Leading Article: Cool but firm in nuclear politics

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The Independent Online
GERMANY'S foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, rightly decided yesterday to place the issue of nuclear smuggling from Russia on the agenda for an informal meeting of European Union foreign ministers early next month. Chancellor Kohl, meanwhile, has won agreement from Boris Yeltsin to co-operate in a renewed effort to plug any leaks from the vast and secret nuclear archipelago in the former Soviet Union.

The urgency of that task has been highlighted by the seizure in Germany of three batches of plutonium-239 and one of weapons- grade uranium. The quantities were small, but a trickle can soon form a pool if it is not cut off at source. Mr Kinkel has suggested, as an initial step, that the new European police agency co-ordinate information on this ominous trade.

By coincidence, the German government's concern arose less than a week after negotiators from the United States and North Korea declared an agreement in principle to reduce tension over the North's nuclear programme and to substitute its graphite-moderated reactors, which readily generate plutonium, with light-water variants, which do not. The German and North Korean cases together might induce foreign and defence ministries in the industrial democracies to take a fresh look at their policies towards the growing danger of proliferation.

Next year the world's insurance policy, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, comes up for renewal. Before that date, clear thinking is required on two counts. The first need is to analyse the extent to which such enterprises as uranium smuggling actually constitute a threat. The second is to develop a more credible system of sticks and carrots to maintain the uneasy equilibrium under which the world has lived since 1945.

The problem with America's putative deal with Pyongyang lies in its uneven application of incentive and deterrent. Under its provisions, the bankrupt Stalinist state is to receive a generous amount of foreign funds to finance a new reactor programme. It is to gain diplomatic relations and, in the language of the official statement, a reduction in barriers to trade - a clear hint of further largesse to come. Washington is also to give assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States. All this in exchange merely for North Korea's compliance with a treaty to which it was already a free signatory. It implies no more rigorous commitment to inspect and contain the North's activities. And it leaves unresolved the question of whether the North Koreans may already have several bombs, as the CIA has suggested.

It may be too late to strike anything more than a worrying compromise over North Korea, but the conduct of these negotiations should not set a precedent. The inducements to good behaviour in the Non-Proliferation Treaty need to be enhanced and an effort made to increase its signatories. The key remains to devise effective mechanisms for inspection and verification and to buttress those with the necessary political will to achieve deterrence.