Very Little Carrot and Very Little Stick

April 15, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

Vienna -- The International Atomic Energy Agency, guardian of the world's nuclear fortunes, inhabits the dreariest building in the whole of Vienna, a modern, gross, intimidating mass of steel and gray concrete. If it were inverted and sunk in a deep hole, it might be the one sure defense against a North Korean nuclear bomb.

No other protection seems on offer. Despite its best efforts to uphold the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty -- of which North Korea is still a signatory -- the IAEA was neither able to anticipate North Korea's secret ambition to build nuclear weapons nor to do much when its limited inspections more or less confirmed that Kim Il Sung probably had them.

The IAEA's own weakness was compounded when it referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council last month, only to see China threaten to use its veto, reducing the Security Council to impotence.

No wonder IAEA spokesman David Kyd, when I asked him last week if he saw any light in the tunnel, said ''none.'' When asked where do we go from here, he replied, ''I wish I knew. . . . We will go on using the carrot and stick, but we have very little carrot and very little stick.''

But we shouldn't blame the IAEA. We have no one to blame but ourselves. The West tried for 20 years to live out a Faustian bargain between its foreign and economic policies on the one hand and its nuclear proliferation commitment on the other. Now, like all sinners, it is repentant.

For reasons of financial self-interest, Western countries failed to control high-technology exports rigorously. The wherewithal to develop plutonium and build a bomb has slipped through to countries as diverse as North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, India, Brazil and South Africa.

For reasons of realpolitik, President Nixon favored a nuclear-armed China to play off against the Soviet Union. That helped provoke an Indian bomb. And because Presidents Carter and Reagan were obsessed with keeping Pakistan as an ally against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the West turned a blind eye on Pakistan's nuclear developments.

Likewise with Saddam Hussein. Because the West wanted to keep a fundamentalist Iran in its place, it covertly assisted Iraq in its war with Tehran.

The attitude of the Clinton administration appears to be: ''We didn't make this mess. We just inherited it.'' But there are many office holders in the Clinton administration who were in the Carter administration and who went along with the compromises made then.

So now the Clintonites have developed the endearing notion of ''grandfathering,'' i.e., we stop now with what we inherit. Pakistan is being offered F-16s if it will build no more bombs than it has. North Korea, according to the IAEA, will be left in peace if it goes no further than the one or two crude bombs it probably has at the moment.

''Grandfathering'' takes the parenting away from the firm and principled discipline of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the IAEA and puts it in the hands of finessing diplomacy. But ''diplomats would not be diplomats if they did not plume themselves on making the simplest thing difficult, and on the art of procrastinating whenever important negotiations are afoot,'' as Stefan Zweig put it.

I do not, for a moment, suggest we bomb North Korea's nuclear facilities. We know from Iraq that these can be hidden away deep underground.

But we do have to move with greater firmness than we have so far. If there is no Security Council consensus for a boycott then we may have to go in the opposite direction -- exploring what North Korea would settle for as a bribe to unwind its nuclear-weapons program (as South Africa, Argentina and Brazil have done).

It would mean more Western economic aid than has so far been put on the table. It would probably mean a solemn treaty promising that no U.S. nuclear-armed warships would patrol within range of North Korea. The West, through the Security Council, should formally ask China to explore this deal, making China feel it is a responsible partner. This strategy was pursued with good effect over Cambodia, and the West could live to see, for a second time, where enlightened Chinese self-interest might lead.

When the West's credibility is zero and its leverage not much more it's difficult to think of a better way to go.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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