The New Nuclear Problem

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

After overthrowing one evil and abusive dictator in the Middle East, the United States government is sending mixed messages when it comes to certain other axis of evil leaders. Some days the Bush administration seems to be talking tough, and on other days seems to prefer diplomacy.

While in South Korea last Thursday, John Bolton, a US arms control official, gave a speech calling North Korea’s Kim Jong Il a “tyrannical dictator.” In return, when North Korea announced on Sunday that it would enter into multilateral negotiations with the US and five other nations, the North Korean Foreign Minister said that Bolton would not be invited, colorfully adding: “Such human scum and bloodsucker is not entitled to take part in the talks.”

Sounds more like name-calling than international diplomacy. On Friday, the Boston Globe editorial staff opted to remind the Bush administration to be polite, and advised that they would be wise to learn some diplomatic skills:

“If you want to create congenial conditions for negotiations with a mercurial despot demanding security guarantees as the price for dismantling his nuclear weapons program, you don’t call him a tyrant who is starving his people to death and then denounce his ‘extortionist demands’ for good measure. Yet that is exactly what John Bolton, the Bush administration’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, did in a speech Thursday in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. Bolton named the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong Il, 40 times in his Seoul address. Again and again the American diplomat placed blame for the starvation and misery of North Korea’s people on Kim. The ‘dear leader’ of North Korea was depicted as a criminal, a fool, and a blackmailer.

Bolton’s taunting of Kim Jong Il, his blatant personalizing of the dispute between Pyongyang and Washington, has the look of a deliberate attempt to provoke a reaction from the North Korean dictator that would decrease the chances of starting real negotiations.”

Despite all the name calling, on Monday Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the US does seek a diplomatic solution to the problem with North Korea. However, Powell noted that a non-aggression pact between the US and North Korea would not be an option for the US. Anything ruling war out as a possibility seems to be impossible for the US.

Even if North Korea were party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it isn’t, all might not be well. Iran, for example, signed the NPT in 1970. But recently, there have been international efforts to pressure the Islamic republic to agree to stricter nuclear inspections by the United Nations. The fact of the matter is, even within the bounds of the NPT, diplomacy sometimes falls short. The treaty itself allows any nation with “supreme interests” to drop out on a three months notice. An op-ed by anti-proliferation experts in The New York Times points out that Iran could be forging its own path towards nuclear weapons while still being party to NPT.

“The treaty also has an escape clause. Any country that declares its ‘supreme interests’ to be in jeopardy can drop out on three months’ notice. This would allow Iran to keep all the nuclear material it accumulated while it was a member and convert it to bomb-making once it had waited three months. Again, it would have broken no agreements.

So Iran can walk right up to the edge of nuclear weaponry while a full partner in the nonproliferation treaty. Once its nuclear program matures, it would have a good chance of crossing the line and fabricating a bomb without being discovered. Or it could declare its intentions and simply cancel its treaty obligations.”

Beyond treaties, new networks and new technologies may have created a dangerous nuclear reality simmering below the level of major nation states. James Sterngold of the San Francisco Chronicle presents a troubling future in his piece on Sunday. He writes that arms control experts fear that clandestine nuclear programs are undermining years of nonproliferation work. Sterngold points out that many of the 20th century nuclear powers were concerned with spying and stealing nuclear secrets, whereas now, a number of lesser-developed countries are supplying nuclear technology to other smaller actors. North Korea is thought to have supplied Pakistan and Iran with weapons technologies. What Sterngold calls the “second proliferation” may be the next real nuclear threat:

“The flowering of this secondary proliferation network has made even many strong believers in the old nonproliferation machinery — a series of treaties and export controls restricting the flow of sensitive materials and technologies — reconsider their opposition to harsher strategies.

‘Even guys like me, who support the treaties and want to see them flourish, understand that realistically they are not enough anymore,’ said Leonard Spector, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. ‘You have to say that there’s more going on than we can manage with the traditional tools. What has changed is that by the end of the Cold War, the countries working on getting the bomb were threatening to us, in this country. That was a major, major change.’

Equally important, many experts say, the secondary proliferators have been swapping information on essential tricks, such as how to create front companies for making clandestine purchases, lists of companies that can be persuaded to make sales, and which commercial goods can be converted to weapons use. ”

In the “slowly changing calculus of the U.S. response to nuclear threats,” Sterngold writes, the old rules don’t apply. We’ll see what happens when the “human scum” and the “tyrannical dictator” sit down to negotiate.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.