Contrary to what the recent cacophony of voices would suggest, the global nuclear order was dead long before Pyongyang decided it was time to cross the threshold. It was dead because those countries with nuclear weapons have not shown commitment to move towards disarmament, as they promised in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It was dead because Israel, followed by India and Pakistan also built nuclear arsenals, with some countries watching and others clapping on the sidelines. It was dead because of the existence of a vibrant proliferation network, which involved governments, middlemen and top scientists passing dangerous secrets in an illegal, transnational marketplace. The nuclear order had to die, because it was based on a morally wrong and politically naïve principle: that a few countries could be nuclear powers and bully others based on this strength, while all the rest (including those who were nuclear-capable but decided not to proliferate) had to remain silent spectators.
North Korea is an irresponsible state run by a vainglorious man who inherited his dictatorship, and who has no respect for international law. His nuclear programme and tests must be harshly condemned and sanctions slapped. But the self-righteousness and criticism emanating from the two nuclearised Southasian countries is difficult to digest. Look at the arguments India, responsible for sparking off the nuclear race in the region, made to justify its tests – a discriminatory nuclear order, a hostile security environment, strategic depth. These are precisely the reasons cited by Pyongyang for having gone nuclear. Yet, as New Delhi inches closer to becoming a formal part of the nuclear club, it does not sense the hypocrisy inherent in its being judgemental. Some call it realpolitik, but the truth is starker: the strategic community in India lacks a moral centre.
But of course, to understand the recent tests in the Korean peninsula, one needs to look elsewhere – at Washington DC. By including North Korea in its ‘axis of evil’, attacking Iraq based on a lie, and now ratcheting up pressure on Iran on equally flimsy grounds, George W Bush’s administration has harmed the international system in more ways than one. It has created insecurity among states and regimes, some of which have come to believe that possessing real WMDs is the only way to deter the US’s military onslaught. We wonder whether President Bush’s record in office has anything to do with Kim Jong-il going nuclear, and we are inclined to believe so.
Several immediate concerns have come to the fore in the wake of the test – the nature of sanctions, China’s role and influence, the implications vis-à-vis Japan and South Korea, and options for the US. These are important questions, which will decide the way East Asia looks in coming decades. But beneath the clutter lies a more fundamental issue – which way the world is headed on the nuclear question.
The choice is fairly straightforward. The nuclear status quo is now a thing of the past. In the quest for ‘security’ and the perceived need to assert their military strength, there will be more countries that will head the nuclear way. Japan may move away from its pacifist Constitution; countries in Africa and Latin America may rethink their renunciation of nuclear weapons; if pushed to a corner, Iran might decide to further accelerate its programme. As the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warns, more than 30 countries have the ability to steer down this path. The other option – and, we believe, the only sane choice – is step-by-step disarmament. The nuclear-haves must live up their commitment to reduce, with the goal of finally eliminating, their nuclear arsenal. The age of two sets of rules is over. The choice is ours.