Chuck Hagel, North Korea and Russia

This week in the United States, Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the position of Secretary of Defense is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee as early as Thursday, where the former Senator recently underwent a fiery barrage of questioning from fellow Republicans over his positions on Iran and the U.S. nuclear arsenal last week.

Developments in North Korea, and U.S. relations with Russia had played into Hagel’s confirmation hearing and may take further turns this week. Another North Korean nuclear detonation test is potentially looming; and President Obama is due to submit his annual report to Congress on the status of talks with Russia over tactical nuclear weapons.

Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense seems set to pass the Senate Armed Services Committee hurdle and qualify for a full floor vote. Several members questioned the former Senator last Thursday over what some thought would be his leniency toward Iran, and weakening of U.S. defense through “unilateral” nuclear reductions. Hagel, and others, stressed that his position has consistently been one of support for bilateral and multilateral negotiations toward verifiable reductions – not unilateral U.S. disarmament.

In North Korea, satellite imagery has shown tunneling the past several months around Punggye-ri, where the country conducted nuclear explosive tests in 2006 and 2009. Part of the site has reportedly been covered in recent days so as to obscure foreign observation. Pyongyang said two weeks ago that it would conduct another nuclear test, without specifying when, and had declared that it would conduct more missile and nuclear tests targeting the United States in retaliation for the U.N. Security Council’s censure for its long-range rocket launch in December. Even China has become more frustrated with its isolated ally, publicly warning Pyongyang that it will reduce aid if it conducts another nuclear test. Although it is doubtful that North Korea has a deliverable nuclear weapon, these developments suggest it is willing to risk further isolation to develop its offensive capabilities.

Also playing into the debate this week, the Obama Administration is due to submit on Tuesday its report on the status of talks with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons, on the second anniversary of the entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The report is unlikely to conclude that a breakthrough is on the horizon. Whereas the United States and NATO allies are worried about Russia’s larger tactical nuclear arsenal, Russia views U.S. and NATO missile defense, U.S. conventional forces and plans for Prompt Global Strike as far more serious threats to the strategic balance. Russia has shown no interest in talks on tactical nuclear weapons in the near-term without some moves to address its concerns first.

Meanwhile, NATO’s Secretary General reiterated this past weekend at the Munich Security Conference that they have no plans to change course on missile defense to allay Moscow’s worries. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in private during the Conference – but this is unlikely to be enough to overcome the growing strains in the relationship over the past year, and the numerous other urgent security challenges, including Syria, which have been overwhelming their attention.  Last Fall, a high-level Russian official had suggested that further nuclear reductions should be made within a “multilateral format” – pointing to security concerns Russia has with other countries. Looking for clear productive and reciprocal moves, whether unilateral, bilateral or multilateral, will be a long process. It would seem the Senators worried about U.S. unilateral moves will have little reason to fear rapid nuclear disarmament anytime soon.


These are the personal views of the author.

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