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.

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.

The case against North Korea

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."

How the 'nuclear club' could grow

An overtly nuclear North Korea might not spark a regional arms race right away. But if Japan and South Korea saw no progress in containing the threat within a relatively short period of time, they, too, might decide it would be safer to be in the nuclear club than out. And if Japan and South Korea move, Taiwan might not be far behind.

Meanwhile, the international community on Monday was struggling with how to deal with Iran's nascent nuclear activities. Among the key aims of the US and European allies is to get Iran to fully give up nuclear enrichment activities, which it has so far refused to do, saying they are related only to a nuclear power program.

The US wants the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to set a November deadline for action. If Iran didn't comply, it would be hauled before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. Europe has moved closer to the US view recently, though the US still wants a more automatic "trigger" for action than many of its allies.

The fact that Iran is far more wily in geopolitics than North Korea or Iraq may make it a difficult opponent for the US on this issue, note some experts. "I think there's a bit of a stalemate, but there's room for progress," says Paul Kerr, a non- proliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association. "The Iranians seem to be probing to see what they can get away with."

In this context, South Korea's newly revealed nuclear activities, including production of 300 pounds of uranium metal in the '80s and creation of a small amount of highly enriched uranium in 2000, gave potential proliferators a rhetorical advantage, at the very least. North Korea has already used the admission to try and justify its own activities.

On Monday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said South Korea's admissions were of "serious concern." A fuller IAEA report on the matter should be forthcoming by November, he said.

A broad but critical agenda

Can the cracks in the nonproliferation dike be plugged? Possibly, say experts. The US could make the issue one of higher visibility, and commit more money to programs designed to secure existing stocks of nuclear materials, says the Arms Control Association's Mr. Kerr.

Bunn of Harvard, for his part, says the US should tackle the nuclear programs of hostile states with more adroit diplo- macy. Then it should redouble efforts to secure fissile stockpiles, and roll up any black-market nuclear networks, such as the one headed by rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

Next on Bunn's list is establishment of a robust international inspection regime to make sure controls stay in place. And the US might have to accept limits on its own arsenal, he says, such as a cap on development of new warhead designs.

"This a very broad agenda," says Bunn, "and it's very crucial, partly because the review conference [of the Non Proliferation Treaty] is coming up in early 2005, right after either a new President takes office or President Bush takes up his second term."

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