Nuclear proliferation: The Axis of Anxiety

The UN has agreed sanctions against the newest and least predictable of nuclear powers. North Korea said this amounted to 'a declaration of war'. So who will blink first? By David Usborne and Raymond Whitaker
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The world set itself on a direct collision course with the unpredictable and hermetically sealed Communist regime of North Korea last night, adopting a resolution at the UN Security Council demanding that it end its nuclear weapons programme and desist from further testing.

The adoption of the resolution by a vote of 15 to 0 triggered a dramatic walk-out from the council chamber by North Korea's envoy to the UN, Pak Gil Yong. He declared that, pushed by the US, the UN had taken a step that amounted to a "declaration of war" against his country.

This new and dangerous phase of the crisis began last Monday when Pyongyang brashly announced that it had completed its first nuclear test in an underground facility, thus declaring itself as a member of the club of nations with nuclear weapons. Late on Friday, the US government announced it had detected small amounts of radioactive material in the air above the site of the test.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, will leave Washington tomorrow for a four-day tour of neighbouring states, including South Korea and China, to discuss the implementation of the resolution, which includes provision for inspections of ships in foreign ports and on the high seas.

The gravity of the situation was clearly on display at the UN yesterday. The US representative, John Bolton, welcomed the adoption of the resolution, saying: "Today we are sending a strong and clear message to North Korea and other would-be proliferators that there will be serious repercussions in continuing to pursue weapons of mass destruction". He added that the claim of a nuclear test by North Korea had posed "one of the gravest threats to international peace and security that this council has ever had to confront".

The British Ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, said: "[The] test cannot be seen as anything other than a direct provocation to the international community. The Council had a duty to condemn [North Korea's] behaviour."

The stalking out of the chamber by the North Korean representative may herald further reaction from Pyongyang, possibly including an additional test in the coming days. Its envoy said that the regime "totally rejects" the "unjustifiable" resolution, which he described as "gangster-like" and "coercive". He also took care to blame the US for the Council's action and warned of unspoken consequences: "If the United States increases pressure on the Democratic People's Republic of [North] Korea, the DPRK will continue to take physical countermeasures considering it as a declaration of war."

Exactly how much North Korea's "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il, has to fear from the resolution is unclear, however. It attempts to isolate further a country that is already largely fenced off from the rest of the world socially, politically and economically. It is a land that resembles more a giant prison camp, its 23 million people trapped in cruel poverty and hunger, than a reasonable member of the international community.

The US did succeed, at least, in forging a resolution under the so-called Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, the most potent weapon available to the Security Council, making it clear that all of its provisions are legally binding on all member states. However, in wrangling that lasted six days at the Council, the US and its other main supporter, Japan, were forced to make concessions to China and Russia.

At China's behest, the text specifically says that reference to Chapter 7 does not entail enforcing any of its provisions militarily. China wanted nothing to emerge from New York that could have led the US one day in the future to claim it had the authorisation to invade or attack. It was with those fears in mind that Ms Rice publicly stated that the US had no intention of taking such an action.

Moreover, the sanctions that must now be implemented by all UN governments are fairly limited in scope and non-controversial. No country will henceforth be allowed to trade goods with North Korea that in any way could be used to further its unconventional weapons programmes. An embargo is also placed on the sale to the country of a list of military hardware, ranging from missiles to tanks, combat aircraft and naval vessels. The resolution calls for a freezing of all financial assets held abroad by anyone in the regime deemed to be connected with its weapons programmes.

To what extent the US will get its wish that countries begin inspecting North Korean ships - aimed squarely at preventing it from proliferating weapons technology abroad - remains to be seen. China continued to express nervousness that boarding vessels on the high seas could provoke some kind of confrontation. Tweaking Kim Jong-il's guns is exactly what Beijing doesn't want to do.

The news last Monday was indeed grave at multiple levels. Once more we had proof that attempting to close membership of the club of nuclear-weapons countries does not work. The only countries ever to pull back were South Africa, which dismantled its nuclear programme after the end of apartheid, and Libya, which agreed to be bought off - though it revealed the extent to which the Pakistani scientist A Q Khan had helped several states, including Iran, down the nuclear path.

But while it was one thing to learn in the 1990s that Pakistan and India had claimed their places at the top table, the notion of North Korea having a nuclear capacity is altogether more frightening. It is the world's least predictable regime.

North Korea's next step, presumably, is to put nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, which one day may have the range to reach the western US, and certainly South Korea and Japan. A nuclear arms race in Asia could follow, even though Japan said last week that it would never consider abandoning its commitment to remain non-nuclear.

