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Don't Count Out the Nonproliferation Regime

RATHER than having two potential nuclear facilities at Yongbyon inspected, North Korea declared, on March 12, its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Pyongyang's announcement has created a crisis within the nonproliferation regime. Although serious, this situation can still be managed effectively. This crisis has been caused not by the weakness of the current regime, but by its increasing strength. North Korea's announcement was forced by advanced technology that detected its potential nuclear program; international pressure, with China included, on Pyongyang to stop that program; and multilateral support for "special inspections," a step never taken previously under the nonproliferation treaty.

Since rumors began about Iraq's nuclear program before the Gulf war, an international consensus has been building for special inspections, calling for access to undeclared nuclear facilities. Since the NPT was signed in 1970, a review conference has been held every five years. At the 1990 conference, support was expressed for these inspections, and a draft document was written. More than 70 non-nuclear states required that an agreement be made on progress toward a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

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The United States and Britain refused, no document was signed, and the conference collapsed without an agreement on special inspections. But the non-nuclear states were willing to sacrifice some of their sovereignty for the strength of the nonproliferation regime.

Special inspections have been legal since the treaty was written, but the two sites at Yongbyon are the first undeclared ones to which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has demanded access. On Feb. 9, the secretary general of the IAEA requested more information on, and access to, the two undeclared sites in North Korea. On Feb. 25, the IAEA set a deadline of one month to allow inspection of the facilities. Two weeks later, Pyongyang announced its intention to withdraw from the regime.

BUT withdrawal does not become official until three months after Pyongyang notifies the member-states. That gives the international community until June 12 to persuade North Korea to reverse its decision. Since the announcement, the strength of the regime has been reinforced by universal support for settling this crisis in a manner consistent with nonproliferation. Even China, North Korea's closest ally, stated that the problem "should be settled properly through consultations in a manner conducive to th e universality of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

The UN Security Council should make it clear that if the withdrawal becomes official, maximum, tough sanctions will be levied. For now, negotiations should proceed to reach a solution. The trick is not to panic but to work carefully to get North Korea back into the regime, without making major concessions that would set a bad precedent for other "threshold" states, while pressing for inspection of the sites.

Even if North Korea does withdraw and maximum sanctions are levied, the reaction of the international community can demonstrate the strength of the regime. It is important to contain potential damage by preventing further defections or withdrawals by other NPT member-states and to support the nonproliferation norm. This can be accomplished by strengthening the consensus against proliferation, making it clear that sanctions and other enforcement means will be used against future defector-states, as well a s North Korea.

No treaty or regime can completely prevent a country from doing what it is determined to do. The nonproliferation regime expresses international support for nonproliferation, employs safeguards to verify the use of nuclear energy for exclusively peaceful means, and puts pressure on potential defectors from the regime. Its purpose is to prevent states from getting the technical ability to proliferate and to use political pressure to deter countries from building nuclear weapons.

This "nonproliferation norm" is strong and must be preserved. The tally of who is or is not a member-state is not as important as international consensus against proliferation.

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Efforts to use special inspections and make the NPT even stronger have led to the current crisis in North Korea. This does not mean that these efforts are failing. On the contrary, the nonproliferation regime has discovered a problem-state, has cast an international spotlight on it, and is undertaking efforts to persuade that state to cease and desist. That is exactly the purpose of the nonproliferation regime, and it is working.

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