Cheap and Dirty Bombs

Could these creepy chest packs be North Korea's way of threatening radiological war?

During North Korea's July 2013 "Victory Day" parade, spectators were treated to a curious sight: a truckload of soldiers, each strapped into a chest pack festooned with the black and yellow radiation symbol. A few months later, the art world preserved the spectacle. British tour operator Simon Cockerell found oil paintings at a Pyongyang tourist shop depicting a North Korean commando team parachuting into enemy territory carrying the enigmatic satchels. 

The parade images and oil paintings suggest commando-delivered nuclear-related devices of some sort -- an understanding consistent with North Korean defectors, who have suggested that the country might possess "backpack" nuclear devices. The United States developed similar munitions, and rumors persist about Russian suitcase nuclear weapons. Few experts, however, believe that North Korea could make a miniature nuclear charge the size of the packs seen in Pyongyang. Given that North Korea appears to be struggling to manufacture the sort of 1,000-kilogram nuclear weapon small enough for delivery by ballistic missile, with only three nuclear tests, backpack nukes seem out of reach.

Another popular explanation for the ominous backpacks is that they are filled with hazmat suits or Geiger counters and belong to a radiological-chemical reconnaissance unit, which wears these defensive suits in contaminated areas. But given the size of the pack compared with the proposed contents, this explanation also seems unlikely. 

The one possibility that has been largely overlooked is that this nuke-themed accessory might have been North Korea's way of conveying the possibility of its use of radiological dispersal devices, better known as "dirty bombs." 

Since the 9/11 attacks, the majority of experts and journalists have analyzed and reported that radiological weapons are mainly a terrorism problem involving the pursuit of nuclear violence on the cheap by groups unlikely to have the means to acquire fissile material or the know-how to fashion it into a usable fission device. Under most circumstances, dirty bombs in the hands of terrorists would not be considered weapons of mass destruction, and far more people likely would be killed by the conventional explosive in the device and the ensuing panic than from the radiation dispersed by the dirty bomb.

But this focus on terrorist interest in dirty bombs obscures a now forgotten history: that states -- including those with demonstrated nuclear weapons capabilities -- were once interested in these very radiological devices as military weapons. 

U.S. interest in radiological weapons can be traced back to the early years of World War II, when scientists explored whether radioactive fission products dispersed over enemy territory could have military applications. The United States researched radiological warfare -- then called "RadWar" -- for both offensive and defensive purposes before abandoning the idea sometime in the 1950s. (The work on offensive uses appears to have ended because nuclear explosives were a far better investment.) British scientists, too, explored the potential for radioactive weapons in the early 1940s. 

Declassified documents outline a number of scenarios in which U.S. military and civilian officials pondered the use of radiological weapons, including a proposal by U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, following China's December 1950 entry into the Korean War, for "sowing a band of radioactive cesium across Manchuria as a kind of 'cordon sanitaire' against the Chinese advance." The technical details of the exotic devices dreamed up by U.S. weaponeers during this time still remain largely classified.

Throughout the 1950s, the Soviet Union developed its own radiological weaponry -- two radiological warheads for the R-2 missile, named Geran (Geranium) and Generator, which contained a radioactive liquid that would be aerosolized by an explosion, drenching enemy units in radioactive fallout. They tested the warheads from 1953 to 1956, until small nuclear weapons for the R-2 became available. It is unclear if the test program ever used actual radiological materials or merely simulants. In an amusing story, one of the warheads sprung a leak, sending the test personnel for cover. The senior scientist responsible for the test climbed to the top of the rocket, ran his finger through the trickle of brown liquid, and then tasted it. "Guys, let's get to work," he said. "It tastes like crap, but it's harmless." The liquid was not radioactive, but intended only to simulate the atomization process. (Nevertheless, the scientist allowed himself an extra shot of vodka at dinner to "neutralize the substance and to allay the terror.") The Soviets lost interest in radiological weapons by the late 1960s. 

Interest in radiological weapons, however, continued in other parts of the world. Following Iran's successful "human wave" attacks in which Iranians accepted massive casualties to overwhelm Iraqi units, Saddam Hussein sought to develop air-delivered radiological dispersal devices that could be used in a fashion similar to that proposed by MacArthur in North Korea. Iraq conducted a number of tests on modified Nasser 28 aircraft-delivered bombs -- which contained zirconium that had been irradiated in the Tuwaitha nuclear research reactor outside Baghdad -- before eventually abandoning the idea. Ultimately, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Iraq's radiological device would not have been a significant military weapon; it was a relatively crude device. 

It is not known if Iran has seriously entertained the idea of a radiological weapon. Israel, however, has worried about that possibility, and in January 2012 its civil defense force conducted an exercise code-named "Dark Cloud" that was designed to simulate how to deal with the fallout from a radiological attack. According to press reports, authorities tried to downplay the significance of the exercise, but some senior Israeli defense officials have asserted that the gravest threat from Iran could come in the form of a dirty bomb delivered by a cargo ship.

