On October 9, 2006, North Korea became the eighth country on the planet to announce that it had conducted a nuclear explosive test and joined the ranks of nuclear weapon states. The official announcement asserts that the underground test was "conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology, 100 per cent" and hails it as "a historic event" that will "contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the area around it." This act of adventurism has naturally provoked strong international condemnation, with even China, North Korea's principal interlocutor, ally, and supplier of food and oil, denouncing the test as a "flagrant and brazen" violation of international opinion and threatening to "resolutely oppose" its conduct. Two days before the test, the United Nations Security Council warned the Democratic People's Republic of Korea that its threatened action would lead to severe consequences. With the United States aggressively leading the campaign to punish it, some kind of tough collective action, beginning with the imposition of Security Council sanctions, seems guaranteed.
The international community cannot pretend it had no forewarning. Since 2003, when Pyongyang announced its decision to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has not been under any legal obligation to forswear the production or possession of nuclear weapons. In February 2005, it asserted it had built nuclear weapons. On October 3, 2006 came a declaration that it would soon test a nuclear weapon, "an essential process for bolstering the nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defence." 10/9 brings to a formal end the grand bargain on which American nuclear policy in East Asia has rested: that in exchange for Japan and South Korea forswearing their right to nuclear weapons, the U.S. would guarantee their security against nuclear attack by Russia or China and ensure there would be no new nuclear weapon state in the region. The U.S. point man for Korea, Christopher Hill, recently warned that Pyongyang could either have nuclear weapons or a "future." But what really can Washington do under the profoundly changed circumstances?
The old nuclear order based on an unequal global nuclear bargain and dubiously legalised by the NPT now lies in ruins. India (which put pressure on the global nuclear bargain as early as May 1974) and Pakistan punched a big hole through the `non-proliferation' regime in May 1998. Israel, which for decades has had a sizeable arsenal of nuclear weapons, has also stayed out of the NPT with western support. In the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are close to 30 countries that can be considered "virtual nuclear weapon states"; in other words, they have the technological capability to convert their civilian nuclear programmes into weapons programmes in a matter of months. It is undeniable that the preaching and practice of `non-proliferation' is all about double standards, different sets of rules applying to different states in a global system sought to be controlled by the U.S. Thus, by definition, every condemnation of Pyongyang's adventurism by a nuclear weapon state is based on double standards, you might say `hypocrisy.'
The Government of India might see North Korea's action as greatly weakening the prospect of the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation deal winning approval in the U.S. Congress. But even allowing for this, New Delhi's condemnation of the October 9 test as being "in violation of its international commitments, jeopardising peace, stability and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region" and as highlighting "the dangers of clandestine proliferation" sounds a bit rich. Post-Pokhran, New Delhi defended what it had done in the language of peace, national security, and deterrence, with Prime Minister Vajpayee famously characterising the nuclear weapon as "the kind of weapon that helps in preserving the peace." But if on May 11 and 13, 1998 India violated no international commitments because it was not a state party to the NPT, North Korea can claim it acted in line with Article 10 of the NPT, the escape clause that stipulates: "Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardised the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance."
The real point is that any realistic assessment of Pyongyang's nuclear test must go beyond disputing the legality of its action to addressing the serious regional and international consequences of its adventurism and seeing what can be done to undo the damage. China evidently feels terribly let down. The heightened insecurity of Japan and South Korea might now incline towards paranoia. The Bush administration, which must accept a major share of the blame for missing chances for a re-configuration of relations with the Kim Jong Il regime, for its bluster against the `axis of evil,' and for imposing short-sighted financial sanctions, must now be restrained by other major powers, especially permanent members of the Security Council, from going down the road of another disastrous military confrontation. The six-party talks can yet be salvaged as a forum for a negotiated solution that surely lies in persuading North Korea that its way out of international isolation is to put the genie back into the bottle and renounce, in words as well as deeds, its nuclear weapons status.