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A Setback for Nonproliferation

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
October 13, 2006

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North Korea’s nuclear test has nonproliferation experts scratching their heads and asking: Does this, in effect, signal the end of an era (CSMonitor)? After all, North Korea marks the first country to remove itself from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and detonate a nuclear weapon. Further, there are fears its test might embolden pariah states like Iran to ratchet up their own nuclear programs, as this new Backgrounder explains. Another concern is Pyongyang’s actions could set off a domino-like reaction, spurring Japan and South Korea to follow suit (Economist). The same argument applies to the Middle East. Some experts worry if Iran gets nuclear technology, then so will Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The more states with nuclear weapons, the thinking goes, the greater the likelihood fissile material will fall into the hands of a terrorist organization.

Does this therefore require a reconsideration of nonproliferation strategy? Experts disagree. After all, President John F. Kennedy’s prediction that as many as twenty-five countries would acquire nuclear weapons by the 1970s never came true. Far from it: Only eight states are officially in the nuclear club (two of them—India and Pakistan—are non-signatories to the NPT; Israel also a non-signatory, is widely known to have an arsenal but prefers “strategic ambiguity" when it comes to admitting it; North Korea withdrew in 2003). A number of states, the bulk of them scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, willingly gave up their nuclear weapons. Others, like Libya, have forsaken their nuclear programs in exchange for improved relations with the Western world and economic perks. Longstanding anti-proliferation programs like Nunn-Lugar and the Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Act have shown some success, and newer programs like the Proliferation Security Initiative also show promise. After all, no nuclear weapon has fallen into the hands of a terrorist organization to date. Perhaps more importantly, no nuclear bomb since World War II has been detonated in an act of aggression.

But that masks a number of close calls and egregious violations of the nonproliferation regime, critics charge. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and Indo-Pakistan standoff in 2002 both come to mind. A Q. Khan’s “nuclear Wal-Mart” (GlobalSecurity) demonstrated that sensitive nuclear material can be easily transferable. Efforts over the years to create nuclear-free zones have largely faltered (although a recent nuclear-free initiative in Central Asia passed). And a number of nuclear warheads, or loose nukes (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), sit in poorly guarded bunkers throughout Russia, keeping alive the apocalyptic scenario of a bomb falling into the hands of an Osama-bin-Laden type. Some critics place blame squarely on the NPT. None of the major powers look likely to implement the “thirteen practical steps,” as stipulated by the NPT 2000 Review Conference, to reduce and eventually eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. Moreover, as currently worded, the NPT grants signatories like Iran the “inalienable” right to enrich uranium, so long as it is ostensibly for peaceful purposes.

If the Bush administration’s top foreign policy priority remains “preventing the world’s most dangerous weapons” from falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorists, how then can bodies like the UN Security Council dissuade would-be proliferators like Iran? Diplomacy seems to still be the preferred route. CFR Fellow Michael A. Levi argues in Slate that negotiations with North Korea and Iran are inextricably linked. “Crafting our response to the North Korean test so that it sends the right signal to Iran would be an excellent first step,” he argues. Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, writing in the Washington Post, says economic sanctions would be ill-conceived because they “would increase the suffering of [North Korea’s] people but would have little effect on the elite.” Meanwhile, Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center urges the need to prevent other states from withdrawing with impunity from the NPT, keep them from testing nuclear weapons (India, for example), and send clear signals to those with peaceful nuclear programs (Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia) not to join the nuclear club (WSJ).  

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