June 22, 2008

Learning a Lesson from North Korea

Yesterday, June 21, the Washington Post broke a story about North Korea’s nuclear activities that just about defied comprehension.
If you’re not familiar with recent events, the United States and others negotiated a disarmament agreement with North Korea to dismantle their nuclear weapons in exchange for economic incentives and energy aid. For most observers, this deal was a huge breakthrough. Remember: North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, declared to the world it possesses at least six nuclear weapons, and even detonated a weapon in October of 2006 in the first nuclear test of the twenty-first century.

As part of the deal, Pyongyang revealed over 18,000 pages of documentation covering their nuclear program. This is the incredible part: someone had the idea to test the papers for radiological material. And what they found was surprising.
The paper showed traces of highly enriched uranium (HEU). North Korea never disclosed an HEU program anywhere in the 18,000 pages, but the evidence was literally all over the papers they handed over.
We at NIAC have viewed the North Korea deal as a model for how diplomacy can resolve nonproliferation issues. US diplomats won much-deserved praise for their handling of the negotiations, and it appeared that a crisis could be averted and a positive outcome could be found for everyone involved. Now all of that is in jeopardy.
The lesson that I learn from this is that nothing is more complicated than dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons. This is the case because the stakes are so high – no one wins in a nuclear war, everyone loses. But that is precisely why every effort must be made to ensure these weapons are never unleashed on human beings again. And the international community unanimously agrees that nuclear proliferation is unacceptable.
Thus, the case of Iran is a tricky one. The National Intelligence Estimate declassified in December, 2007 declared with high confidence Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Yet the international community remains suspicious of Iran’s nuclear intentions–and events such as yesterday’s in North Korea explain why. Trust is not a luxury the world can have when it comes to nuclear weapons.
Therefore, every effort must be made to ensure Iran’s nuclear program remains for peaceful purposes only. The problem is, current US policy actually encourages Iran to pursue a bomb. A constant drumbeat for escalating tension, thinly veiling the possibility for military action, will only encourage the government of Iran to pursue a weapons program as the best way to gain security. The US must stop going down this road. The US must talk directly with Iran. Negotiations don’t guarantee success – North Korea proved that – but not talking to Iran guarantees failure. And the stakes are too high to fail.

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