The real nuclear option lurks
The 2005 review conference for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is under way in New York. But as of now it appears that only a comprehensive negotiated settlement can keep the Korean peninsula non-nuclear. However, if a negotiated settlement gives inducements to North Korea to return to compliance with the treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state, other states might be tempted to resist compliance in hopes of also extracting concessions. That’s a politically correct way of saying if the world community allows one nation to successfully use blackmail as a “diplomatic” tool, it leaves itself open for others to follow suit. But there’s another vexing sidebar to this issue. By its own admission, North Korea is no longer a “non-nuclear-weapon state” because it announced to the world several months ago that it possessed nuclear weapons. Therefore, in a nuclear-age Catch-22, it shouldn’t be bound by the agreement it signed when it actually was a non-nuclear-weapon state. (The Non-Proliferation Treaty divides signatories into two groups: “nuclear-weapon state parties” and “non-nuclear-weapon state parties.”)Dealing with North Korea has always been riddled with contradictions. While it joined the treaty in 1985, it didn’t accept the “safeguards agreement” until 1992. But by then it had already extracted enough plutonium from its reactor at Yongbyong to produce one or perhaps two nuclear weapons. The “safeguards agreement” stipulates that the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency has the right to monitor the activities of the signatories. But Kim Jung Il wouldn’t allow inspections, so the Clinton administration intervened. On Oct. 21, 1994, after 16 months of intense negotiations, they signed an agreed framework that was to theoretically achieve the U.S. objective of no nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula. In theory, the agreed framework put North Korea into full compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reinstituted monitoring. The agreement provided that in return for the freezing and dismantling of its nuclear program, North Korea would receive substantial assistance in the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors during the next decade, which were (theoretically) proliferation-resistant. The agreed framework also made provisions that North Korea receive 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually, with much of the money coming from the U.S. In other words, North Korea was to shut down its heavy-water nuclear facilities, and the United States would supply proliferation-proof nuclear technology and millions of barrels of oil – funded primarily by American taxpayers.But a funny thing happened on the way to keeping that agreement. In October 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea with charges that it was undertaking a second uranium-based nuclear program. Kim Jung Il responded by withdrawing from the treaty. Then just months before this month’s treaty review conference, North Korea stated explicitly that it possessed nuclear weapons (current estimates range between six and 10).While fabrication of a nuclear explosive device is certainly within North Korea’s technical expertise, the question remains if it also has the wherewithal to take its fissile material and produce a warhead deliverable via an ICBM. Let’s pray that it doesn’t.So exactly what options does the world have? North Korea has already withdrawn from the treaty, but even when it was a member it refused to allow meaningful inspections. Kim has refused to rejoin the six-nation talks with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. China and South Korea would never agree to an embargo or quarantine. And a surgical military strike could trigger another Korean war, in which millions of South Koreans would be pulverized within the first few minutes by the 10,000 artillery pieces North Korea has targeted on Seoul.North Korea’s intractability underscores the limits of the treaty, which like so many other international agreements, has no means of enforcement. In the meantime, an accommodation absolving past treaty non-compliance in order to gain North Korean reaccession is rife with peril. How can the world community let North Korea off the hook without further undermining its credibility and encouraging other treaty signatories to flout their obligations, as well?But let’s look at the obverse: Could further North Korean intransigence encourage regional nuclear proliferation? Would South Korea undertake its own nuclear program? What about the Japanese? And how might China, South Korea and other Asian governments who haven’t forgotten World War II respond to a nuclear-armed Japan? The U.N. Security Council could take up the question of North Korea’s noncompliance as a “threat to the peace,” but it hasn’t. It won’t because even if it did, Russia and China have permanent vetoes, which they would assuredly use.Proponents of the treaty assure us that it has restricted nuclear proliferation around the globe, provided we ignore the nukes in Pakistan, India, South Africa and Israel. In addition, the treaty provides a non-enforceable legal mechanism to compel disarmament. So it can safely be said that the treaty hasn’t achieved its goal, which again puts a thorny international issue squarely in America’s lap.Is there anything the Bush administration can do to address this problem? Some say the administration should drop its opposition to bilateral talks with North Korea as Kim Jung Il insists (the president has been adamant about participating in only the six-nation format). Others feel that as a show of good faith we should first accelerate the dismantling of our own over-sized nuclear arsenal. Still others believe that deterrent is the best policy and we should upgrade our Cold War-vintage nuclear weapons, including building the new nuclear bunker-buster.But whatever the administration does or doesn’t do one thing is certain: It will be accused of mishandling the situation.Butch Mazzuca of Singletree, a Realtor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgVail, Colorado
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