The "Wrong Signal" On Containing Nukes?

It didn't take long for the first stumbling block to arise. On Sept. 19 the six nations involved in talks on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program announced a surprising agreement on principles for a future accord to eliminate its arsenal. Less than 24 hours later, the North was back to its previous hard line. The U.S. "should not even dream" that North Korea would dismantle its arms before receiving a light-water nuclear reactor mentioned in the accord, declared the Foreign Ministry.

These days, playing hardball with Uncle Sam has few downsides. And not only North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is doing it. Iraq's insurgency has dashed the Bush Administration's hopes that both North Korea and Iran would take a lesson from the toppling of Saddam Hussein and bow to demands to give up nuclear ambitions. Instead, Pyongyang and Tehran seem emboldened as they face a President undermined by Iraq and the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. "A weakened President Bush has made both countries decide they have leverage," says Wendy Sherman, a top State Dept. aide in the Clinton Administration who handled Korean issues.

China Cleans Up

Beijing, which is getting high marks for hosting the Six Party talks, also comes out a diplomatic winner for keeping them alive. China wrangled compromises from Washington and Pyongyang -- a sign of its growing influence. In exchange for agreeing to give up nukes, North Korea won provisions that Bush had long called unacceptable. These range from possibly supplying a light-water reactor, which produces less bomb-making material, to phased-in economic benefits before the North eliminates all its bombs. The pact doesn't specify which nation would supply the reactor. But the U.S. had earlier held that Pyongyang should not be rewarded until it verifiably destroys its weapons program. "Bush needs this treaty," says Yan Xuetong, director of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies in Beijing. "The U.S. has no energy to deal with North Korea militarily."

Such concessions could have repercussions for Washington's overall effort to combat proliferation. They "send a wrong signal to Iran and other states aspiring to become nuclear powers," warns Lee Jung Hoon, a professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University.

Iran is already thumbing its nose at America by resisting curbs on its nuclear activities. The U.S. and the European Union are pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions for violating IAEA rules. Unfazed, Tehran on Aug. 9 said it would resume converting uranium -- a process that can lead to the production of weapons-grade fuel -- in contravention of an accord with the EU. The U.S. position is made more awkward by its July deal to give India access to nuclear fuel. In contrast to Iran, India has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has tested bombs.

Iran could well prevail over Uncle Sam, since China and Russia oppose Security Council sanctions. "They have $65 oil, which insulates them against a certain amount of pressure," says a State Dept. official. "Iran is a harder case [than North Korea,] but I'm not going to tell you I'm optimistic about either." The U.S. may be the lone superpower, but it's becoming clearer how limited its clout can be. In the end, Washington may have to live with two new nuclear players.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Moon Ihlwan in Seoul and Dexter Roberts in Beijing

Edited by Rose Brady

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