North Korea’s October 9 nuclear test explosion could cause irreparable damage to an already beleaguered global nonproliferation system. Unless the world’s ninth active nuclear weapons program is verifiably halted and reversed through more effective diplomacy, the test may be the tipping point that prompts other states to follow suit. The blast should also trigger far more energetic action to tighten global nuclear nonproliferation standards and ensure universal compliance with those already on the books.
UN Security Council Resolution 1718 rightly condemns North Korea for its half-kiloton yield nuclear blast and calls for its return to the negotiating table. North Korea’s leaders now say they will rejoin six-party talks on their nuclear program. If they do, the Bush administration must seize what could be the last best opportunity to check Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. It must finally engage in genuine diplomacy to implement the step-by-step process of verifiable disarmament in exchange for normalized relations as outlined in a joint statement last year.
After six-years and four previous rounds of inclusive six-party talks, there can be little doubt that the Bush administration’s approach has failed: Pyongyang has hunkered-down and accelerated its nuclear bomb program. Punitive sanctions alone cannot reverse its nuclear program or force the collapse of the already-isolated Kim Jong Il regime. Nor do North Korea’s insecure leaders appear capable of making a bold, Libya-like decision to completely eliminate their nuclear weapons program for fear it would jeopardize the regime’s survival.
For now, North Korea possesses fissile material for fewer than a dozen bombs. It is not yet capable of delivering working nuclear warheads on its ballistic missiles. Such a threat is still deterrable without the United States or other countries resorting to nuclear weapons threats. But if the crisis continues to be mismanaged and Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal grows, Tokyo and Seoul will seriously consider building their own nuclear weapons. Japan, with its large stockpile of “civilian” plutonium and new plutonium reprocessing plant, is a virtual nuclear-weapon state. If it were to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and exercise its capability, South Korea would likely do so too, and China would likely increase its arsenal of some 100 weapons.
To head off this proliferation nightmare, President George W. Bush must finally recognize that dialogue with adversaries such as North Korea is not a reward for bad behavior, but a vital tool to deal with nuclear dangers. U.S. officials should be authorized to meet separately with North Korean officials to resolve issues of concern, including U.S. financial sanctions imposed on North Korea in reaction to its money laundering activities.
To keep North Korea at the negotiating table, China’s leaders must also exert maximum diplomatic and economic influence on Pyongyang. To improve the chances that North Korea will deliver on disarmament, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States must clarify not only the costs of further defiance but the benefits of cooperation. They should develop a detailed proposal outlining the security assurances, trade benefits, and energy support that they would be prepared to provide if North Korea dismantles its nuclear complex. The first priority should be to reinstate a verifiable freeze on Pyongyang’s plutonium production, which would limit the amount of fissile material for weapons and possibly for sale to others.
The emergence of North Korea as the world’s ninth nuclear-weapon state is yet another reminder that we can no longer afford to lurch from one nuclear crisis to the next. The current U.S. policy of isolating “unfriendly” states to try to prevent proliferation while permitting “friendly” states to possess and improve their nuclear arsenals is unsustainable and a recipe for nuclear anarchy.
Today’s security environment requires a more comprehensive and balanced U.S. nonproliferation and disarmament strategy. To prevent the emergence of additional virtual nuclear-weapon states, all states should observe an indefinite moratorium on all new uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation plants. To cap the size of existing arsenals, all states with nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, should halt the production of fissile material for weapons and join the global nuclear test ban regime.
Finally, major nuclear-weapon states must restore confidence they will fulfill their NPT obligation to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminate them. The United States and Russia should resume talks on further verifiable reductions of their strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals, which will still number more than 5,000 warheads each by 2012. All nuclear-weapon states should disavow the development of new types of nuclear weapons and the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states and targets. This would reduce the incentives for other states to develop their own nuclear weapons.
Ambitious? Yes. But the dangers of the bomb are growing. Without more comprehensive global leadership in all, not just some, of these areas, the struggle against nuclear proliferation will fall short and leave behind a more dangerous world for generations to come.