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DISARMAMENT: North Korea Test a Setback to Nuke-Free World

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, May 26 2009 (IPS) - When the 2010 review conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) takes place next April, there will be nine declared and non-declared nuclear powers in the world – and probably more waiting in the wings.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warns there may be another 10 or 20 “virtual weapons states” in the next few years, unless there are radical steps towards nuclear disarmament. And the nuclear test Sunday by North Korea (DPRK), the second since October 2006, is threatening not only the security of Asia but also jeopardising U.S. President Barack Obama’s far-reaching and highly ambitious plans for a “world without nuclear weapons”.

The United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, are categorised as the declared nuclear states, while India, Pakistan, Israel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are the non-declared states.

John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS a real danger is that the DPRK test, and also the ongoing Iranian nuclear programme, may bolster elements in the United States and other nuclear powers that oppose disarmament measures.

“The world is going to have to learn how to move urgently on the disarmament front regardless of the ups and downs with respect to preventing acquisition of nuclear weapons by new states,” he said.

Burroughs said disarmament is worthwhile for its own sake, to reduce and eliminate the dangers from existing arsenals, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is also important in its own right.

“Too much is made of the connections between the two. Obviously when the day for completion of a process of global elimination of nuclear weapons (arrives), the twain shall meet,” he added.

At a two-week meeting of the preparatory committee for the 2010 NPT review conference, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation, said last week: “Universal adherence to the NPT itself – including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – also remains a fundamental objective of the United States.”

She quoted Obama as saying: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”

The North Koreans have been accused of violating some of the international commitments made to dismantle their nuclear weapons programmes.

On Monday, Obama called the DPRK nuclear test a “blatant violation of international law” and vowed to take action against the government in Pyongyang.

But taking strong punitive action may be an uphill task at the Security Council considering the track record of China and Russia, which are likely to water down any drastic sanctions against DPRK, one of their political and military allies.

Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was quoted as saying: “I think we were all impressed with the fact that the Russians and the Chinese denounced this so strongly.”

But when it comes to hardcore sanctions, says one Asian diplomat, the two major powers in the Security Council are likely to be more restrained.

Last year, both Russia and China, exercised a rare double veto against a Western resolution aimed at penalising the military regime in Burma.

Obama has promised not only to achieve a global ban on nuclear testing but also “aggressively pursue U.S. ratification” of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

“After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned,” he said last month, in a historic speech on nuclear disarmament, in Prague.

Asked about the new U.S.-Russian stance, Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy told IPS it is encouraging that President Obama has said that the United States seeks a nuclear weapons-free world, particularly as the U.S. is the only state to have used nuclear weapons in war.

“This is the first time I know of that the U.S. has acknowledged its role in starting the nuclear age by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Burroughs said, adding that whether this means the world is closer to nuclear disarmament than ever before is not clear.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the Soviet Union collapsed. Many of the developments like expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have not at all been to Russia’s liking.

“Russia will need a lot of coaxing to take dramatic steps on reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. And nuclear establishments remain powerful in the United States and other countries with nuclear arms,” he added.

The NPT, which opened for signature in July 1968, is aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Currently, there are 189 countries, including the five declared states, who are state parties to the treaty.

But India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea are not. North Korea acceded to the treaty and then later withdrew.

Burroughs said the DPRK test underlines the need to shore up non-proliferation regime.

An essential means of doing so is an NPT Review Conference next year that sets the world’s major powers on a path to taking concrete actions to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in their military postures, and to creating a deliberate process to accomplish elimination of the weapons in the foreseeable future.

That in turn, he argued, would greatly facilitate mobilisation of governments to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and the capability to make them.

“This could make a real difference with respect to Iran and the potential for a further nuclearisation of Middle East politics,” Burroughs said.

He said North Korea would appear to be less sensitive to global expectations. There the Obama administration needs to find a way to end the state of hostility between the United States and the DPRK that has existed since the 1950s war, which was never settled, only suspended, Burroughs added.

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