Nonproliferation After North Korea

By Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor at Harvard, chaired the National Security Council Committee on Non-Proliferation in the Carter administration and was assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration (THE WASHINGTON POST, 05/11/06):

North Korea is the first country to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and test a nuclear weapon. It has agreed to return to six-party talks about its nuclear status, but skeptics expect little progress.

Some doomsayers are predicting the collapse of the nonproliferation regime, but that kind of fatalism is mistaken. There are many things we can do to prevent such a future.

We are, in fact, doing better at slowing the spread of the bomb than might be expected. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy predicted that there would be 15 to 20 states with nuclear weapons within the next decade. Every country has a right of self-defense, and today some 50 countries have the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Yet only nine do — the original five grandfathered in the 1968 treaty, along with India, Pakistan and Israel, which have never signed the treaty, and now North Korea. Some countries, such as South Africa, developed nuclear weapons and later gave them up. Many, such as South Korea, Brazil, Argentina and Libya, terminated active nuclear weapons programs.

Today is not the first time the nonproliferation regime has been threatened with collapse. In 1973 India exploded a nuclear device, and a rapid rise in oil prices fueled great expectations about the rapid expansion of nuclear commerce. France was selling a reprocessing plant to Pakistan, and Germany began to sell enrichment technology to Brazil. Many parties to the treaty planned to import or develop enrichment and reprocessing facilities. By the middle of the decade, South Korea and Taiwan had covert nuclear weapons programs. There was widespread concern that the nonproliferation regime was unraveling.

The Ford and Carter administrations prevented such a collapse with a combination of instruments. One was American security guarantees. Our allies in Europe and Japan were protected by our nuclear umbrella, and we told South Korea and Taiwan that our willingness to defend them would be jeopardized if they developed the bomb. We also strengthened institutions such as the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by persuading France and Germany to curtail their exports and by getting countries as diverse as the Soviet Union and Japan to join us in forming a Nuclear Suppliers Group. We negotiated an agreement in London in 1977 not to export enrichment and reprocessing facilities. We also engaged dozens of countries in an International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation, which developed more realistic estimates of the benefits and dangers of nuclear commerce. While this did not prevent Pakistan from developing a bomb in the next decade, expectations about nonproliferation were stabilized.

What are the lessons for today? We again need to use a combination of instruments, starting with security guarantees. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has correctly reassured Japan and South Korea of our commitment to their defense, and it is unlikely that Japan will follow the North Korean example unless we make the grave mistake of withdrawing our forward presence in the region. We can also strengthen international institutions. For example, recent U.N. Security Council sanctions reinforce the norm of nonproliferation and show that violation of the NPT is costly.

In addition, we should increase the IAEA’s budget and inspection capabilities. We should also support IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei’s plan for an international bank of enriched uranium that would be made available with guarantees and concessionary terms to countries that do not develop their own enrichment plants.

With regard to North Korea, the Bush administration is correct to warn Pyongyang of dire reprisals if we discover any nuclear exports. Since blockading North Korean ports would not prevent nuclear exports by land or air, we must work to stiffen the resolve of Beijing and Seoul in the enforcement of sanctions, particularly those related to the nuclear program. At the same time, we should be realistic in our expectations regarding sanctions. Both of North Korea’s neighbors and major trading partners fear a chaotic collapse in Pyongyang and are unwilling to cut off the country completely. Moreover, Kim Jong Il has a record of allowing his people to suffer. Within a year or so, broad sanctions would be likely to erode.

A long-term strategy will require a carrot as well as a stick. We can offer recognition and economic integration in return for a freeze in the production of fissile material, IAEA inspections and a renewed commitment to a long-term denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Someday, probably within the next decade, the North Korean regime will disappear (probably more rapidly through integration than isolation) and prospects will improve that Korea could follow the South African example.

North Korea’s nuclear test is not the end of the nonproliferation regime if we develop such a strategy. The resumption of the six-party talks is a first small step. For those who believe that the horse is out of the barn, the answer is that it matters how many horses are out and how fast they are running. This race is far from over.