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Living with the bomb

North Korea won't be the last country to go nuclear. Get used to it.

October 15, 2006|William Langewiesche | William Langewiesche, international correspondent for Vanity Fair, is the author of "Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear-Armed Poor," to be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in the spring.

THERE IS NO DOUBT that the acquisition of atomic weapons by North Korea is the worst development yet in the ongoing story of nuclear proliferation by upstart states. The regime in Pyongyang is arguably the spookiest in the world today -- bellicose, repressive, unstable and so mentally isolated that it sometimes appears to be outright insane. A nuclear North Korea is definitely a dangerous place; it increases the chances in Asia for all sorts of trouble and threatens to kick off a regional arms race. This needs to be acknowledged.

Nonetheless, what's done is done, and though we may protest and bluster, there is very little the U.S. can do to stop it from proceeding. Rather than making a show of our weakness, we would do well to calm down. After all, this was not unexpected; the fact is, the spread of nuclear weapons is, and always has been, inevitable.

A little perspective might help. In the months after World War II, a group of men responsible for producing the atomic bomb -- including Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard and others -- created the Federation of American (Atomic) Scientists, or FAS, to educate the public about this new breed of weapon. Washington at the time harbored the illusion that it possessed a great secret and could keep the bomb for itself.

The founders of the FAS disagreed. They argued that with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, any engineering doubts had been emphatically answered and, because the basic science of nuclear reactions was already widely known, other nations could invest in nuclear programs and be certain of the returns. There were any number of physicists and engineers worldwide capable of guiding them through the process. FAS members warned the American people in stark and simple terms. In essence, they said that the whole world would soon be nuclear-armed. There is no secret here, they said, and there is also no defense. The Nuclear Age is upon us, and it cannot be undone.

They got the timing wrong. Nuclear proliferation did proceed, but for 50 years it was slowed (and in some cases stopped) by diplomacy and, more fundamentally, by the Cold War itself, with the guarantees it offered to nonnuclear nations of surrogate nuclear strength under the U.S. and Soviet retaliatory "umbrellas."

Since then, however, the umbrellas have frayed, and the world has become a more fractured and complicated place, no longer bound by the old alliances, where independent nuclear arsenals have greater meaning than before. Paradoxically, the desire for nuclear weapons is spreading in inverse relation to the lowered risk of an all-out global nuclear war. This is a trend that began even before the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is accelerating in a world where countries must turn to themselves for protection and where the U.S., especially after the invasion of Iraq, is seen as an aggressor and a threat. For these reasons and others, new nuclear players are emerging to challenge the rules of the game.

What the new players have in common is that they are poor and undeveloped nations, with weak economies and precarious political systems. If this seems counterintuitive, consider the fact that nuclear weapons are not only simple but cheap.

Earlier this year in Moscow, a Russian nuclear official put it this way to me: "Nuclear weapons technology has become a useful tool, especially for the weak. It allows them to satisfy their ambitions without much expense. If they want to intimidate others, to be respected by others, this is now the easiest way to do it." Once a country decides to become a nuclear weapons power, he said, it will do so regardless of international sanctions or incentives.

Oppenheimer warned of this implicitly 60 years earlier. He wrote in 1945: "Atomic explosives vastly increase the power of destruction per dollar spent, per man-hour invested; they profoundly upset the precarious balance between the effort necessary to destroy, and the extent of the destruction.... None of the uncertainties can becloud the fact it will cost enormously less to destroy a square mile with atomic weapons than with any weapons hitherto known to warfare."

Oppenheimer talked about it in terms of the "evil that a dollar can do," but of course, one person's definition of evil may be another's definition of self-defense -- or, more generally, a demand for equality among nations. The most succinct criticism of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty came from the Argentines when they refused to sign it, that it amounted to "the disarmament of the disarmed."

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