Focus on nuclear proliferation

By Justin Palmer

Talk about being between Iraq and a hard place. After a year of arguing for war against Saddam, I’ve now had people ask me that if striking Iraq is so urgent, why should we not hit North Korea first? My friend Ben observed, “Saddam may be nuts, but he’s wily and has an instinct for self-preservation. North Korea—the whole damn country—is just … insane.” Or, as a sarcastic Washington Post reader pointed out, “We now know that there is no oil in North Korea.”

Is there a double standard at work here? Not really. The recent Congressional vote authorizing Bush to use military force didn’t feature much of a debate, but perhaps the North Korean admission will remind us just why we’re going to war in the Middle East. There is a simple and strong case for attacking Iraq, but it has very little to do with Saddam or oil. It has everything to do with stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In the ’60s it seemed like everyone wanted to have “the Bomb” and for a while it looked like everyone was going to get it. China led the way by testing an atomic bomb in 1964. But they were not alone. Other countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Romania, and Taiwan (as well as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea under previous governments) also pursued secret bomb programs.

Then the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was ratified. Treaty signatories agreed either not to try to develop nuclear weapons or, if they already had them, not to pass on the technology to others. Most countries subsequently shut down their bomb programs. Others, like Taiwan and Japan, dropped their programs after they were brought under the US “nuclear umbrella.”

After the signing of the NPT, developing nuclear weapons wasn’t as fashionable as it had been. Even after Israel, India, and South Africa developed arsenals, they were hesitant to come out of the closet and declare their nuclear capability. In the mid-’80s India and Pakistan held talks about jointly signing the NPT (to date they, along with Israel and Cuba are the only countries which have not). In 1989, South Africa actually destroyed its entire nuclear arsenal.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nunn-Lugar Act earmarked American funds to help destroy old Soviet nuclear weapons, upgrade security on those Russia still held, and provide civilian employment for hundreds of atomic scientists. With the obvious exception of Russia, the Soviet republics voluntarily gave up their arsenals. Thanks to these efforts, by the early ’90s nuclear proliferation seemed a thing of the past.

Then we made a huge mistake.

In 1993, North Korea reneged on a 1991 agreement to open up its nuclear facilities to weapons inspectors. President Bill Clinton threatened military strikes if the North Koreans built a bomb and we actually came very close to war. Unfortunately, our government decided that peace was a more laudable goal than disarmament and negotiated an agreement that amounted to a huge bribe. The United States agreed to build two state-of-the-art reactors in North Korea if North Korea would come clean about its previous nuclear program and open the country up to weapons inspectors. These were the same terms to which North Korea had agreed in 1991. Not surprisingly, the North Koreans agreed to the deal, but then stonewalled the U.S. Having publicly advocated the deal, the previous U.S. administration then adopted a stance best described as “trust but don’t verify.”

This policy reopened the floodgates of atomic technology. Iraq immediately started stalling weapons inspectors in its country. Iran pressed ahead with plans to build an atomic reactor at Brushehr. In 1998, motivated by nationalist concerns, India and Pakistan decided to join the ranks of declared nuclear powers. Our response was to put temporary sanctions on both countries, which were then lifted before they could have any real effect.

While we’re still nowhere near testing the theory that large nuclear arsenals encourage world peace, the current trend is not encouraging. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Schell (“The Folly of Arms Control,” Sep/Oct 2000) argued that most countries pursuing nuclear technology are motivated by fear of competitors’ atomic arsenals. The Soviet Union needed the Bomb to counter the United States, China needed it to counter the Soviet Union, and so on. This is the rationale that India and Pakistan used when they declared their arsenals—India to counter China and Pakistan to counter India.

Using this logic, it’s very easy to see a domino effect whereby one country gets nukes and then its neighbors scramble to catch up. To make matters worse, nuclear countries tend to share technology. We have evidence that Pakistan traded its nuclear technology to North Korea in exchange for North Korea’s missile technology. Pakistan, in turn, received its nuclear know-how from China. Proliferation usually builds on itself.

We must take drastic action to reverse this course. We shirked from attacking North Korea in 1994 and have played hide-and-seek with Iraq for the last decade. Some may wonder if we still have the stomach to act.

Of the three countries still actively pursuing nuclear weapons—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—Iraq remains the easiest to deal with. The Iranian Mullahs may yet be overthrown by a popular street revolution and North Korea can easily “burn Seoul off the map,” as it threatened to do back in 1994. By contrast, Iraq is defenseless and isolated. While attacking Iran or North Korea would be counterproductive at this date, military action is still on the table.

Hopefully it won’t come to that. Hopefully, by showing the world what happens to a country seeking nuclear weapons, we will be able to reverse proliferation again and put the atomic genie back in its bottle once and for all.