North Korea’s nuclear test this week (see page 610) is worrying for two reasons: the unstable nature of the nation that has just entered the nuclear-weapons club, and the feeling that the international anti-proliferation regime is slowly unraveling. It’s happening before our eyes.
There is very little precious about the former that can be done. However, the weak position of the anti-proliferation regime – ultimately, a threat greater than the existence of North Korean weapons – is a problem that can at least be addressed, if the willingness to do so exists.
It is to be hoped that the challenge posed by North Korea will provide the necessary political momentum to strengthen anti-proliferation agreements. Further erosion would lead to a nuclear-free for all of us and, eventually, the kind of dire apocalypse rarely contemplated since the end of the Cold War.
International treaties relating to nuclear weapons are not particularly attractive or lucrative; They are complex and mysterious. In our 24-hour news cycle, his advocates are liable to be drowned out by crackling voices. This has already happened to a disturbing degree in the United States. For example, it is so much easier to call for the bombing of Iranian bunkers than to argue for bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) back for US Senate approval.
In the face of the ambitions of North Korea or Iran, what good will this piece of paper do, the protestors cry out? It would be hypothetical to claim that the existence of any non-proliferation treaty would have prevented North Korean testing. However, even a regime like Kim Jong-il is not completely out of reach of such documents – North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 before conducting its own test.
A set of nuclear-weapon treaties in the face of North Korea’s ardor could provide a moral and legal framework that allows the rest of the world to point, criticize, and punish the examiner with unanimity and conviction. But such a framework would not prevent a trial, much more than the enactment of common law would prevent every murder.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 – the main foundation of the torn anti-proliferation regime – was produced with the direct participation of weapons scientists in the United States and the former Soviet Union. These individuals clearly saw the unique moral and military danger of nuclear weapons and, given the lack of necessary technical knowledge in diplomatic or other official circles, took it upon themselves to counter it.