North Korea might consider radiological devices as part of a national nuclear weapons capability, given its historical focus on commando operations. Joseph Bermudez, in his book North Korean Special Forces, noted that Pyongyang fields "one of the world's largest bodies of elite, specially trained soldiers." North Korea's special forces account for approximately 10 percent of the soldiers in the Korean People's Army.

Given the significant interest that North Korea places on commando operations, arming one unit with dirty bombs would not be any stranger than the Soviet Geran warhead or the Iraqi effort to modify the Nasser 28 bomb. Indeed, North Korea might view radiation contamination of critical infrastructure or deployed military forces as a means to impede U.S. and South Korean military operations. Even attacks against civilians that produced mainly panic would likely wreak havoc behind U.S. and South Korean lines, fouling up logistics and troop movement, not to mention their longer-term social and economic costs. During the Korean War -- sometimes called the "Forgotten War" -- North Korea made heavy use of special operations forces, including division-level guerrilla units. If the past is any guide, any conflict on the Korean Peninsula will involve the extensive use of special operations forces. 

If there is a lost history of state-interest in radiological weapons, there is also a forgotten past of arms control efforts to prohibit radiological warfare. As part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated a draft treaty on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling, and use of radiological weapons. In a rare act of superpower unity, the United States and the Soviet Union submitted the treaty to the Committee on Disarmament in 1979. Oddly enough, this draft treaty seems to have been all but forgotten by the arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation community. 

The Conference on Disarmament, as it is known today, maintained an ad hoc committee on radiological weapons until 1992. Despite the U.S.-Soviet agreement, the initiative foundered due to disagreements among other conference members over the scope of the draft treaty, definitional issues, and the relatively low priority attached to the subject by most delegations. In particular, the forum could not reach consensus on whether to include attacks on nuclear power plants or other facilities that would release radioactivity -- a divisive issue that arose after Israel destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981.

Now might be the time to revisit the history of U.S.-Soviet arms control efforts on radiological weapons. Although the Conference on Disarmament remains deadlocked over a number of issues, there may be a new forum in which to revisit this conversation: the P-5 process. First launched in 2009, this ongoing series of formal consultations among the five nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain -- has focused mainly on nuclear disarmament issues involving verification, transparency, and definitions of nuclear terms. 

Some P5 states have expressed interest in adding new topics to the agenda ahead of the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Radiological warfare would be a useful addition. Members are likely to share relatively similar views. Moreover, radiological warfare already may have received some attention in the Chinese-led working group dealing with the development of a common nuclear glossary. 

Although a P5 renunciation of radiological weapons would be far from a multilateral treaty, an agreement would still constitute an important step to strengthen the norm against dirty bombs -- and help discourage a renewed interest by states in radiological warfare. For now, North Korea's chest packs remain a mystery. Bermudez told NK News that he believes they are as likely to be "stuffed with paper or rags," intended for disinformation. 

While North Korea surely didn't drive real dirty bombs through Pyongyang, it is worth considering the possibility of state interest in radiological warfare. Engaging China and the other nuclear weapon states on this issue may turn out to be useful if it should happen that those enigmatic packs in Pyongyang are indeed filled with more than rags. 

NK News


Modi Comes in From the Cold

The United States is finally cracking open the door to India's probable next leader. But it’s now on his terms.

In July 2013, a reporter asked Narendra Modi, the prime-ministerial candidate for India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in April's general election, whether he would seek a visa to the United States after nine years of being denied entry. Modi smiled and replied, "I will make such a wonderful India that all Americans will stand in a queue to get a visa for India."

The United States, Modi seemed to suggest, should come to him -- not the other way around. Turns out, that's exactly what happened. In November, the U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy J. Powell, reached out to Modi and proposed to meet him in India's capital, New Delhi, according to the Indian newspaper the Telegraph. But Modi insisted that wasn't quite good enough and that he wanted Powell to come to Gandhinagar, the capital of India's western state of Gujarat, which Modi has led since 2001. And so, on Feb. 13, Powell did -- meeting with the self-described "Hindu nationalist" in his home in Gandhinagar. The message was clear: The United States is welcoming Modi in from the cold.

It is a radical turn of events. In February 2002, five months after Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, 59 Hindus died after Muslims attacked a train car in Gujarat. Retaliatory violence broke out, resulting in the deaths of over 1,200 people, most of them Muslim. Critics allege that Modi failed to protect innocent civilians and that the 2002 violence bore the markings of a pogrom. (Of India's more than 1.2 billion people, roughly 80 percent are Hindu; most of the rest are Muslims.) As a result of this criticism, as well as a campaign by an eclectic coalition including evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Indian activists, in 2005 Modi became the first person in U.S. history to be denied a visa based on the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which stipulates that no foreign dignitary who has committed "violations of religious freedom" may enter the United States.

