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Issue Date:  October 27, 2006

The nuclear double standard

North Korea's recent test is both a crisis and an opportunity


North Korea’s apparently successful nuclear test Oct. 9 will surely be viewed as one of the major foreign policy failures of the Bush administration.

There were many warnings from North Korea that this test was coming. As far back as 1993, North Korea announced that it would leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but later suspended its withdrawal. The Clinton administration tried to resolve the issue by working out a deal with North Korea to give it two nuclear power plants in exchange for North Korea’s freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

When the Bush administration came into office, however, it scrapped the deal worked out by the Clinton administration and began talking tough to North Korea. In 2001, Mr. Bush told North Korea that it would be “held accountable” if it develops weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union Address the following year, Mr. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil,” along with Iraq and Iran.

North Korea all along was asking Washington to meet with it in one-to-one discussions, and made clear that its objectives were to receive development assistance and security assurances, including normalizing post-Korean War relations with the United States. The Bush administration opted instead for six-party talks that included China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, but not before the North Koreans had withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

To gain perspective on the North Korean nuclear test in October, a global overview is helpful. Globally, there have been more than 2,000 nuclear tests since the inception of the Nuclear Age. The United States has conducted 1,054 nuclear weapons tests, including 331 atmospheric tests. India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club in 1998 with multiple nuclear tests and received much international condemnation. Today, however, the Bush administration wants to change the U.S. non-proliferation laws as well as international agreements in order to provide India with nuclear technology and materials. The Bush administration is also silent on Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Clearly, the Bush administration does not treat nuclear weapons as the problem, but rather specific regimes that might possess them -- acceptable for some countries, but not for others. In adopting this posture, the United States promotes an untenable nuclear double standard. Countries such as North Korea and Iran, having been branded as part of the Axis of Evil and having seen what happened to the regime in Iraq at the hands of the United States, are encouraged to develop nuclear weapons if only to prevent U.S. aggression against them.

Mr. Bush has condemned the North Korean test as a “provocative act,” but stated that the “United States remains committed to diplomacy.” If the North Korean test is taken as a significant warning sign of the potential for increased nuclear proliferation and increased danger to humanity that can only be countered by diplomacy, the crisis could be turned to opportunity.

Three steps need to be urgently undertaken to reduce nuclear dangers in the aftermath of the North Korean test. First, the United States should engage in direct negotiations with North Korea to achieve a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula in exchange for U.S. security assurances and development assistance to North Korea.

Second, the countries of Northeast Asia, along with the nuclear weapons states with a presence in the region, need to negotiate the creation of a Northeast Asia nuclear weapons-free zone, prohibiting all nuclear weapons in the region. This treaty would be a reasonable outcome of the six-nation nuclear talks among North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States that have been going on since 2003.

To establish this zone, China would not be required to give up its nuclear weapons but would need to pull them back from the designated area; it, along with the other nuclear weapons states, including the United States and Russia, would pledge not to deploy, threaten or use nuclear weapons in the Northeast Asia nuclear weapons-free zone.

Third, the United Nations should convene a global conference for nuclear disarmament to negotiate a treaty for the phased and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons as required under international law. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty already obligates the nuclear weapons states to disarmament but because these states haven’t fulfilled their obligation under the treaty, other states such as North Korea are leaving the treaty to develop their own nuclear arsenals. A global conference would provide a negotiating opportunity for countries to come together and plan how nuclear disarmament should take place.

Whether or not such steps are taken will depend almost entirely on U.S. leadership. If they are not taken, we can anticipate a deepening nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and throughout the world. If they are taken, we could emerge from this crisis in a far better position to end the nuclear threat that is the greatest terror faced by our nation and the world.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2006

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