An evil that won't be stopped?
by Philip Bowring
SCMP September 20, 2004
The flurry of speculation over whether North Korea's bid to blow up a mountain
was a nuclear test confirmed just how edgy the world is about nuclear proliferation.
But, equally, it underscored how little scope there is for halting it.
The North Korean situation is probably the lesser of immediate worries about
the potential for the nuclear question to lead to conflict. Any ideas that
the Bush administration may have had to use pre-emptive military action against
Pyongyang have been trumped by the determination of China, Japan, South Korea
and Russia to negotiate a way out. They believe that political and economic
carrots are the only viable means of persuading the North to halt its nuclear
A far more dangerous situation exists with respect to Iran's pursuit
of nuclear ambitions. The dangers of an attempt at pre-emptive action
are very real, given that economic levers are much less evident and
there is no China or Japan in the vicinity to deter the US or Israel
from unilateral action. In the event of an election victory by President
George W. Bush, one cannot rule out the possibility of the US taking
the war to Iran on the grounds both of protecting the region and
of striking at Iranian Shi'ite backing for insurgents in Iraq. Israel
itself is perhaps a more likely originator of conflict, knowing that
it will never receive more than a slap on the wrist from an administration
which allows Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's expansionist goals.
In any event, the Iran situation raises two questions. Regardless
of whether countries have signed up to renounce nuclear weapons, proliferation
seems inevitable as more acquire the technology. The revelation that
South Korean scientists conducted uranium enrichment experiments is
almost certainly the tip of a global iceberg. It is unrealistic to
assume that a country with South Korea's level of scientific and industrial
skills would not be able to make a nuclear weapon at short notice.
Japan would be even closer. Beijing must, presumably, be aware of the
potential of Taiwan to create a crude nuclear weapon.
Countries not far behind in nuclear potential include Brazil, South
Africa and various ex-Soviet states. That they do not pursue nuclear
ambitions is because they see either no conceivable military or diplomatic
use for them.
Iran is in an altogether different situation. It is a major country
of immense strategic importance with two immediate neighbours - Russia
and Pakistan - which are already nuclear, and two other nuclear states
- Israel and India - which are not far away.
However, it does not yet have the industrial base from which it could
readily build a weapon at short notice. Western threats in the name
of non-proliferation ring hollow, given western silence on Israel's
bomb, and the lack of any significant penalisation of Pakistan.
It is obviously in the general interest of those with nuclear weapons,
such as China, to limit future ownership. But as all the existing owners
continue to pursue selective application of non-proliferation, the
goal is not achievable. In that case, it is surely better not to couch
the issue in moral terms but in those of self-interest - as is the
case with the likes of Brazil - or balance of terror, as in the India-Pakistan
The desire to own nuclear weapons, or to be merely a few turns of
the screwdriver away from such a position, is likely to grow as knowhow
expands. The focus of non-proliferation needs to shift from often hypocritical
as well as fruitless condemnations to preventing nuclear materials
from falling into the hands of non-state players. Nations do not commit
suicide. Individual bombers do.
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