London. -- Hard on the heels of the belated ''discovery'' of Iraq's cache of about-to-be nuclear weapons, Washington is now incensed by the mounting evidence that North Korea, also in defiance of its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a significant nuclear weapons program well under way.
From North Korea's point of view, a nuclear arsenal makes a lot of sense.
Not least for this cash-strapped, moribund, command economy, light years behind the South in its development, the cost is cheap. Just as NATO found years ago that nuclear weapons were a bargain equalizer to the Warsaw Pact's massive ground forces, so too North Korea can build a nuclear arsenal for a mere five per cent of its annual defense budget and redress the runaway ability of rich South Korea to build a superior and stronger military machine.
Second, it undermines all hopes of reunification with the South. Despite years of rhetoric to the contrary, President Kim Il Sung knows that reunification would be the end of his dynastic dictatorship. In today's fast-changing world, it can only survive isolated. Since the winds of change have leapt across eastern Europe, even his students have been brought home from Prague and Moscow. He might as well have the bomb too.
Third, even though North Korea denies it's building nuclear weapons, its intensive nuclear research activity, which it doesn't hide, works to throw the spotlight on the U.S.'s nuclear inventory in the South which Washington also refuses to own up to. With neither admitting what the other knows, this is the most peculiar and bizarre form of nuclear brinkmanship.
What is the reason for Washington's continued reticence, even evasion, about its nuclear rockets in South Korea? It can't any longer be a question of maintaining the military balance. Indeed General Louis Menetreg, the former commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, has said that by the mid-1990s no U.S. forces will be necessary to keep the balance, much less nuclear-armed ones.
Perhaps it is a means of assuring that the South does not build nuclear weapons of its own which it started to do in the 1970s before Washington persuaded it to stop. But would Seoul, enjoying the fruits of now being democratic and prosperous, on the threshold of being accepted into the inner councils of the Western world, want to be seen as an outlaw again?
Perhaps the U.S. nuclear stockpile in South Korea is merely seen, mistakenly, as a bargaining tool with the North.
On the table is a North Korean proposal that, if it receives a legal guarantee from the U.S. that America will withdraw its nuclear threat, the North will immediately conclude a safeguards and inspection agreement of its nuclear industry with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Of course, in the light of what we now know of Iraq's ability to circumvent such an agreement, any new deals have got to have built into them a much greater degree of intrusion and random inspection than has been the custom.
Despite these problems, withdrawing U.S. nuclear weapons is where the ball has to start rolling. They are a provocation. They do give a mischievous, though not entirely spurious, legitimacy to the North to build its own weapons, a program which if it hadn't been for Soviet pressure it would have consummated years ago.
At this stage, in fact, a unilateral U.S. move on removing its nuclear arsenal may no longer be sufficient to do the trick. Other steps may have to be taken.
The South, its military strength increasing effortlessly, needs to convince the North that it is not seeking long-term conventional superiority. Although President Roh Tae Woo promised Mikhail Gorbachev at their meeting in June last year not to, there have been subsequent statements that contradict this.
The South, too, has to realize, for all its antipathy to what the North stands for, that the other side does have legitimate security needs. For example, the annual U.S.-South Korean ''Team Spirit'' military exercise is provocative in a situation in which only one side has foreign troops and a sizable nuclear arsenal on its territory.
No one should underestimate that to entice Kim Il Sung to be more reasonable and agreeable is a fraught task. But given the South's predominance in everything that counts political openness and participation, economic strength, military prowess, outside strategic support and U.S. backing it is in a position to compromise without losing anything.
More and more it appears that the American and South Korean position is an anachronism from a long-ago-age of Southern inferiority and vulnerability.
It also leads us astray from the number one problem of today: If the U.S. wants to maintain its credibility in the new 11th hour struggle to halt the dangerous spread of nuclear weapons, it is going to have to show the way in South Korea fast. Hypocrisy, it is said, is the respect vice pays to virtue. But in this case, with so much at stake, that's not quite enough.
Jonathan Power writes a column on Third World affairs.