The North Korean nuclear test will surely be viewed as one of the major foreign policy failures of the Bush administration. There were many warnings from North Korea that this test was coming. As far back as 1993, North Korea announced that it would leave the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but later suspended its withdrawal. The Clinton administration tried to resolve the issue by working out a deal with North Korea to give them two nuclear power plants in exchange for North Korea freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
When the Bush administration came into office, however, it scrapped the deal worked out by the Clinton administration and began talking tough to North Korea. In 2001, Mr. Bush told North Korea that it would be “held accountable” if it develops weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union Address the following year, Mr. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran.
North Korea all along was asking Washington to meet with them in one-to-one discussions, and made clear that their objectives were to receive security assurances, including normalizing post-Korean War relations with the US, and development assistance. The Bush administration opted instead for six-party talks that also included China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, but not before the North Koreans had withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.
To gain perspective on the North Korean nuclear test on October 9th, a global overview is helpful. Globally, there have been more than 2,000 nuclear tests since the inception of the Nuclear Age. The United States has conducted 1054 nuclear weapons tests, including 331 atmospheric tests. India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club in 1998 with multiple nuclear tests, and received much international condemnation. Today, however, the Bush administration wants to change the US non-proliferation laws as well as international agreements in order to provide India with nuclear technology and materials. The Bush administration is also silent on Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
Clearly, the Bush administration does not treat nuclear weapons as the problem, but rather specific regimes that might possess them – acceptable for some countries, but not for others. In adopting this posture, the US promotes an untenable nuclear double standard. Countries like North Korea and Iran, having been branded as part of the “Axis of Evil” and having seen what happened to the regime in Iraq at the hands of the US, are encouraged to develop nuclear weapons if only to prevent US aggression against them.
Mr. Bush has condemned the North Korean test as a “provocative act,” but stated that “[t]he United States remains committed to diplomacy.” If the North Korean test is taken as a significant warning sign of the potential for increased nuclear proliferation and increased danger to humanity that can only be countered by diplomacy, the crisis could be turned to opportunity.
Three steps need to be urgently undertaken to reduce nuclear dangers in the aftermath of the North Korean test. First, the United States should engage in direct negotiations with North Korea to achieve a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula in exchange for US security assurances and development assistance to North Korea. Second, the countries of Northeast Asia, along with the nuclear weapons states with a presence in the region, need to negotiate the creation of a Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone, prohibiting all nuclear weapons in the region. This treaty would be a reasonable outcome of the Six-Nation Nuclear Talks between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the US that have been going on since 2003. Third, the United Nations should convene a Global Conference for Nuclear Disarmament to negotiate a treaty for the phased and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons as required under international law.
Whether or not such steps are taken will depend almost entirely on US leadership. If they are not taken, we can anticipate a deepening nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and throughout the world. If they are taken, we could emerge from this crisis in a far better position to end the nuclear threat that is the greatest terror faced by our nation and the world.