Today's date:
Winter 2007

US Holds Key to Non-Proliferation

Hans Blix was Sweden’s foreign minister from 1978–1979 and director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1981–1997; he led the United Nations’ inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq from 2000–2003. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in New York in October.

NPQ | What are the implications for nuclear proliferation of the North Korean nuclear test?

Hans Blix | First of all, it is a diplomatic and media explosion that finally focuses the world’s attention on what to do about North Korea. After all, we have suspected for a long time that North Korea has had enough plutonium to make five to 10 bombs. In that sense, what has happened is not new. Their capacity was virtual; now it is manifest.

In the long term, the concern is that if North Korea does not “walk back” as South Africa did, for example, it will strengthen the pressures within Japan, and perhaps even South Korea, to have their own bombs. However, Japan, because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has a very strong inoculation against acquiring nuclear weapons, so that is not an immediate prospect. It is more likely that they will have a stronger missile defense and United States security guarantees. It will also no doubt make it easier for them to rewrite their constitution in order to boost their conventional military posture.

In general, I don’t see that the world is replete with would-be proliferators. Let’s look at Iran as well, if it gets a bomb in five years’ time. Turkey is a member of NATO and has stable relations with Iran. Pakistan already has the bomb. Afghanistan is far away from a bomb. Syria has very limited nuclear potential. So does Saudi Arabia. Egypt is the only one with the knowledge and scientists to make a bomb, but it is strongly embedded in security relationships with the West. So, I don’t see any immediate risk of more proliferation.

The other concern, of course, is that North Korea may go further in actually threatening the use of nuclear weapons or selling it to somebody. That needs to be the worry now.

NPQ | What then should be the focus ahead?

Blix | The effort now has to be to get North Korea to “walk back” and persuading the Iranians to suspend enrichment capability.

In both cases, the key element is for the US to offer a “security guarantee” that it will not attack or seek regime change in these two countries. In my long experience, the temptation to proliferation comes from a perceived security threat. North Korea once had Russia and China as friends but does not feel it can rely on them any longer. The US is outright hostile, of course. It feels alone, isolated—and perhaps is paranoid. And (the North Korean leadership) no doubt tells its impoverished people they are threatened and the bomb will protect them.

The question for North Korea at this point is whether the bomb or a paper assurance is its best guarantee of security. The problem has been that the US position is so ambivalent the North Koreans can’t trust it. On one hand, (US Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice says there is no intention to attack them. But others wave the stick at the same time.

NPQ | So there is no walking back without an unambivalent security guarantee?

Blix | That’s right. Now, some think that the North Korean test was merely a way to raise the price for walking back. I’m not so convinced.

NPQ | Does Libya, which gave up its nuclear efforts, offer an example?

Blix | Libya had many years of sanctions and then low-key talks. In the end, pride was the key factor. Qaddafi could walk away from his nuclear program claiming he got the better deal in negotiations with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And Libyans did get quite a lot.

NPQ | What should the US specifically do now in the immediate period ahead?

Blix | In 1994, President Bill Clinton allowed Jimmy Carter to go and talk to Kim Il Sung. That opened up a dialogue that ended in stalling plutonium production for many years. Why couldn’t something be done similarly today, for example by (former Secretary of State) James Baker, who has said it is no appeasement to talk to one’s adversaries?

The six-party talks are a good venue, but, in the end, the security guarantee and normalization of relations are cards in the US deck. But now, even to get back to those talks will require a US-North Korea bilateral initiative.

NPQ | Is non-proliferation dead?

Blix | No, I don’t think so. The death of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is highly exaggerated. Practically all states in the world—except for Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea—are members. For those members, it sends a signal to their neighbors and the rest of the world that the states in question are not planning to go nuclear and thus pose no threat to each other.

Is the NPT falling apart? No. Both the problems of Libya and Iraq have been solved. North Korea and Iran are countries open to negotiation. The real threat to the NPT comes from the failure of the large nuclear states to live up to their obligation under the treaty to disarm. There is an unease by the non-nuclear states that they are being cheated by the nuclear states.

NPQ | Has the U.S. posture on nuclear weapons during the Bush administration encouraged this unease, if not caused a backlash by the new proliferators? The US abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; it has a program to modernize its nuclear arsenal with a “bunker buster”; it has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); and, of course, it undermined the United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq before the war.

Blix | Yes, the US has sent a signal of arrogance, a signal that the rest of the world should do what the US demands but the US is above it all and can do what it likes. Since the US has been the backbone of non-proliferation efforts for decades, this has undermined the credibility of the whole effort. In fact, in 1995 the US shepherded the extension of the NPT under Clinton; but in 2005 it reneged, saying those commitments were given in another era.

Nothing would be more important in turning the tide with North Korea and Iran than if the US ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. How can the US demand that North Korea not test weapons again, as the UN resolution calls for, when they are unwilling to make that commitment itself? That certainly doesn’t put the Americans on the moral high ground.

Because the US has not ratified the CTBT, China won’t either. The US has the key in its hand. Wouldn’t its demands be more credible and effective if it also agreed not to test?

NPQ | Do you think the UN resolution that seeks to stop North Korea from testing again or selling its weapons to others will be effective?

Blix | I’m pessimistic. The resolution is very tough in tone in order to satisfy domestic public opinion in the US and Japan especially, but also in China. But the measures are weak. If they want the North Koreans to walk back, they have to act. They are now only waving the stick. When you wave the stick at the North Koreans, it makes them more strident and defiant. It would surprise me very much if the North Koreans moved in the right direction as a result of this UN resolution.

And if they don’t? Well, then there will be an escalation of tensions. (The Security Council) is painting itself into a corner, just as it has with Iran, where the West has demanded a suspension of enrichment before talks. Talks should not have preconditions because otherwise it is like asking a poker player to show the trump card before you sit down and play.

The better course on North Korea, it seems to me, would be to de-escalate by offering a security guarantee, for the US and Japan to ratify the test ban treaty and for the US to send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang to open a dialogue.