NORTH Korea's statement that it will withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) sends two alarms, both of which will test the ability of East and West to reason with a regime that remains in the grip of a cold-war mentality.
The immediate need is to employ all diplomatic means to convince the government of Kim Il Sung (or his successors) that it is in North Korea's own best interests to remain part of the NPT. As North Korea's longtime benefactor, China can play a significant role in keeping North Korea in the non-proliferation fold; Beijing hardly has a need for another nuclear nation on its border.
Over the longer term, the need is to continue to develop confidence-building measures that help North Korea's government overcome its paranoia and bring it out of its political and economic isolation and into a more productive role in the region.
Two events seem to have precipitated Pyongyang's decision. One was United States-South Korean joint military maneuvers, dubbed "Team Spirit." Similar maneuvers were canceled last year when North Korea, a later-comer to the NPT regime, allowed inspections of some of its nuclear facilities. This year, however, the maneuvers took place and reportedly included some nuclear-capable weapons systems.
The presence of those systems was a mistake. To leaders predisposed to finding nuclear-armed capitalists in every closet, the exercises only confirmed their worst fears and gave them a pretext for announcing a withdrawal from the NPT regime.
The second event was the approach of a March 25 deadline for giving international inspectors access to two storage buildings at North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The question of owning a nuclear arsenal has become part of a murky power struggle in North Korea between reformers and hardliners. Such struggles often lead to unexpected shifts in policies that later are reversed. That Pyongyang is refusing the inspections indicates it probably has the weapons-grade material it is reputed to have and that, for the moment, hard-liners intend to keep it.
At one time, North Korea's concern about being the target of a nuclear attack would have been understandable; the US discussed the option during the Korean war. But with the post-cold-war breakup of East-West tensions, the withdrawal of US short-range nuclear weapons from South Korea, and the expected reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals and defense spending in general, those concerns have lost any validity they might have had.
Today, South Korea is scheduled to hold talks with the North over the repatriation of a North Korean guerrilla captured at the end of the Korean war. Keeping these channels open helps.