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Talks Aside, Nuclear Might Likely to Spread


In the coming weeks you can also expect plenty of debate over North Korea. The Bush administration claimed a diplomatic success this week. North Korea agreed to limit its nuclear program. The terms of that deal have some conservatives asking if the U.S. simply gave in. And some analysts say North Korea will remain a member of the nuclear club.

Here's NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam.


JACKIE NORTHAM: One of the most striking things about the new agreement with North Korea is its similarity to one hammered out by the Clinton administration in 1994. Both deals include a series of steps aimed at dismantling the country's nuclear weapons program, such as a halt to production of plutonium, and allowing international inspectors back into the country.

There is another similarity. That's the suspicion that North Korea will not abide by its commitments. Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations says it's extremely unlikely that Pyongyang will give up the nuclear weapons it already has.

Mr. GARY SAMORE (Council on Foreign Relations): I think the North Korean leadership has believed for a long time that some limited nuclear weapons capability is essential for their survival. Now, they are prepared to reach limits on their nuclear program in exchange for various kinds of compensation, but I think it's unlikely that they would actually give up whatever nuclear weapons they have.

NORTHAM: Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says once a country tests a nuclear weapon, as North Korea did in October, the equation changes in that country.

Mr. JIM WALSH (MIT): The military has an interest and the scientists have an interest. And it becomes, I think, a stickier matter to give up those weapons. If you build a whole fleet of nuclear weapons and you integrate them into your force structure and you develop a doctrine for them, each step further down that road, it becomes harder and harder to turn back.


NORTHAM: Many Analysts say that the U.S. knows or should know that North Korea is unlikely to give up its weapons. And so by extension, the U.S. tacitly accepts that North Korea will remain a nuclear weapons state. Acquiring a nuclear capability may have given North Korea a stronger hand at the negotiating table, a fact that will not be lost on Iran.

Earlier this week, Britain's Financial Times newspaper reported that a study by the European Union found that Iran will be able to develop the capacity to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, and that the main obstacles hampering that effort are technical rather than any sanctions imposed by the international community.

Ted Galen Carpenter with the Cato Institute says Iran may be pushing ahead with its nuclear program, just as North Korea did.

Mr. TED GALEN CARPENTER (Cato Institute): Both North Korea and Iran may be determined to become members of the global nuclear weapons club. And if that is their determination, then short of using military force, we have no alternative but to accept them as members of that club and rely on the traditional policy of deterrence to prevent them from doing anything rash.

NORTHAM: Carpenter says until now countries that have become nuclear powers have become more sober and responsible about their new strength.

Mr. CARPENTER: Before it became a nuclear weapon state, Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong on down made extraordinarily reckless statements about fighting wars, including nuclear wars. Once China acquired its own deterrent and a greater sense of security, it became a more responsible player in the international community. India and Pakistan seem to have exhibited more restraint toward each other and toward other potential adversaries once they acquired a nuclear weapons capability.

NORTHAM: But Carpenter says no one can be sure North Korea or Iran would act the same way. Samore, with the Council on Foreign Relations, says it makes sense to continue to try to prevent these countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, or at least try to delay the acquisition of such weapons.

Mr. SAMORE: Very often in the proliferation business, the best you can do is buy time. So I think we still have options, in the case of Iran, to delay. And you might delay for years; and who knows, there could be some further developments even within Iran that might make a new leadership less committed to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

NORTHAM: Samore says the Iranians may yet be willing to suspend their enrichment program, if that works to Iran's benefit.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.