It's imperative to return to the global peace agenda

10 October 2006
Article

North Korea's test has mounted a grave challenge to the global nuclear order, which it simply cannot ignore. It shows that a small, impoverished, politically isolated country which cannot even feed its people can build nuclear weapons if it's determined to. Contrary to illusions prevalent especially in India, splitting the atom requires neither high science nor very advanced technology.

The science is more than 60 years old, and the technology no more sophisticated than what a car garage has-once you have fissile material or reactors. The knowhow is in the public domain.

Second, the blast exposes the folly of relying on purely physical or barrier controls, of the kind imposed by International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to ensure that nuclear materials are not put to military use.

Such safeguards are imperfect and leak-prone. For instance, in past years, they failed to account for over 20 kg of plutonium in civilian reprocessing plants. Only 3 to 8 kilos are enough to make one mass-destruction weapon. Besides, a country can walk out of the NPT at three months' notice and divert technology/materials acquired under it to military uses. That's what Pyongyang did, and Iran might do if cornered.

Third, a critical ingredient in a country's decision not to cross the nuclear-weapons threshold is political will favouring non-proliferation. Without this, safeguards and sanctions are ineffectual.

This will has got greatly weakened in a number of countries-largely because the NPT-recognised nuclear-weapons states (NWSs) and de facto NWSs (India, Pakistan, Israel) have doggedly refused to undertake nuclear restraint and arms reduction, leave alone disarmament. One-and-a-half decades after the Cold War ended, thousands of nukes remain on high alert.

It's futile to blame the NPT for this. The NWSs have flagrantly violated its Article VI, which mandates complete elimination of nuclear weapons-declared a legal obligation by the World Court in 1996. Slavishly imitating them in their many-splendoured hypocrisy are the de facto NWSs, including India, once a frontline disarmament campaigner.

India's nuclear deal with the US is widely seen as granting approval to double standards: rewards and indulgence for America's friends (India, Israel, Pakistan), and punishment for Iran or N. Korea. But double standards are not Washington's monopoly. All NWSs practise them.

Unless the NWSs deliver on their part of the global non-proliferation bargain by taking visible, sincere, irreversible steps towards disarmament, more non-NWSs will be tempted to acquire these horror weapons. The US's illegal and unjust war on Iraq has fostered the illusion that nuclear weapons can deter conventional attacks. So it could be a matter of time before yet more states make/acquire nuclear weapons, making the world frighteningly more dangerous.

Japan and South Korea would be disastrously mistaken to react to Pyongyang's test by going nuclear. Washington would be equally wrong to accelerate its as-yet-unproven pie-in-the-sky ballistic missile defence ("Star Wars") programme. This will only encourage strategic instability and proliferation everywhere.

There is an alternative: work for a Northeast Asian nuclear weapons-free zone, make deep cuts in NWS arsenals, and negotiate a global nuclear-weapons abolition treaty like the Chemical Weapons Convention. As India argued for 50 years, nuclear weapons don't provide security; they catalyse arms-racing and insecurity. The way forward lies in disarmament.

In 1998, India unlearned this lesson. It must re-learn it. So must all the NWSs-unless they want limitless proliferation and an unsafe world.

Copyright 2006 The Hindustan Times