Wake-up call

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

MAY 11, 1998: Shakti-3, site of India's nuclear test in Pokhran, Rajasthan. - AFP

MAY 11, 1998: Shakti-3, site of India's nuclear test in Pokhran, Rajasthan. - AFP

The nuclear powers would be committing a colossal blunder if they do not respond to North Korea's test by reforming the global nuclear order.

BY blasting its way into the global nuclear club as its junior-most member, North Korea has mounted a major, and in some ways, unique challenge to the world. From just five nuclear weapons-states (NWSs) in 1974, the world will now be forced to live - if that is the right word - with nine NWSs. There is no telling when the ugly process of the club's expansion might stop.

This should shake us all out of our complacency. If the overwhelming majority of the world's peoples believe - and only a tiny minority of doctrinaire deterrence-worshippers like Kenneth Waltz think that yet more NWSs will make the world safer - that security and nuclear weapons are mutually incompatible in the long run, then the world has taken a decisive turn towards insecurity. Following the North Korean test, the Doomsday Clock should be advanced.

What makes North Korea's nuclear misadventure special is the potential generalisability of nuclear weapons acquisition by numerous countries. North Korea is a small (23 million population), industrially (and even agriculturally) backward country, which recently lost a tenth of its population to famines. If this impoverished country, which has lived for half-a-century under United States-imposed sanctions, can make nuclear weapons, then so can many other states.

Those who considered North Korea's announcement last year that it has the Bomb an empty boast owe the public an apology. Many such "experts" have for decades misled both people and policy-makers. By contrast, pro-disarmament scientists and peace activists took North Korea's nuclear programme seriously. The pro-peace Federation of American Scientists warned long ago that Pyongyang probably has enough fissile material for half-a-dozen weapons.

There are two components to the North Korean example: hardware and software. The hardware needed for nuclear weapons is not particularly difficult to acquire. North Korea crowed about its nuclear blast as a "historic event" and a "great leap forward". We heard identical boasts in India in 1974 and 1998.

It is necessary to restate some plain truths. Making a fission bomb does not need high physics or technology. The physics is of 60 years' vintage and taught at graduate level in many Third World countries. The technology is simple and accessible. You do not need high-flying scientists to assemble a bomb once you have the fuel (plutonium or highly enriched uranium). A competent mechanic will do.

It is easy to procure the fuel if a country has access to an unsafe guarded fission reactor of whatever kind - "research reactor", power generator, or military facility. It can remove the spent fuel and dump it into nitric acid and separate the plutonium (just 3 to 8 kg of which suffices for one bomb). That is what India did with CIRUS, built with Canadian and U.S. assistance, and North Korea did with the spent-fuel rods reportedly removed from a Soviet-built reactor at Yongbyon, of 1965 vintage.

Alternatively, a government can invest in more expensive (but affordable) uranium enrichment, and make a Hiroshima-type bomb with 10 to 20 kg of enriched uranium. This is what Pakistan (and Israel) did, and what Iran might do.

Very few countries have had access to unsafeguarded reactors after the Nuclear Suppliers' Group was formed in response to Pokhran-I. But enrichment is another story. A combination of open and clandestine activities can procure designs, special materials and components needed for enriching uranium.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) promotes civilian nuclear power. The infrastructure needed for nuclear power generation can also be used for military purposes. There lies a fundamental conflict. The global nuclear order relies on crude physical methods such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to prevent this. But these inspections are not leak-proof. One past IAEA annual report admits to failure to account for several "significant quantities" of plutonium (each enough for one bomb) in reprocessing plants.

States can cheat - for instance, by covering IAEA cameras or cutting off power to recorders. A country sufficiently determined to acquire nuclear weapons can exploit such loopholes. Or it can stay out of the NPT (India, Pakistan and Israel), or withdraw from it (North Korea, 2003).

Under existing arrangements, countries like Japan can stockpile enormous quantities of imported plutonium, ostensibly for fast-breeder reactors. Today, Japan has more than 40 tonnes of plutonium, enough for 5,000 nuclear weapons. It plans to stockpile an additional 8 tonnes annually although its breeder programme has run into trouble.

North Korea, Iran and Libya show that the system of physical controls may not work. The real solution does not lie in further tightening controls through, say, the IAEA's Additional Protocol. Nor does it lie in techno-fixes such as the U.S.-proposed "proliferation-proof" pie-in-the-sky Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

Here is where the software comes in: political will favouring non-proliferation. This will has weakened. Many non-NWSs are disgusted with the NWSs' refusal to deliver on their part of the two-way bargain on which today's nuclear order is based. Under the bargain, the non-NWSs agreed not to make nuclear weapons. In return, the NWSs committed themselves to serious negotiations to eliminate them.

The NPT-recognised NWSs have flagrantly violated the treaty's Article VI, which mandates nuclear weapons elimination. Indeed, all five of them are developing new nuclear weapons or new uses for old weapons. At the last (2005) NPT review conference, they contemptuously dismissed the non-NWSs' demand to implement Article VI. The U.S. is the worst violator: it is developing new weapons, and ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems - offensive space-based weapons and missile interceptors.

Iraq, the one example the U.S. can cite of the physical non-proliferation regime's success, holds a negative lesson. Iraq's nuclear programme was dismantled after the first Gulf War (1990) through intrusive inspections. And yet, Washington cited its "WMD programme" as an excuse for the 2003 invasion. This has led many to the same conclusion that India's former Army Chief General K. Sundarji drew - "if a state intends to fight the U.S., it should avoid doing so until and unless it possess nuclear weapons." North Korea certainly took that inference to heart.

