North Korea Up In Arms

 August 14, 2003

By Robert T. Grey Jr.
The Washington Times

The Bush administration and its critics agree that the viability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is crucial to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. Any actions to prevent nuclear proliferation must reinforce the treaty and not weaken it.

North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty and its claim that it has and will continue to produce weapons grade nuclear material put the NPT and international security at risk. A nuclear armed North Korea with excess weapons grade nuclear material available for export would be an intolerable threat and must be dealt with promptly and firmly. The issue is how to deal with the threat. There are no easy answers, only difficult choices, and even with prudence, patience and the best of intentions it may not be possible to get North Korea to give up the nuclear option.

As a first step, it is imperative that the international community speak with one voice to make it unmistakably clear to North Korea that its only realistic choice is to seek, through negotiations and dialogue, a non-nuclear solution to its security and economic problems. North Korea must understand that absent a diplomatic solution, the international community is prepared, however reluctantly, to use force to put an end to North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The administration recently put forward the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in an effort to constrain proliferation by steps that include permitting interdiction of weapons shipments on the high seas. There are 11 states (Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States) that have joined the PSI. The PSI will only be successful if it operates in the context of the NPT and in compliance with international law.

There are those who argue that the North Korean threat is so immediate that the United States and others should invoke the doctrine of self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and use the PSI to interdict North Korean shipping now. This pushes the self defense doctrine well beyond its narrow limits and creates a dangerous precedent. North Korea’s conduct threatens the entire world, not just the United States and a handful of its allies. China, Russia and all the other members of the international community have a direct stake in this issue.

North Korea has repeatedly stated that any interdiction of its vessels or aircraft would be regarded as an act of war and that it would react accordingly. Given the nature of the North Korean regime and the desperate condition of the country, forcing a premature confrontation without a clear legal mandate that will guarantee maximum political support carries with it the grave risk of igniting a major war on the Korean peninsula, and if indeed the North Koreans have nuclear weapons, a war which could become a nuclear one.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states that when a signatory state withdraws from the treaty, as North Korea did, the matter should be referred to the Security Council. It is imperative that the Security Council be involved now.

A Security Council resolution calling for North Korea to return to and comply with the NPT is the best way to go. The resolution should also make it clear that in the event that North Korea refuses to comply, its shipping will be interdicted. Such a resolution offers North Korea an opportunity to achieve a peaceful outcome and involves the entire international community. Such a Security Council resolution with the backing of all five permanent members would carry great weight and send a powerful message.

China and Russia may be difficult to persuade. The options appear to be either a negotiated diplomatic settlement which brings North Korea back into the NPT fold or an outcome which could result in the creation of as many as three additional nuclear weapons states in the area or another Korean War, which could involve nuclear weapons.

But for the United States and its allies, the worst outcome would be a preemptive interdiction of North Korean shipping without overwhelming international political support followed by another Korean War.

As a country that was instrumental in establishing both the United Nations and the nuclear non-proliferation regime, we have an obligation to try to make them work before attempting to round up a posse and going it alone.

Robert T. Grey Jr., a former ambassador for the Clinton and current Bush administrations, is director of Bipartisan Security Group, a program of the Global Security Institute.

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