BISMARCK, ND—The stage was set for another international showdown Monday, when chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix confirmed that the remote, isolationist state of North Dakota is in possession of a large stockpile of nuclear missiles.
"Satellite photos confirm that the North Dakotans have been quietly harboring an extensive nuclear-weapons program," said Blix, presenting his findings in a speech to the U.N. Security Council. "Alarmingly, this barely developed hinterland possesses the world's most technologically advanced weapons of mass destruction, capable of reaching targets all over the world."
After initially offering no comment on the report, North Dakota officials admitted to having a stockpile of 1,710 warheads at two military sites and confirmed that the state has been home to an active nuclear-weapons-development program for decades.
Blix called the revelation a "terrifying prospect for the world at large."
Within hours of the announcement, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged North Dakota to abandon its program.
"This is clearly an excessive number of weapons for a place like North Dakota to possess," Annan said. "In this post-Cold War environment, we should be moving away from nuclear proliferation among developing states."
European leaders also spoke out in opposition to North Dakota's weapons program.
"North Dakota, still in its cultural infancy, cannot be trusted to responsibly handle weapons of mass destruction," French President Jacques Chirac said. "We are talking about a place that doesn't even have a Thai restaurant or movie theater that shows foreign films, but still they have the resources to build thousands of warheads. Do not believe their claims of being 'The Peace Garden State.'"
According to Chirac, North Dakota's development of nuclear arms "represents a grave threat to peaceful states the world over, none more so than its longtime neighbor and rival across the 45th Parallel, South Dakota."
"The South Dakotans, while a simple people themselves, are friendly, hospitable, and far more in touch with the outside world," Chirac said. "Many people, myself included, have passed through and seen the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. North Dakota, on the other hand, is a bleak, racially homogeneous state that few people ever enter or exit."
After a joint meeting of the French and German cabinets, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the two nations "agree that this situation must be rectified" and implored North Dakota to cease its uranium-enrichment program immediately.
"We have opened the door to talks," Schroeder said. "But, unfortunately, North Dakota seems unwilling to engage with the world community at this time."
According to Blix, North Dakota is home to 500 Minuteman III ICBMs and 50 Peacekeeper missiles, giving it one of the heaviest concentrations of the weapons on earth. The biggest discovery made by U.N. inspectors, Blix said, was a missile field at Minot Air Force Base, where they found an "almost unbelievable" stockpile of warheads.
The rogue state was also found to possess enormous stockpiles of fissile material.
"North Dakota could have as much as 75 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium and 8 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium," Blix said. "Just 55 pounds of uranium are needed to construct a simple nuclear weapon. Do the math—the prospects are terrifying."
The man at the center of the controversy is North Dakota's leader, Gov. John Hoeven. Having risen to power in 2000 after amassing tremendous wealth in the private sector, Hoeven lives a life of comfort and excess inside the heavily patrolled North Dakota governor's mansion, a lavish dwelling paid for entirely by the state, while many of his people engage in subsistence farming.
Some suspect that Hoeven is using the nuclear program as a bargaining chip to gain badly needed economic benefits for his state. Hardly at the forefront of technology in other aspects, North Dakota has a largely rural population and a child-poverty rate of 14 percent—a fact critics have been quick to point out.
"North Dakotans live a horrible life of isolation and deprivation, struggling to grow crops in a hostile, sub-zero climate while their indifferent government routinely prioritizes bolstering the state's military might," BBC World correspondent Caroline Eagan said. "There are people starving there, and yet high-tech weapons laboratories and military bases abound. It's deplorable."
Added Eagan: "And, no big surprise, the U.S. played a major role in arming this place. I hear most of the missiles are American-made."
Many U.S. citizens have expressed fear, some realizing for the first time that North Dakota has thousands of weapons capable of reaching any major American city within minutes.
"It is absolutely frightening that there are all these weapons of mass destruction practically in my backyard," said Karen Stiles of Moorhead, MN. "Do we really know enough about these people who have their finger on the button that could kill millions?"
Added Stiles: "How did our elected officials let this happen?"