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Nonproliferation's Balance Sheet

EVENTS on the nuclear proliferation front have been moving so swiftly since early June that even the experts have had trouble keeping up. For a while, the good news strongly outweighed the bad. But as of now, the balance has become far less certain. Here's a region-by-region tally of advances and setbacks.

In early June, US Secretary of Defense Les Aspin proposed a bold new initiative to solve what is perhaps the most vexing problem on the US nonproliferation agenda: persuading Ukraine to give up the roughly 2,000 Soviet nuclear weapons still on its territory. If Ukraine takes full control of the weapons, the world would have a new nuclear power virtually overnight.

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Ukraine had repeatedly pledged to eliminate its nuclear arms by ratifying the START I nuclear-arms reduction treaty, adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and returning the weapons to Russia for dismantling. A growing faction in the Ukrainian parliament, however, has urged that the country retain its nuclear arms. Since late 1992, Kiev also has asserted "administrative control" over the weapons, and - hoping for compensation - has claimed ownership of the weapons' valuable components, t hough not of the weapons themselves. By early June, prospects for Ukrainian ratification of START I and the NPT were fading.

To break the impasse, Mr. Aspin proposed removing the nuclear warheads in Ukraine from their missiles and storing the warheads there, under international inspection, until a decision can be reached on ratifying the treaties. The weapons would no longer be targeted on the United States, and Ukraine would be effectively denuclearized, while the weapons themselves could be kept on Ukrainian soil.

Kiev expressed support for the plan and, although Moscow appeared more reluctant, US officials hoped both states would ultimately agree to the concept.

These hopes were dashed in early July, when the Ukrainian parliament in a surprise move voted for a resolution openly claiming complete ownership of the weapons. A day later, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk asserted for the first time that Ukraine should declare itself the full owner of the armaments, while reiterating, rather unconvincingly, that the country should ultimately become a nonnuclear state. Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma went further, declaring that until such denuclearization should occur , Ukraine should declare itself a full-fledged nuclear-weapon state. Thus by mid-July, an early solution to the nuclear stalemate in Ukraine appeared more distant than ever.

In Northeast Asia, June also provided a boost for US morale, when North Korea suspended its decision to withdraw from the NPT. The North had finally accepted International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, specified by the treaty, in April 1992, after six years of delay. In late 1992, as the inspectors probed for clues as to the extent of North Korea's past production of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium, they sought access to two nuclear waste facilities not declared by Pyongyang as nuclear sites.

When North Korea refused, the IAEA's board of governors issued an ultimatum on Feb. 25. Pyongyang was given until April 1 to comply.

Unfortunately, the North then trumped the agency by declaring on March 12 that it was withdrawing from the NPT altogether, under a provision allowing parties to take this step on 90-days' notice if their "supreme interests" are threatened.

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This triggered an intense US-led campaign to persuade Pyongyang to remain in the pact. On June 11 - one day before the North's withdrawal was to take effect - it declared that it would suspend its withdrawal decision while further talks to address its concerns were pursued.

THUS, to the great relief of North Korea's neighbors and the US, the NPT was sustained, and monitoring would continue at North Korea's declared nuclear facilities. Even if inspection of the waste sites was no closer than it had been in March, a grave challenge to the international nonproliferation regime had been averted at least for the moment. The positive momentum was sustained in further US-North Korean talks during mid-July.

Yet, even as progress was being made on this front, a brand new nonproliferation challenge loomed in Northeast Asia from a very unexpected quarter. In early July, Japan balked at a proposal by other G-7 members to issue a declaration at the Tokyo summit firmly supporting an indefinite extension of the NPT when it comes up for renewal in 1995. Japan had agreed to such a strong statement at the Munich G-7 summit a year earlier, but at the 1993 gathering accepted only a luke-warm endorsement of the "objecti ve" of indefinite NPT extension. Japanese officials, backtracking from 1992, stated that Tokyo had not yet adopted a "formal policy" on making the NPT permanent.

Japan is a party to the treaty and therefore prohibited from manufacturing nuclear weapons. Its refusal to embrace an indefinite extension of the pact was a clear signal that it was no longer prepared to rule out the development of nuclear arms at a future time. This first concrete sign that Japan's aversion to nuclear arms may be weakening was a bitter counterpoint to the more hopeful signs in North Korea.

Hopes and anxieties similarly commingled in the Middle East. The UN-mandated IAEA inspectors had largely completed their efforts to root out Iraq's nuclear weapons program. Indeed, at the end of June, US Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs Robert Gallucci declared in congressional testimony that "the program has been knocked flat." He cautioned, however, that the key to ensuring that the program remained quiescent was effective long-term IAEA monitoring under the UN Security Counci l's tough, post-Gulf war resolutions.

Mr. Gallucci's testimony came just three days after the US strike against the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in retaliation for Iraq's plot to assassinate former US President Bush during a visit to Kuwait. Washington's resolve in dealing with Iraq suggested that under US leadership, the Security Council would sustain intensive long-term monitoring of Iraq's nuclear activities.

Yet less than a week after Gallucci testified, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was again testing the Council's resolve by refusing to permit a parallel monitoring effort covering Iraq's missile development activities.

Although Saddam appeared to back down during subsequent talks with UN representative Rolf Ekeus, it remains to be seen whether once again he will renege on his promises to comply with the Security Council's demands. The episode was another reminder that suppression of Baghdad's nuclear ambitions over the long term remains an open question.

A final piece of good news for nonproliferation was the Clinton administration's decision to continue its moratorium on nuclear tests until at least October 1994, provided no other states conduct such detonations. The decision will pave the way for the negotiation of a permanent global treaty banning nuclear tests.

Such a treaty would help cap the capabilities of emerging nuclear states. Moreover, by constraining the ability of the nuclear powers - the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China - to develop new nuclear armaments, the moratorium and promised test-ban treaty will help build support for a lengthy extension of the NPT in 1995 on the part of the treaty's nonnuclear adherents.

So far, the good news on nuclear testing is unalloyed. Nonetheless, with growing questions about nuclear intentions in Ukraine, Japan, and Iraq, and uncertainties about North Korea's next move, Clinton administration nonproliferation aides will have little time to savor their accomplishments of June.

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