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Nukes for all

Is the world on the brink of a new nuclear arms race, with North Korea's atomic bomb test marking the end of non-proliferation? John Gittings reports

November 1, 2006
5 min read

Have we reached the much-predicted ‘nuclear tipping-point’ now that North Korea has carried out its first test? Of course Pyongyang will not be the first break-out: the ‘international community’ that condemns it didn’t take long to condone Israel, India and, most recently, Pakistan when they went nuclear. Looking back over the past decade and a half since the end of the cold war, the historical verdict will be that the major nuclear powers fatally missed their chance to set the world on a non-nuclear road.

Yet Pyongyang has passed a new red line, not just in its own relations with South Korea and its other Asian neighbours, but for the world. This is not because nuclear weapons in its hands are inherently more dangerous but because the Iraq disaster has put proliferation into an even more dangerous context.

The US invasion allegedly to remove Saddam’s WMD ‘threat’ demonstrated that is safer to be an actual nuclear power than a potential nuclear power. Indeed, North Korea justifies its programme on these very grounds. Even the remotest chance of retaliation is likely to buy immunity – which is why Pyongyang has also been keen (though not yet successful) to demonstrate its long-range missile capability. At the least it will seem prudent for other nonnuclear countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East, to begin their own feasibility studies.

North Korea may have acted rationally in terms of the logic of its adversarial relationship with the world’s only nuclear superpower but this does not mean it has acted sensibly. Going nuclear so visibly could be an own goal for the security of the regime, at worst tipping the neo-con argument in favour of regime change.

(A new book by hawkish China expert Gordon Chang, Nuclear Showdown, actually advocates ‘regime annihilation’ if diplomacy to ‘force peaceful change’ on Pyongyang should fail.) Pyongyang’s action may push Japan further down the road of re-militarisation; and it fatally undermines South Korea’s ‘sunshine diplomacy’, which is already rubbished by the Bush administration. It may even bring China and Japan closer together, something that is not in the interests of Korea, North or South.

If the Bush administration had shown a straightforward willingness to talk, one to one, with Pyongyang, instead of condemning it as part of the ‘axis of evil’, we would be in a much less dire situation now. Washington’s alibi is that North Korea has ‘cheated’ ever since the 1994 agreement to refrain from a nuclear weapons programme was signed. Pyongyang argues that the US and its partners also ‘cheated’ by failing to keep to the agreed timetable for providing energy aid in compensation.

What is clear is that the situation could have been transformed if the Clinton initiative, when Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and a senior North Korean general was received in the White House, had not been repudiated by Bush.

We should resist the easy journalistic cliches about the ‘rogue regime’ with its ‘crazy’ leader.

Many aspects of the North Korean regime, particularly the leadership cult and the oppressive state apparatus, are deeply disturbing. But everyone who has met Kim Jong Il regards him as capable and rational.

Pyongyang has acknowledged several times that it would be mad to launch a ‘rogue’ nuclear attack. In August 2000, Kim Jong Il said: ‘It is absurd to think we could win a war with the US if we attacked with just two or three intercontinental ballistic missiles, And yet the US makes an issue of this.’

In June this year, North Korea invited US negotiator Christopher Hill to visit Pyongyang for direct talks, repeating an invitation made the previous October. Both invitations were turned down. Hill says he is prepared for direct talks within the context of the ‘five power’ talks, but as Clinton’s negotiator Wendy Sherman has pointed out, he has nothing to put on the table. Washington’s diplomatic body language confirms the suspicions of hardliners in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang’s June statement needs to be recalled now: ‘We have already made it clear many times that if the US is not hostile to us, trust between our country and the US is built and we no longer feel threatened, there will no longer be a need for even a single nuclear weapon … We have already made a strategic decision to abandon our nuclear programme as reflected in the joint statement [of September 2005].’

True or false? Even at this late stage, only calm diplomacy will find out, and the stakes could not be higher. Do we want to live in a world where the number of nuclear states is bound to increase inexorably, or is this the long overdue wake-up call? The clock is ticking to the next review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010.

The way things are going, it could signal the treaty’s final failure.

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