Joseph Grieboski, an activist and consultant who assisted with the campaign to deny Modi a visa, said that the language the U.S. government used to deny Modi a visa deserves attention. "The United States was clear not to implicate India or even Gujarat," he said. "It was that Modi himself -- and not India -- failed to protect his citizens." (Disclosure: I also worked on the campaign to deny Modi a visa.)

In the nine years since, Modi has not applied for entry into the United States, nor has he met with any U.S. officials at the ambassadorial rank or higher -- until his recent meeting with Powell. In that same period, Modi has won re-election three times and has overseen Gujarat's more than 10 percent average annual GDP growth, considerably higher that India's national average. He has also championed its business potential, including the popular biennial investor's summit Vibrant Gujarat. Big business in India favors Modi, especially in contrast to the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who is viewed as an ineffective and complacent steward of India's economy.

Since winning his third term in December 2012, the 63-year-old Modi has emerged as one of the most popular, and polarizing, candidates India has ever seen -- one who both wears the 2005 visa denial as a badge of honor yet also understands that U.S. recognition will help launder his image and advance his candidacy.

After news broke on Tuesday, Feb. 11, about the Powell-Modi meeting, many Indian publications began reporting that the meeting means Modi would now be granted a visa. However, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki wasn't so quick to leap to that conclusion, saying, "This is not a reflection of any change." If Modi does becomes prime minister, he will be eligible for a special category of U.S. visas, known as A-1, granted to heads of state and government. State Department and congressional staffers said privately that Modi is almost guaranteed to receive this visa should he win.

But debating the semantics of "change" is beside the point -- a change is coming. Modi is only a few months away from possibly becoming India's next leader. His nearest challenger is Rahul Gandhi, an inexperienced 43-year-old politician from the Indian National Congress party whose father, grandmother, and great-grandfather all served as India's prime minister. And while a third party may split the vote, Modi appears to be leading in opinion polls.

In 2005, few in Washington imagined Modi's rise. "When the United States denied Modi a visa, we never thought Modi would be a front-runner," said a former Capitol Hill colleague who was closely involved in the Modi debate and who asked to speak anonymously. "We also thought the Indian government would see the visa denial as a slap to the BJP and Modi, not to India." Modi, the colleague added, was viewed as a "fringe figure." A former Senate aide was blunter: "We wanted to stop Modi's momentum."

This move was incredibly offensive to many Indians, who felt the United States had no right to pass judgment on what they viewed as an internal Indian affair. "To expect India not to be offended reveals how little India watchers in Washington really understand India," said a former Obama appointee, who asked to speak off the record. The United States continued to keep Modi at arm's length. They seemed to hope India would forget about the 2005 visa denial if the United States simply did not mention it. A former Department of Defense staffer said that when Singh came to Washington in July 2005, "We were on strict orders not to talk about Modi."

Today, with Modi just months away from possibly assuming the leadership of the world's largest democracy, not talking about him is not an option. So there's a practical matter for the thaw, but some argue that there's another factor at play: that the U.S. government under Barack Obama no longer prioritizes international religious freedom. Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, said these issues "have never been important in U.S. foreign policy, but they are less important under this administration than they have ever been."

But perhaps the most significant reason for the normalization of relations is that the legal case to tie him to the riots has fallen apart. In December 2013, a Gujarat court cleared Modi in the death of Ehsan Jafri, a Gujarati Muslim former member of Parliament who was killed in the riots. Many saw the case as the best chance to convict Modi for his role in the violence. "The resolution of the Jafri case seems to have been important in turning around the prospects for the [Powell-Modi] meeting," said Felice Gaer, a former commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

But religious intolerance remains a serious problem in India. In early February, Penguin India caved into pressure from Hindu activists and agreed to recall University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger's 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History, which explains the role that traditionally marginalized groups, like women and untouchables, played in the Hindu tradition. The activists circulated a petition alleging that Doniger's work is the "approach of a woman hungry of sex" (sic). And it goes both ways: In 2012, Salman Rushdie pulled out of his scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after Muslim clerics in India objected to his attendance because of the depiction of Islam in his controversial 1988 book, The Satanic Verses.

This February, the Indian magazine Caravan ran a cover story on Hindu nationalist leader Swami Aseemanand, imprisoned for his role in a series of bombings that killed 119 people. The article claimed that the militant Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sanctioned the attacks; the magazine has since received threatening phone calls, and the story's author, Leena Gita Reghunath, told the New York Times that she is no longer staying at home out of concerns for her safety.

These actions are, of course, not Modi's doing. But this is the political climate Modi represents -- one that the United States naively hoped it could change by denying Modi a visa. The United States will have to scramble now to repair relations with India, but it may be too late. In many ways Modi now has what he always wanted -- the United States on his turf.