The underlying premise - that the U.S. would not have dared to invade Iraq if it had nuclear weapons - is fallacious. But it cannot be denied that Pyongyang embraced that fallacy. Its official statement, made six days before the test, explicitly stated this. What matters here is not so much the validity of the view that nuclear weapons deter conventional attacks - they often do not, and certainly not assuredly - as the cynical perception that might is right in today's world.

Pyongyang evidently thought its nuclear gamble was well worth the risk. No amount of threats, including "regime change" threats, deterred it. North Korea is also unlikely to be deterred from its future course by the harsh response of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who said: North Korea "can have a future, or it can have these weapons... "

Seen from within its strategic framework and history of being targeted and demonised by the U.S. as an "Axis of Evil" state, North Korea did not commit an "act of lunacy" on October 9. Pyongyang's nuclear-related insecurity goes back to the Korean War and General MacArthur's plan to launch nuclear strikes on the North. The sustained rivalry with the U.S., Japan and South Korea since has not relieved Pyongyang's insecurity.

North Korea's threat perception, never imaginary, got magnified despite the Beijing denuclearisation agreement of September 2005. Washington stressed its Article I (committing North Korea to abandon its nuclear pursuits) to the exclusion of Article II (the U.S. and North Korea would "respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalise relations").

It can be argued, that nuclear weapons do not protect a nation and that they are offensive instruments of mass annihilation, not defence. They do not give security.

However, if North Korea is to be faulted for rejecting this logic, then so must the other eight NWSs.

The world has few options to deal with North Korea. Conceptually, there are only three: yet more sanctions, overt military force, or non-coercive diplomacy. The U.S. has had operative sanctions against North Korea since 1950. These were partially relaxed after 1994, but were tightened almost maximally. Yet, they proved ineffective.

Barring aggressive inspections of all import cargo, mandated by a United Nations Security Council resolution, or a blanket ban on overseas travel by North Koreans - a draconian measure unworthy of support - sanctions cannot be tightened much further. China and Russia are dragging their feet on the first. Besides, Pyongyang is adept at sanctions-busting. Its regime is unconstrained by the magnitude of the suffering that sanctions might cause.

Military force is a fraught, dangerous option in the Korean peninsula - if it is an option at all. The U.S. is too deeply caught in the Iraq quagmire to spare forces for Northeast Asia. Up to 37,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. North Korea's 1.2 million-strong army, with 11,000 artillery pieces, and an arsenal of missiles, can make devastating conventional strikes against South Korea and even Japan, where another 40,000 U.S. troops are stationed. There is now the risk of a nuclear attack too.

The third (diplomatic) option is the only real one. The U.S. and its partners must try to dissuade North Korea from pursuing a weapons programme by offering it security and economic incentives, including generous agricultural and industrial assistance, and food and fuel aid.

However, an essential precondition here is that South Korea and Japan do not build nuclear weapons and the U.S. does not deploy BMD in Northeast Asia. Japan and South Korea would be singularly ill-advised go nuclear.

During a visit to South Korea six months ago, popular sentiment there overwhelmingly favours reconciliation and reunification with the North. In a post-test opinion poll, many more South Koreans (43 per cent) blame the U.S. for the blast than the North (37 per cent); almost 14 per cent blame South Korea. Besides, Northeast Asia's further nuclearisation will trigger an arms race involving China, which will potentially destabilise the whole world.

If the U.S. develops a BMD shield for Northeast Asia, China will respond with the utmost hostility. Yet, last December, Japan approved plans to develop ship-borne BMD with U.S. sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors. These will be based on destroyers equipped with the "Aegis" air-defence system. The U.S. and Japan must desist from doing this.

This brings us closer home. India and Pakistan have condemned North Korea's test. This is another gross instance of hypocrisy. Neither country has even an iota of moral or political authority to do this while they themselves practise the same double standards for which they (rightly) criticised the N-5. Pakistan's hypocrisy is worse because it bartered uranium centrifuges with North Korea's missiles.

However, India cannot differentiate itself credibly from North Korea by claiming that it violated no international obligations in its own 1998 tests. North Korea too had walked out of the NPT and was under no obligation not to test. The claim that India is a "responsible" NWS is laughable. This is an oxymoron: no state which is ready and willing to rain mass destruction upon an adversary's non-combatant civilians can be considered "responsible".

India has warned against "the dangers of clandestine proliferation," referring to Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf admits, in In the Line of Fire: "Dr. A.Q. Khan transferred nearly two dozen P-1 and P-11 centrifuges to North Korea" along with auxiliary equipment. But on all available evidence, the Korean test used plutonium, not uranium. The plutonium came from the Yongbyon reactor.

As for the charge that Pakistan helped North Korea conduct a "cold test" (a bomb assembly without fissile material), this lacks persuasive force. The Khan network indeed produced enriched uranium and missiles for the Pakistani programme. But the detonation technology came from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). No one has yet established a link between the PAEC and Pyongyang, which would institutionally benefit Pakistan.

If India harps on "clandestine proliferation", it will be seen as following a purely parochial agenda - to defend its nuclear deal with the U.S., now in trouble. A wiser course would be to effect a radical change in its nuclear posture and take the initiative to reform the global nuclear order by emphasising universal disarmament.

As India argued for half-a-century, true security lies in global nuclear weapons abolition. It reiterated this in the Rajiv Gandhi plan of 1988. There is an imperative need to update this plan and return to the disarmament agenda. The United Progressive Alliance's (UPA) National Common Minimum Programme promised to do just this. But will the UPA summon the will to do so?

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