WITH little fanfare, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - currently the legal basis for world complaints about North Korea's nuclear program - is itself nearing the critical point in its existence since its entry into force almost 25 years ago.
Next spring, representatives from NPT member nations will meet in New York to decide whether, how, and for how long the accord should be renewed. The meeting is necessary, because the original drafters included a sort of automatic-expiration-date clause in the NPT, set to go off in 1995.
The United States and most other developed nations want the treaty to be extended indefinitely. It is not clear, however, that the position will prevail. Some developing nations question the treaty's effectiveness, and they resent what they see as highhandedness from declared nuclear nations toward the nuclear have-nots.
US officials don't want a deadlock that could call into question the treaty's longterm viability. ``It's important to realize that we wouldn't even have a case against North Korea if it wasn't for the NPT,'' says Thomas Graham, US ambassador-designate to the NPT renewal conference.
Now, with 163 signatory nations, the non-proliferation pact has long been the centerpiece of the world's efforts to control the spread of nuclear weaponry. Nonnuclear members of the NPT club promise that they won't try to obtain weapons on the sly. And they agree to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, they get technical help for their civilian nuclear-power programs.
Nuclear NPT members promise not to transfer any of their nuclear-weapons technology. Crucially, they also agreed to a provision calling on them to negotiate ``measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race'' according to treaty language.
Over the years the NPT has successfully delegitimized the nuclear weapons option, proponents say. It has established the important IAEA inspections regime. Overall, it may be a major reason why nuclear weapons have not spread nearly as fast as many feared in the 1960s. ``The importance of the NPT is sometimes forgotten,'' insisted Lewis Dunn, a former US NPT review conference ambassador, in a recent journal article.
Treaty just fixed?
Yet the pact now is up for review. At the insistence of West Germany, Switzerland, and other nations reluctant at the time to forswear nuclear weapons forever, NPT signatories promised to reconvene in 1995 to decide ``whether the treaty shall be extended indefinitely, or for an additional fixed period or periods.''
The treaty does not say members can vote to abolish it. But proponents worry that less-than-ringing endorsements, or a short-term extension, could break the compact the NPT establishes between nuclear haves and have-nots, and begin the process of the pact's unraveling.
Ambassador-designate Graham says it is absolutely crucial to extend the treaty as far as possible. ``We want to send the strongest possible signal we can to would-be proliferators like North Korea, and possibly Iran,'' he says. Graham says the chances of obtaining an indefinite extension are ``reasonably good.'' But he says they are by no means assured and that, in any case, the US would strongly prefer such an important decision not pass by a bare one- or two-vote margin.
The US problem is that a number of developing countries have long expressed dissatisfaction with the NPT's balance of power. Mexico, Indonesia, and others complain that nuclear nations have not lived up to their promise to pursue serious nuclear disarmament. Even when, or if, the historic SALT II arms reductions are finally implemented, the US and Russia will, between them, still have more nuclear warheads than they did in 1968.
``The nonnuclear nations have raised this over and over,'' says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Campaign for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. ``We have got to do something to show adherence'' to the disarmament pledge.
Progress on a comprehensive test ban treaty might be one such indication that would mollify dissent. The Clinton administration has committed itself to negotiating such a ban, though China's continued nuclear testing may complicate matters.
An NPT extension
Reaching a compact on cutting off fissile material production could be another way of easing NPT extension. So could a declaration by the US that it would never use nuclear weapons first. Dissenting nations may just be reluctant to forever rule out the chance of their obtaining nuclear weapons, however. And some question the relevance of a piece of paper in an increasingly chaotic world. After all, North Korea is an NPT member. Yet, it has apparently forged ahead with a nuclear-weapons program in defiance of IAEA inspectors and its NPT obligations.
But Ambassador-designate Graham says the fact that there are bad actors in the world does not mean legal norms should be eliminated. Without the NPT, he points out, the world would have no basis for complaints about North Korea's actions.
In any case, some international controls remain over the North Korean program while IAEA inspectors remain in the country.