Gathering threat Unravelling of nuclear pact

Simon Tisdall

North Korea may be a rogue state, part of the ‘axis of evil’, an outpost of tyranny and all the other things that US President George Bush say it is. But there is no denying that the isolated regime of self-styled Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, has an impeccable sense of timing.

Just before the 188-country conference charged with reviewing the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gathered in New York this month, Pyongyang shut down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Since then it says it has removed 8,000 spent fuel rods and extracted sufficient plutonium to ‘bolster our nuclear arsenal’.

Coming on top of North Korea’s formal announcement in February that it had acquired nuclear weapons and its earlier withdrawal from the NPT, this latest shock seemed to confirm what every government knows but is reluctant to say in public.

A wide array of international safeguards, diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, ill-disguised threats and a decade of on-off negotiations have failed to prevent egregious, highly dangerous acts of proliferation by one of the world’s most unstable failed states.

Any remaining uncertainty over whether North Korea really has the bomb could be banished soon. According to US intelligence, Pyongyang may be about to conduct an underground nuclear test. As with the Indian and Pakistani tests in 1998, such an event would radically and permanently alter geostrategic and military calculations. For East Asia, it would be a whole new ball game. The bad news for the NPT conferees in New York did not stop there. Even as they argued over an agenda, Iran was threatening to walk away from talks with the European Union over its nuclear programmes and ditch the treaty.

‘If Iran cannot use its legitimate rights in the framework of the NPT, it will no longer have respect for the treaty,’ Iran’s chief negotiator, Hassan Rohani, said in Moscow. In other words, if the EU, backed by the US, continued to insist on a permanent freeze of all Iran’s uranium enrichment activities - which Tehran says are for purely peaceful, civil purposes — then Iran, like North Korea, would go its own way. Iran’s sense of timing also takes a lot of beating. Tehran is well aware that a major bone of contention at the NPT conference is the demand by non-nuclear weapons states that the five declared nuclear powers — the US, Britain, France, Russia and China — honour their own disarmament obligations.

Under the ‘13 Steps’ agreed at the last NPT review meeting in 2000, the so-called ‘big five’ agreed to make ‘further efforts to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally’. They also pledged ‘a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies... and to facilitate the process of their total elimination’. Iran and other countries point out, with justice, that these obligations have been largely ignored. The US is modernising its nuclear arsenal, not moving to scrap it.

France holds proudly to its ‘force de frappe’, a symbol of its otherwise shrinking national potency. Britain is examining replacements for its submarine-based Trident nuclear weapons system and may buy ‘off the shelf’ from the US in breach of NPT rules. Concurrently, President Putin is boasting of new world-beating Russian long-range missiles, with China showing even less interest in disarmament. Meanwhile, the NPT’s Article IV does in fact stress that signatory nations have the ‘inalienable right to develop... nuclear energy for peaceful purposes’ and to acquire technology to this end. That, says Iran, is exactly what it is doing, and US distrust of its intentions is no good reason to desist.

All in all, the uncomfortable bottom line is that, far from being reinforced as was promised in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, international non-proliferation efforts are in deep trouble. India, Israel and Pakistan, which never joined the NPT, have effectively got away with their bomb-making. Now, if North Korea is proved to have nuclear capability and if Iran, despite its denials, follows suit, countries ranging from Japan and South Korea to Egypt and Saudi Arabia may feel obliged to follow suit.

In other words, the successes of the NPT, for all its considerable faults, may be overwhelmed by a new nuclear arms race. All the more reason, therefore, to heed the word of the former US president, Jimmy Carter. As a matter of urgency, he said this month, all nuclear-armed states should renounce first use of their weapons.

The US should abandon its ‘Star Wars’ ballistic missile defence project and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Russia should do more to secure and reduce its vulnerable stockpiles. And Middle East countries should act together to remove nuclear weapons from their region. ‘If the US and other nuclear powers are serious about stopping the erosion of the NPT, they must act now on these issues,’ Mr Carter warned. The relative indifference of the major powers to the gathering threat, he said, was little short of appalling. Mr Carter’s timing was impeccable, too. —The Guardian