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Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004

Seoul is not the proliferator


LOS ANGELES -- Fundamentally, as they tend to say in particle physics, the big brouhaha over the secret South Korean uranium-enrichment experiment is an absurdity.

After all, the amount of fissionable material produced at the national laboratory -- as currently reported -- was trivial: The weapons-grade production was about as big time as a paper airplane requesting 747-landing rights at Kimpo Airport. The whole flap is curious in the extreme.

Seoul voluntarily reported the unauthorized experiment to international authorities, and that should be the end of it. But all sorts of unhelpful parties in the region may want to use the errant experiment for their own purposes.

North Koreans may say that the clandestine South Korean program puts both Koreas in a plane of moral equivalency. It doesn't: South Korea is a far more transparent society and the North Korean nuclear program is thus far more worrisome.

Some Japanese circles may want to point to the Seoul admission as further evidence that the Landing of the Rising Sun needs to get cracking and develop its own nuclear weapons program. That would be the worst development imaginable for peace and security.

And China, rightly pushing its six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, may point to the revelation as reason for more urgent diplomacy; but of course nothing substantive will happen until after the results of the American elections.

How did the flap start? At the end of the day, the origins of the illicit experiment will probably be traceable to South Korean nuclear scientists who did a bit of toying around in the lab on their own. Such amoral conduct would easily track with that of other scientists elsewhere who tend to take matters into their own hands and act as if they are above the law.

Basically, brilliant scientists tend to believe that they are really not like you and me, that a special set of rules governs them and that they can do as they please. It's called the God complex: But this above-the-law attitude creates problems for national governments and new international tensions that need to be smoothed away.

The revelation also reminds us that any state that has the steel will to want a nuclear capability (whether subterranean or otherwise) will proceed apace, no matter what anyone else says. Although South Korea appears not to be in that category, there is the question of Iran and Pakistan.

It is U.S. policy -- as well as the policy of the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- to seek to stymie the increase in the number of nuclear powers, on the entirely plausible ground that fewer is better. Then again, as India might put it, it is easier to take this line when one already possesses such weapons than when one is on the outside looking in at the comfy nuclear club luxuriating in its high moral line.

The ideal number of nuclear powers would be zero, of course. But until and unless the United States -- along with China, Russia, France and Britain -- agrees to stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle by advancing nuclear disarmament by leadership example, others will continually be tempted to lust after nuclear potency, too.

Even so, the danger the world faces is not so much from direct nuclear exchange between nuclear states that are in control of their militaries as from their mental facilities.

As famed theoretical physicist Norman Dombey puts it in the current London Review of Books, "It follows that the international community should focus on the weak link in the nonproliferation regime: that's to say, states that possess nuclear weapons and are not fully in control of their territory or of their citizens."

Seen from this analytical perspective, therefore, nothing on the Korean Peninsula -- north or south -- is anything as worrisome as Pakistan, against which, since 9/11, the U.S. has had to snuggle up ally-style.

The U.S. -- the first and only nation-state to have used such weapons in combat -- thus is somewhat responsible for developments there, and is also morally culpable for relying on nuclear weapons as a core part of its military arsenal.

"We call upon the citizens of the United States to look squarely at the reality of the tragedies that have unfolded in the wake of the atomic bombings 59 years ago," wrote Itcho Itoh, mayor of Nagasaki, in the Nagasaki Peace Declaration last month on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of the atomic destruction of his city. "So long as the world's leading superpower fails to change its posture of dependence on nuclear weapons, it is clear that the tide of nuclear proliferation cannot be stemmed."

Nagasaki's mayor is right. This is the bottom line on nuclear proliferation. We need a world free from nuclear weapons; and so we need a re-moralized U.S. to take the lead and bequeath planet Earth a fate free of nuclear holocaust. For some kind of future nuclear tragedy would seem probable in the absence of transcendent American renunciation.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate


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