New cracks in nuclear containment
As North Korea, South Korea, and Iran test limits and raise risks of an arms race, the global challenge to nonproliferation grows.
North Korea might test a nuclear weapon in the near future, though it apparently didn't explode one over the weekend. Iran is forging ahead with nuclear activities despite objections from much of the rest of the world. South Korea, it turns out, produced some fissile material a few years ago. The Seoul government didn't know what was going on - or so it says.Skip to next paragraph
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The global effort to curb nuclear proliferation may now be facing some of its most daunting challenges in years. Taken separately, the news items above are bad enough. But some experts worry that, added together, they might spiral into a whole more dangerous than the sum of its parts.
That's because a few serious cracks could conceivably shatter long-held international taboos against acquiring an atomic arsenal. Even one overt new nuclear nation might produce others, as rivals and neighbors rush to arm themselves defensively.
But this outcome isn't necessarily inevitable. Today, the number of states with a nuclear weapon remains the same as 15 years ago, points out Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"If we work hard and patch up these holes in the [nonproliferation] regime ... we still have a chance to be at the same place 15 years from now," says Mr. Bunn.
Still, September has so far been a daunting month for nuclear revelations - bad enough to make the issue a live one for the presidential campaign. Senator John Kerry said Sunday that by focusing on Iraq, Bush administration officials have "taken their eye off the real ball" and allowed nuclear threats to develop. Bush officials denied the charge - and said that this is one area where they are working with the international community to try to develop multilateral solutions.
For instance, the US isn't alone in confronting North Korea, said Secretary of State Colin Powell in a broadcast interview: "It's North Korea versus all of its neighbors, which have no interest in seeing North Korea with a nuclear weapon."
North Korea remains perhaps the most acute proliferation concern for US officials and experts outside government. Last weekend, reports that Pyongyang might be preparing to test a nuclear device coincided with the inexplicable appearance of a mushroom cloud in North Korea, near the border with China. By all accounts the cloud was the result of a non-nuclear explosion, the cause of which isn't yet clear. But if nothing else, the incident reminded the world of North Korea's self-proclaimed steady nuclear progress.
US intelligence estimates hold that North Korea now has enough fissile material for six to eight nuclear devices. That's enough of a stockpile to use some in a design experiment, say experts - meaning it's entirely possible that a real mushroom cloud will appear somewhere over the secretive nation in the next few years.
"I think it is a real possibility they will carry out a test," says Bunn. "Of course it would be completely insane on their part - they may think it may lead the US to bargain with them, but it would most certainly have the opposite result."