Implications of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis
The conflict over North Korea's nuclear weapons program has dire implications for the international order, human rights, and the environment. That may seem obvious, but it is true not just for the "obvious" reasons. The Bush Administration's war on Iraq and its diplomatic approach to dealing with North Korea could set the stage for widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons, unconstrained by the old standoff of superpowers like the US and the USSR. Rather than discouraging nations from developing nuclear weapons, the US's treatment of Iraq and North Korea reinforces the message that having nuclear weapons provides more political and diplomatic leverage than international institutions like the United Nations (UN) can offer. The North Korean crisis makes it more important than ever to prevent war on Iraq and to phase out nuclear power in the US.
North Korea is Not a Threat
The standoff with North Korea (the DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea) highlights the US's hypocritical stance toward Iraq: if Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, as North Korea does, it would not be pursuing war against Saddam Hussein's regime. At this stage, the conflict primarily revolves around the DPRK restarting a 5-megawatt research reactor and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, which some analysts estimate could enable the DPRK to produce a few bombs worth of plutonium in a few months. The threat is not due to the amount of nuclear material North Korea has, but the possibility that it could possess nuclear weapons at all. For instance, by comparison, the US still has about 17,000 armed nuclear weapons, several tons of plutonium from dismantled weapons, and each of the US's 103 operating nuclear power plants creates 100-300 times as much plutonium as the single North Korean reactor each year. With this massive capability and its pre-emptive strike doctrine, Bush's own erratic regime poses a greater threat to the rest of the world than North Korea does.
The Nuclear Gauntlet
The situation reinforces the symbolic value of nuclear technology and illustrates a stark reality of geopolitics: nuclear technology is the key to political leverage and respect in the world. No one is willing to risk war with a country that may have nuclear weapons. North Korea, under Kim Jong II's leadership, was willing to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two nuclear power reactors designed and built by the US. There are safer, cheaper, sustainable alternatives by which the US could have helped the DPRK meet its energy needs, more cheaply and on a much faster time frame. For both the US and North Korea, the central issue is the symbolic political value of nuclear technology and the economic and industrial advancement it implies.
Even right-wing groups that support the Bush Administration's aims for global dominance and its stated opposition to other countries obtaining weapons are critical of the current approach. Henry Sokolski of the Non-Proliferation Education Policy Center told CNN in a February 7 article, "You don't bomb a nuclear nation. Saddam Hussein does not have nuclear weapons. North Korea does." Unlike Iraq, North Korea not only has the capability of producing nuclear weapons, it has a powerful military and proven missile systems with far greater range than Iraq's. Unlike Iraq, North Korea has repeatedly threatened its neighbors (South Korea and Japan) in recent years, and has the ability to wage war on both.
The article by CNN's Senior Asia Correspondent, Mike Chinoy, concludes that the Bush Administration's actions "could hold enormous and grim implications for future world security" ("Dangers in US Approach to N. Korea," CNN 2/7/03). Chinoy also quotes Leon Sigal, author of the book Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea: "The message you send is: Go get nuclear weapons in a hurry This is a policy of proliferation, not non-proliferation. This is going to ensure the North Koreans develop weapons, and continue to sell weapons."
Most believe that North Korea's isolated and economically desperate regime is using its nuclear programs for political leverage, but does not intend to start a nuclear war. There are reportedly conflicts, however, within the North Korean leadership. According to Selig S. Harrison of the Center for International Policy, "North Korean leader Kim Jong II and his more pragmatic advisers face powerful hard-liners in the armed forces who want to develop nuclear weapons" (USA Today, 10/22/02). The US's hard-line rhetoric and refusal to negotiate strengthen the voices for nuclear weapons in North Korea. The Bush Administration's approach has also opened up disagreements with the US's major allies in the region, particularly South Korea, where there have recently been large anti-US demonstrations. On the other side, Russia and China have backed off of their support for the DPRK. The UN has been reluctant to take a role in the situation, and North Korea has headed off UN involvement by threatening to respond to non-military action (economic sanctions) as an act of war.
