Who's deceiving whom about nukes in Korea?

June 07, 1994|By Jonathan Schell

EVERY politician faces two kinds of reality. The first is political reality, which consists of the obstacles that define the boundaries of what, at a given moment, is considered politically acceptable.

These boundaries mark the limits of what a politician can do without suffering disaster -- the disaster, for example, of falling from power. The second is the reality of events (real reality, if you like), which consists of the opportunities and demands unceasingly presented by history.

When these two diverge -- when the tool-kit of the politically possible contains no instrument that offers any real chance of coping with the demands of the situation -- the great temptation is to dissemble (self-deception, in these circumstances, being fully as likely as deception of others). The usual expedient is to announce a policy that is politically acceptable but has virtually no chance of succeeding.

The Clinton administration's policy toward the North Korea's apparent program to build nuclear weapons has been of this kind. In a speech in South Korea last July, Mr. Clinton said he would not "let the expanding threat of these deadly weapons replace the Cold War nightmare of nuclear annihilation," and promised that the United States would be "resolute" in preventing North Korea from getting nuclear weapons. But in the months that followed he never announced any concrete step that was likely to attain this objective. His most serious move was to threaten North Korea with economic sanctions backed by the Security Council.

It has been perfectly obvious all along, however, that if the North Koreans want nuclear weapons badly enough, they can simply ignore the threat, and then, if sanctions are imposed, ignore those, too. They possess the principal ingredient -- plutonium -- of one kind of nuclear weapon on their soil.

In this respect, they are no different from dozens of other countries that possess nuclear power plants, which produce plutonium as a by-product. All the North Koreans have to do is to withdraw spent fuel from the plant and move it to a refining facility, which they also already possess. That step, however, is forbidden by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, of which North Korea is a signatory. The problem for the world is to persuade the Koreans to desist from an action that technically is well within their capacity.

In the last few days, the North Koreans have accelerated removal of the spent fuel from the core of the reactor, a move that places them in violation of the treaty. Of course, the Koreans still may choose not to build nuclear weapons. The choice, however, is clearly North Korea's to make. United Nations, which require a vote of the Security Council, may in the first place never be imposed, because they are subject to veto by China, which so far has opposed them. If they are imposed, they are likely only to serve as punishment after the fact for having built the weapons. (This may well be a good idea, but it should not be confused with a policy of prevention.) The fact is that the Clinton administration never had a policy that could keep North Korea, or any other country, for that matter, from building nuclear weapons.

Now is the moment when we are supposed to discover to our astonishment that the policy offers no reliable means of fulfilling its purpose. A more fruitful reaction, however, would be to ask ourselves what a true policy of nonproliferation might look like. The first question to ask would be why nations want nuclear weapons. That question would direct us to our own arsenals, and to those of the Russians, now pointed away from each other and out to sea.

Next, we would want to turn our gaze to the other nuclear powers -- England, France, China, India, Pakistan (probably) and Israel -- and ask what value they see in their nuclear arsenals. Then we might ask whether a nation can be safe without nuclear weapons (a majority of nations, in fact, do without them) and, if so, how this is accomplished. For now, these questions are unanswered. What is more, they are not even being asked.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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