NORTH Korea's renunciation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has given a sharp jolt to the world's efforts to keep more nations from obtaining "the bomb."
The secretive Pyongyang regime may yet be lured back into the NPT. The United States and other concerned big powers hope mild rebukes, coupled with pressure from its patron, China, might still make North Korea change its mind.
But there's no denying that the whole affair has set Washington on edge. It points out that the globe's elaborate safeguards against nonproliferation, which center on the NPT, may not be that safe after all.
And with the end of the cold war, halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction "has got to be one of the central objectives of US foreign policy," one State Department official points out.
Sword rattling over the situation has already started - on both sides. Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, head of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, last week called for the US to build international support for a military strike if North Korea continues to bar atomic inspectors.
"There's no question we would have to be prepared to go to war," said Representative Murtha at a breakfast with defense reporters.
Only a few months ago, it seemed Pyongyang was proof that international safeguards could really make a dent in nuclear proliferation.
In January 1992, North Korea had finally agreed to allow inspections of its nuclear power facilities under the terms of the nonproliferation pact.
The lure of aid and trade from the West for a weak economy seemed to have overcome the desire of North Korean leaders for a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
For some months, inspections proceeded smoothly. Then United Nations inspectors, sniffing hints of a secret stockpile of plutonium, were rebuffed in their attempt to visit several sites at Yongbyon, 60 miles northwest of the capital.
On March 12, North Korea gave the required notice that it would pull out of the NPT, which it signed in 1985. No signatory had ever renounced the treaty before. What did it mean?
As yet the West can't tell. The most disturbing theory is that North Korea decided the NPT had more teeth than it thought and quit to develop nuclear weapons in peace. There's also the chance Pyongyang quit in protest over US-South Korean military exercises, and miscalculated the West's reaction.
If nothing else, the situation has called into question the effectiveness of the NPT and its associated inspection safeguards, which are carried out by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Nations that sign the NPT promise they won't make or obtain nuclear weapons; IAEA inspections make sure that bomb material isn't diverted from signatory nations' peaceful nuclear power programs.
The IAEA's prestige had already suffered a blow in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had signed and appeared to comply with the NPT, but post-Gulf-war inspections revealed a hidden weapons program.
In fact, North Korea's actions prove the value of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, according to some analysts. By pulling out, Pyongyang shines a spotlight on its own behavior, these experts point out. It has clearly declared itself a rogue nation.
The NPT "has given the international community a basis for action," argues Ben Sanders, a former IAEA official who is now chairman of the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation.
US officials have already indicated that they intend to call a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Korea.
It's unlikely that Pyongyang's actions will start a stampede for the exits, with other nations renouncing the NPT. But it is a bad time for nonproliferation efforts to suffer any blows. For one thing, Ukraine has yet to sign the NPT. It appears possible Ukrainian leaders could still decide to keep the nuclear weapons now on their soil, rather than turn them over to Russia for destruction. For another thing, the NPT itself is up for renewal in 1995. Preliminary meetings planning the renewal conference beg in this spring in New York.
A vote for anything less than a long-term renewal of the treaty would be a setback, argue analysts.
Several nonsignatory nations remain proliferation concerns: India, Pakistan, and Israel. "The very success of the [renewal] conference could have an effect on them," says James Leonard, head of the Washington Council for Non-Proliferation.