The effectiveness of the UN, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and other international agreements in providing a framework for disarmament, accountability, and peaceful diplomacy is being undermined, and "might is right," bottom-line diplomacy is becoming the norm. The retreat of the UN and key allies from the North Korean conflict and their possible inability to prevent an illegal and baseless invasion of Iraq reinforce the message that nuclear weapons are the only insurance against aggression from one's enemies. Now, less powerful countries have to gamble that they can develop weapons of mass destruction before their enemies realize it and attack first.
The Unraveling of the International Order
The basis for this situation is actually lies in the UN Charter, which grants the five original nuclear weapons states unjust power. The United Nations is governed by the 15-member Security Council. Ten nations are elected by the UN General Assembly to be temporary Security Council members, serving two-year terms. There are five permanent members of the Security Council and, unlike the other ten, they have veto power over any proposed policy, action, or resolution. The permanent members of the Security Council are the US, Russia (formerly the USSR), the United Kingdom (UK), France, and China _ the original five nuclear weapons states at the time the NPT was drafted in 1967. Russia's assumption of the USSR's permanent-member status is clearly due to its inheritance of the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal, which gives Russia undisputed claim as a world power despite its hopelessly failed economy and political corruption.
Because of this power imbalance in the Security Council, temporary members are often manipulated to present an artificial consensus in support of controversial actions by permanent members like the US. Even though the DPRK has little hope of ever being elected to the Security Council, its nuclear programs give it more power to force concessions from superpowers than Security Council members like Yemen have in their two-year terms without veto authority. This critical part of the UN's structure undermines its ability to be a forum for peacefully resolving disputes between nations.
A Way Out
The Bush Administration's actions undermine the possibility of a world order where nations are accountable to a global community and promote one in which nations walk diplomatic tightropes over threats of apocalyptic destruction. There must be a new approach to non-proliferation and disarmament. But this "regime change" must begin at home. The US must abandon its war on Iraq and its pre-emptive strike doctrine. That is the only way to prevent an escalation of nuclear weapons proliferation. It must re-open relations with North Korea and cooperate in a UN-mediated and -approved process for resolving the arms dispute.
That agreement would be most effective if it did not involve the exchange of nuclear power for nuclear weapons. The plutonium necessary for nuclear missile warheads cannot be found in nature; it is produced in nuclear reactors. All nuclear power plants are plutonium-producing facilities that also generate electricity. The danger of weapons proliferation will never go away as long as nations promote nuclear power. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous and dirty, and nuclear-for-nuclear tradeoffs only perpetuate the misplaced value put on humankind's ability to split atoms.
Even though some preparatory work has been done for the construction of two nuclear reactors in North Korea, it would also be more practical to abandon that project in favor of other forms of generating electricity. Building the reactors will cost billions of dollars more than the construction cost of other types of power plants, and it is expensive to operate reactors and to manage their waste safely. Renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar or geothermal _ as well as energy efficiency technology and conservation methods _ could offer the DPRK more economic stability and political security than nuclear power or fossil fuels by:
increasing North Korea's self-sufficiency by basing its energy systems on local, self-replenishing resources;
protecting the country's environment;
promoting the DPRK's international standing by helping it become a world leader in energy innovation; and
improving the country's security through reducing energy consumption and not centralizing power generation in a handful of large power plants, making it more difficult for potential enemies to destroy the country's power supply.
This same strategy is essential for the US, as well, although it would involve a large reorganization of the nation's energy system.
For the US, the process could be more complicated and will need to take place over a longer time period. However, some important steps can and must be taken now. Curbing US aggression and providing US civilians with concrete security improvements that do not involve restrictions on civil liberties and development of a police state are two essential elements in deescalating the world situation. The US must begin to phase out and secure its own nuclear reactors. Securing the US's nuclear waste and beginning a phase-out process will help to deescalate the situation by making a concrete step toward nuclear disarmament. Such an approach would also do more to protect US civilians and the environment than anything the Bush Administration has proposed so far.
Tim is a former SPC staffperson and Peace Newsletter coordinator. He works with Citizens Awareness Network www.nukebusters.org to shut CNY's four reactors and stop environmental racism. He lives in Syracuse with his dog Eva, pit bull ambassador and advocate against breed-specific legislation www.pbrc.net.