Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 16 October 2006

Issues raised by North Korea’s nuclear test

Last week the condemnations came fast and furious after North Korea’s nuclear weapon test.  But beyond the threat felt by its immediate neighbours, deep seated and uncomfortable issues were raised. 


The North Korean nuclear weapon test has aroused condemnation from the United States, the European Union and Japan.  China has also criticised this “brazen” act and India has also registered its concerns.

There is less agreement on what actions to take against North Korea.  Japan has announced its own ban on North Korean goods and ships.  The United States wants the United Nations Security Council to take several retaliatory measures, but China objected to some of them.

The North Korean nuclear test and the responses of the big powers are laden with ironies.

Most of those countries that were self righteous and loudest in their condemnation themselves possess nuclear bombs.

This raises the obvious issue:  If nuclear weapons are so dangerous, then the first countries to be criticised should be those that have them. 

The United States and Russia have the most nuclear bombs, followed by Britain, France and China.  Israel is widely known to have them, although it does not admit it.

India and Pakistan successfully conducted their own nuclear tests some years ago, attracting condemnation also at that time.  Now their nuclear status is accepted as a fact of life.

The Security Council’s permanent members are the major players deciding on punitive measures to take against North Korea.  But they are themselves the biggest owners of nuclear weapons.

It is hypocritical for them to condemn and punish others for wanting to own nuclear arms when they themselves are keeping and possibly adding to their own weapons.

The international bargain agreed to several years ago was that those countries owning nuclear weapons would reduce and eliminate their stocks, while other countries would agree not to develop nuclear weapon capability.

There would, in other words, be a process of nuclear disarmament, to be matched by a commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

The disarmament process, marked by negotiations and treaties between the United States and the former Soviet Union, has come to a stop.  Instead, some nuclear weapons states are planning to build more weapons and new models.

The nuclear states have thus little moral authority to demand that other countries not aspire to have nuclear capability when they show no commitment to reduce and eliminate their own existing weapons.

Moreover, there is selectivity or discrimination in the attitude shown to others.  One glaring example is how the United States and its European allies ignore the nuclear weapons that Israel already owns, but are painting Iran as something of a criminal state for developing its nuclear power programme.

Iran has denied it intends to develop a nuclear bomb.  Hopefully it is not.  It is important that the region to be nuclear-free, with Israel getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

Just before the end of the apartheid era, the then government of South Africa admitted it had nuclear weapons, and eliminated them.

It is difficult to argue why other Middle Eastern countries should be punished or bombed if it should aspire to have nuclear weapons, when Israel is allowed to keep and add to its nuclear arsenal.

It is hard to tell India not to test a nuclear weapon when China owns some, or that Pakistan cannot test its weapon when India has done so.

Most of all it is difficult for the United States or the European Union or Russia to try to take a high moral ground against weapons of mass destruction when they or their members are the originators and the owners of most of the world’s nuclear arms.

Another ironic lesson from the traumatic events of recent years is that countries without nuclear weapons can be subjected to invasion, massive bombing and occupation.  The pre-emptive strike by the nuclear-weapon states of America and Britain against Iraq is the prime example.

Another shocking example was the blanket bombing of Lebanon by Israel with the support of the United States, while the rest of the world watched helpless.

However it seems that if a country possesses nuclear weapons, it is taken more seriously, and other countries would be foolish to try to bomb or invade it.

This gives an incentive for countries to become new nuclear states, especially if they have enemies with nuclear weapons.

Several analysts commented in the media last week that North Korea’s nuclear test was a rational act, as it gave it a protective shield against the threat of American military action.

Whether this gamble is going to work, or whether it will provoke actions that in the end lead to a collapse of the North Korean regime (as some others predict) is left to be seen.

If we are to progress towards a safer world, the answer is not for more countries to learn from these ironic lessons.   The world does not need five or twenty other countries aspiring to nuclear status to match their neighbours or to dissuade the powerful countries to leave them alone.

The answer is to urgently revive the processes of both disarmament and non-proliferation.

The failure in the United Nations in the past two years to achieve even a small measure of success in nuclear disarmament, and the doubts that are creeping in on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (now more strongly after the North Korean action), represent major setbacks to peace and security.

A change in mindset is needed, most of all from the major nuclear states.  They should not continue to treat nuclear weapons as the privilege of an exclusive few wanting to   retain their power while preventing others from joining the club.

The elimination of all nuclear weapons and the commitment by all countries not to develop new ones must go hand in hand, and urgently.