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Limited progress on nonproliferation

President Bush calls Kim Jong Il a "tyrant." Kim Jong Il calls President Bush a "philistine." That's about the state of play on the nuclear nonproliferation front.

North Korea makes a fist by firing a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan. Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, sends a shudder of apprehension through Capitol Hill by testifying that North Korea has the capability of arming missiles with nuclear warheads - missiles that could theoretically reach the West Coast of the United States.

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Are we getting ready for a preemptive strike? Not to worry! The admiral apparently misspoke. President Bush tells his press conference, "We don't know if he can or not." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a feat of obfuscation, says, "We have different assessments of what they may or may not be doing."

Tension with North Korea, which has pretty much written off the Bush administration, remains high. With Iran - facing nuclear powers all around it - the tension is not much less.

The 187 countries that have signed the 1970 nonproliferation treaty are meeting in New York, as they do every five years, to review progress in reducing the nuclear danger. Not very much. Libya has resigned from the nuclear club. North Korea and Iran are almost surely on their way to becoming new members.

And the US, which is working on new bunker-busting nuclear bombs, wants sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine features a cover article by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, headlined "Apocalypse Soon: Why American nukes are immoral, illegal and dreadfully dangerous." Mr. McNamara sweated out the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with President Kennedy - the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war.

The nonproliferation treaty calls on the signatories to move toward dismantling their nuclear weapons. The US wants to keep the emphasis on rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wants a worldwide moratorium on enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium - the two fuels for nuclear weapons.

The prospects are not very good.

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Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.