Nuclear threat remains real

Elizabeth Dunbar

Americans haven’t yet resorted to building bomb shelters as they did in the 1950s, but the threat of nuclear disaster is today as real as it was during the height of the Cold War.

As the world’s attention is focused on a possible second Persian Gulf war, North Korea and other nations with nuclear technology continue to threaten world peace and stability.

North Korea has pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and taken steps that could enable it to produce plutonium-based weapons.

“I think they feel very much threatened by the United States,” history professor Edward Farmer said of North Korea. “If you’re an uninformed citizen of North Korea, how do you read what the United States is doing? They think that the most powerful country in the world is going to attack Iraq, then attack them.”

Established in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty distinguishes between nuclear weapons states – which include the five veto-bearing members of the U.N. Security Council – and nonweapons states. Only India, Pakistan and Israel are not a part of the treaty.

Farmer said North Korea is using the little power it has to get food and other aid for its starving population.

“Their economy is a disaster,” he said. “There are no obvious advantages in trade except certain types of weapons, which they can sell to rogue states in the Middle East.”

Massive droughts in recent years and a lack of arable land have caused food shortages and mass starvation among North Koreans.

Desperation as well as regional threats can lead countries to pursue nuclear weapons programs. For example, India and Pakistan have acquired nuclear weapons to deter each other.

Another potential nuclear power is Iran, where officials recently announced efforts to mine uranium and build nuclear energy facilities.

Though Iran maintains its intentions to only use nuclear technology for civilian purposes, the United States has insisted Iran is developing a covert nuclear weapons program.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and an inspector of Iraq’s alleged nuclear facilities, visited Iran last week to evaluate the country’s programs.

Though U.S. officials continue to label these countries among the world’s greatest threats to peace, the United States maintains the planet’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. In dealing with Iraq and North Korea, President George W. Bush has not ruled out using them, maintaining “all options are on the table.”

Bush has characterized North Korea’s withdrawal and recent behavior as “saber-rattling.”

North Korea also recently threatened to desert the 1953 armistice that keeps peace between North and South Korea.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, has requested private talks with the United States, but Bush has refused and tried to get other countries in the region to put pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program.

Farmer said the United States’ attitude toward North Korea could make the situation worse.

“Bush has made public statements about his hostility and contempt for Kim Jong Il,” Farmer said. “We have to ask what is the function and what is the consequence of that?”

Despite receiving food donations from several other countries, North Korea is forced to work with whatever they have, Farmer said.

It is unclear what kinds of nuclear technology North Korea possesses, but recent reports indicate it has a missile capable of reaching the western U.S. coast.

On Tuesday, as South Korea inaugurated its new president during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit, North Korea test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan. Last week, a North Korean fighter jet intruded South Korea’s airspace.

Farmer said North Korea’s isolation has made it difficult for its economy to develop and support its population.

“The world has passed them by, in a way. That’s part of their problem,” Farmer said.

Hangtae Cho, an Asian languages and literature professor from Korea, said he hopes the United States will negotiate with North Korea.

“In South Korea we don’t want a war in our country,” Cho said. “I think a lot of Americans think war is some kind of game, but when there’s a war in your country, everything is destroyed.”

Now that the North Korean issue has been handed to the U.N. Security Council, Cho said, perhaps Bush’s hardline attitude toward North Korea will be less influential.

“I think the United Nations can stop Bush’s hard approach to foreign issues,” he said. “If the U.S. starts a war with North Korea, there would be a lot of casualties.”

Farmer said he hopes the United States will clarify its position on North Korea.

“I would hope there would be direct negotiations with North Korea and us assuring them we won’t attack,” he said. “Right now the Bush administration is very much agitating a group of paranoid people.”

– The Associated Press

contributed to this report

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and

welcomes comments at [email protected]