Then there is the nightmare of further nuclear proliferation. North Korea, a country in deep penury, has never developed a weapons capability that it didn't want to sell on. Customers could be other governments or non-state terror groups.

But if there was international shock, it was not because no one saw it coming. If anything, there was a sense of embarrassment and humiliation - either because they had taken their eyes off the ball - in some cases focusing all their energies instead on Iraq - or because they were simply powerless.

Nothing the West has done in 10 years to stop North Korea in its tracks has worked. And now, the genie is out of the bottle.

The UN resolution calls on Pyongyang to put it back, abandon its nuclear weapons programme and return to six-country talks that it has been boycotting for 13 months. But, as the reaction of its UN delegate demonstrated, the regime appears in no way minded to pay attention. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to wonder about Kim Jong-il, his moods and intentions - and his finger on a nuclear button.

Whose finger is on the button?


President George Bush

SHOULD WE WORRY? The Bush administration has made a point of keeping its nuclear options open, including in response to chemical or biological attacks or unspecified "surprising military developments". Its 2001 Nuclear Posture Review suggests that the US could seek to develop, and possibly test, new types of nuclear weapons in the future, such as "mini-nukes" to attack underground bunkers.

Nuclear Weapons 10,300

Estimated Range 16,000km


PM Tony Blair

SHOULD WE WORRY? The future of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, more than half a century old, is due to be determined before the end of this year, when a decision must be taken on updating our Trident missiles. Critics see the programme as a pointless relic of imperialism and claim new warheads are being secretly developed, in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty.

Nuclear Weapons 200

Estimated Range 12,000km


President Vladimir Putin

SHOULD WE WORRY? The end of the Cold War has eased the threat of MAD, or mutually assured destruction. The main concern is that Russia's warheads, by far the largest number held by any state, are often in a poor state and weakly guarded. These, and Russia's vast stockpiles of weapons-grade material, are seen as a tempting target for terrorists.

Nuclear Weapons 16,000

Estimated Range 15,000km


President Jacques Chirac

SHOULD WE WORRY? After outraging world opinion with its insistence on nuclear tests well into the 1990s, France is trying to be seen as a good nuclear citizen, signing the test ban treaty and considerably reducing its "force de frappe". But it still keeps far more warheads than Britain and has an active missile development programme.

Nuclear Weapons 350

Estimated Range 4,000km


President Kim Jong-Il

SHOULD WE WORRY? Emphatically yes. It is hard to see sanctions having much effect on North Korea, which has repeatedly reneged on international agreements. In 1998 it fired a long-range missile over Japan into the Pacific, and it is thought to be trying to develop a missile capable of reaching the US West Coast.

Nuclear Weapons 6-12

Estimated Range 2,000-15,000km


President Hu Jintao

SHOULD WE WORRY? Less so than when the world was caught unawares by its first test in 1964, under Mao Tse-tung. Stopped tests in mid-1990s and is now seen as less of a proliferator than of old, though it gave Pakistan the fissile material and know-how to develop its own nuclear technology, which then spread to other nations.

Nuclear Weapons 400

Estimated Range 13,000km


General Pervez Musharraf

SHOULD WE WORRY? Yes. Pakistan, though a supposed ally in the "war on terror", has secretly passed on nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. The greatest danger of a nuclear conflict anywhere in the world is between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since 1948 and pursued an arms race throughout.

Nuclear Weapons 50-100

Estimated Range 1,600km


PM Ehud Olmert

SHOULD WE WORRY? Israel has never formally declared that it has nuclear weapons and does not allow the IAEA to conduct inspections. Despite the ambiguity, nobody doubts the country is the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East - so far. The nightmare would be Hizbollah or Hamas getting its hands on such weapons.

Nuclear Weapons 100-200

Estimated Range 2,500km


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

SHOULD WE WORRY? Concern has been growing since the IAEA announced last year that Iran had given false information about past plutonium experiments. Tehran continues to insist that it is only developing civil nuclear power, but it has broken IAEA seals at a research plant and resumed uranium enrichment, which could in time provide weapons-grade material. The IAEA has "reported" Iran to the UN Security Council.

Some claim President Bush stirred Iran into action by including it in his "Axis of Evil", but Tehran points out that it was attacked by chemical weapons and ballistic missiles during its war with Saddam.


PM Manmohan Singh

SHOULD WE WORRY? India's nuclear programme had been an open secret for years before its first open tests in 1998, a move promptly mirrored by Pakistan. The country's nuclear reach has been steadily extended by an active missile programme, but at least the weapons remain in the hands of democratically elected governments. India is not known to have sold its technology abroad.

Nuclear Weapons 70-100

Estimated Range 5,500km