David KriegerOn January 10th, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). US Secretary of State Colin Powell responded by stating, “North Korea has thumbed its nose at the international community. This kind of disrespect for such an agreement cannot go undealt with.” Dick Cheney opined that North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT “could undermine decades of non-proliferation efforts.”

Yet, those who have read and understand the NPT appreciate that the treaty intertwines the issues of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. The one is dependent on the other. Since the US and the other declared nuclear weapons states have failed in their obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament, particularly in the aftermath of the Cold War, they should expect, sooner or later, that one result will be a breakdown of the NPT regime.

The NPT was created in 1968 by the US, UK and Russia as a means of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Non-nuclear weapons states agreed not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons and, in return, the nuclear weapons states agreed to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

In the years since 1970 when the treaty entered into force, 187 countries have signed and ratified the treaty. All of these countries are non-nuclear except for the five declared nuclear weapons states (US, UK, France, Russia and China). The only four states that are not parties to the treaty are India, Pakistan, Israel and Cuba, and Cuba has indicated its intention to join the treaty.

India, Pakistan and Israel have all developed nuclear arsenals outside the framework of the treaty. India made clear for many years that it was willing to forego its nuclear option if the five declared nuclear weapons states would take seriously their obligations for nuclear disarmament. After years of waiting in vain for the implementation of serious nuclear disarmament efforts by the nuclear weapons states, India went nuclear in 1998 and Pakistan followed suit.

In 1995 when the NPT was extended indefinitely, the declared nuclear weapons states promised “[t]he determined pursuit of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goals of eliminating those weapons….”

In 2000, when the parties to the NPT held their sixth review conference, the nuclear weapons states again promised “[a]n unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament….” In addition to violating this obligation, the US has also withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty after promising in 2000 that it would preserve and strengthen this treaty “as a cornerstone of strategic stability.”

The US also agreed to apply the “principle of irreversibility” to nuclear disarmament, meaning that deactivated warheads would be destroyed. Instead of following this principle, however, the US pushed the Russians to agree to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty that is based upon the opposite principle, that of reversibility. The US announced that at its discretion the strategic nuclear weapons taken off active deployment pursuant to the agreement would be kept in storage for potential future redeployment.

After the US promised “the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty” in 2000, the Bush administration has refused to re-send this treaty to the Senate for ratification (the Senate failed to ratify in 1999). The Bush administration has also sought to reduce the time needed to resume nuclear testing.

Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer commented on North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that begins with North Korea’s immediately dismantling its nuclear weapons programs and coming into compliance with its obligations around the world.” The light at the end of the tunnel could also begin with the United States coming into compliance with its obligations around the world, starting with its obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to achieve total nuclear disarmament.

To defuse the current crisis with North Korea, the US should pursue a policy of engagement. It should accept North Korea’s offer to enter into negotiations for a non-aggression pact. The US should also offer to provide North Korea with additional development assistance to help them in building their economy and eliminating starvation.

Assurances of peace and non-aggression on the Korean Peninsula would make all of North Korea’s neighbors more comfortable. Such assurances would also be an acceptable trade-off for North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country to verify the termination and dismantlement of any nuclear weapons program. These assurances would allow North Korea to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1994 Agreed Framework.

*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is the co-author of Choose Hope, Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age.