A Dangerous Mix

Thursday, October 19, 2006

You might have seen or heard a lot in the last 10 days about the country of North Korea and nuclear weapons. It's a big news story because nuclear weapons are the most powerful bombs ever used, and North Korea just became the eighth country known to have them.

North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb underground last week. No one was hurt, but the test explosion made governments around the world nervous about how many of these dangerous weapons are being made and who has them.

Nuclear weapons, also called atomic weapons, are capable of incredible destruction. The effects of a nuclear bomb last longer than any other kind because it creates high levels of radiation, which is harmful to people. That radiation stays in the environment for years.

Nuclear weapons have been used in only one war. Toward the end of World War II, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States had entered the war when Japan bombed Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in 1941. Shortly after the United States dropped the atomic bombs in 1945, the Japanese surrendered and the war was over.

Nuclear weapons are very expensive and difficult to make. For many years only two countries had them: the United States and the Soviet Union. (The Soviet Union later split into several countries; the biggest is Russia.) In the 1950s and '60s -- during a period called the Cold War -- nuclear weapons were considered a deterrent, because any country that used one against an enemy knew that a nuclear weapon would be fired back. It's like what happens on the playground when one kid decides not to punch another because he doesn't want to get punched himself.

Many countries think the world would be safer with fewer nuclear bombs. That's why nations with nuclear weapons have signed treaties limiting them. Some of these agreements, including ones between the United States and Russia, have led to a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. These agreements are aimed at preventing nuclear war.

Part of the reason that North Korea's nuclear test is so troubling is that no one knows if Kim Jong Il, the dictator who leads North Korea and sees the United States as an enemy, will accept the nuclear weapons limits that other countries have agreed to. North Korea has a large and powerful army but is a very poor country. Its people have no real say in choosing their leaders and have little contact with the rest of the world.

Many countries are concerned that North Korea could sell a nuclear weapon to another country or a terrorist group that might use it somewhere in the world.

The United Nations, a worldwide group of countries (including the United States) that cooperate on certain matters, is trying to pressure North Korea into halting its nuclear weapons program. So far, though, North Korea says it will not back down.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

© 2006 The Washington Post Company