundamental question. Why shouldn't South Korea have the right to nuclear weapons? Its neighbours -- North Korea, China, and Russia -- are nuclear powers. After all, nuclear weapons, as North Korea has shown, are the best guarantee against attack by superpowers.
If Washington winks at Israel's large nuclear arsenal, what right does it have to deny them to South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan?