Nuclear Debate Shaped by Post-Cold War Flux

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By Steve Coll
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 25, 1994

VIENNA -- Behind the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang over the future of North Korea's nuclear program lies an intensive, sometimes contentious, often secret and as yet very much unfinished debate about the role of nuclear weapons in a world freed from superpower confrontation.

In several senses, people involved in this debate say, the North Korean crisis is emerging as the nuclear cousin of the Bosnian war: an early and potentially disturbing test of whether the West, Russia and the United Nations can create effective institutions, systems and principles for a new and much more diffuse post-Cold War era of global nuclear security.

Countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, India and Israel have in the past defied the international community to embark on clandestine nuclear weapons programs, as North Korea is now suspected of doing. What makes the North Korean case distinctive, officials involved say, is its character and timing.

The crisis has bubbled during a period of profound flux in worldwide nuclear security arrangements. And, by its nature, it is shaping debate about what a post-Cold War nuclear security regime should look like.

Next spring, the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the basic document governing the present global nuclear weapons order, will expire. A New York conference involving more than 100 countries is scheduled for May 1995 to decide whether to extend, alter or abandon the NPT system, which mandates that the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France are the only nations permitted to have nuclear arms and designates the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the word's nuclear watchdog. Intensive preparatory talks for this momentous conference are already underway.

In Geneva, meanwhile, talks are taking place on a proposed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban nuclear weapons tests and create a new multilateral system of verification, data sharing and enforcement of nuclear bomb testing rules.

At the Pentagon, a thorough review of U.S. nuclear policy in the post-Cold War world has been ordered by the Clinton administration, including an examination of what doctrine to pursue toward suspected rogue Third World nuclear states such as North Korea.

And here in Vienna, the IAEA and its member nations are engaged in a detailed revision of global nuclear inspection and safeguard procedures. The review is linked to the NPT conference next year and is designed to produce a more rigorous, intrusive and technology-driven global nuclear watchdog system than the one that failed to detect Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons program during the late 1980s.

In each of these diplomatic and military policy arenas, the fluctuating and often maddening North Korean nuclear crisis is emerging as an influential and in some respects disruptive reality check, Western and U.N. officials involved with nuclear strategy issues say.

If at the end of the negotiations with North Korea, for instance, Pyongyang is permitted to preserve its ambiguous nuclear weapons status in defiance of the NPT regime, "the damage to the system would be significant," argued one European official involved.

Added another Western official: "This is the key country [in which] to make these breakthroughs" in post-Cold War nuclear security. "But it's not there yet... . Iran is watching this whole thing like a hawk, asking, 'Do you get international cooperation by cooperating with safeguards or do you get cooperation by high-powered confrontation and bargaining?' "

Indeed, at a time when nuclear structures are rapidly changing, "the political attention given to it [the North Korean case] is high everywhere," Hans Blix, director general of the IAEA, said in an interview.


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© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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