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Cover Stories
Special> World in Retrospect 2009> Cover Stories
UPDATED: December 18, 2009 NO. 51 DECEMBER 24, 2009
We Still Stand a Chance
The path to a nuclear weapons free world is strewn with rocks but the issues can be resolved



During the past year, Korean and Iranian nuclear issues have undergone a series of worrisome developments. Declared or undeclared nuclear activities, testing of missiles and satellite launches, together with on-and-off military exercises kept hitting media headlines while diplomatic talks—either among the six parties over the Korean issue or between the 5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) with Iran over the Iranian nuclear issue—appeared to be going nowhere. UN Security Council resolutions bringing in new sanctions were adopted one after another, yet without much effect.

In July 2007, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) shut down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, a major breakthrough in the six-party talks. A year later, the DPRK blew up the cooling tower at the nuclear site, another step forward, giving people hope the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula was within reach.

But the progress soon hit a snag. This year a number of negative events have occurred. In January, the DPRK's Foreign Ministry said it would not give up nuclear deterrent capability unless the United States renounces its nuclear threat against the DPRK and no longer provides nuclear protection to the Republic of Korea (ROK).

In March, a 12-day military exercise conducted jointly by the United States and the ROK further angered the DPRK, which reciprocated with the launching of a satellite. After the Security Council issued a presidential statement criticizing the launch, the DPRK declared its withdrawal from the six-party talks and the restoration of its defunct nuclear facilities, culminating in a "successful nuclear test" toward the end of May.

On the Iranian issue, the prospect is no less gloomy. In October, Mohamed ElBaradei, then Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), launched a bold proposal, requesting Tehran to send 1.2 tons of low-enriched uranium, or 70 percent of its stockpile, to Russia by the end of the year for further enrichment. The enriched material would then be sent to France to be converted into fuel rods that would be returned to Iran for use in a reactor that produces medical isotopes.

These steps could prevent Iran's nuclear materials from being further processed into weapons-grade material, thus easing international concerns. The United States, Russia and France quickly gave their support. Iran also indicated that it was considering the proposal in depth and in a favorable light. The not-so-negative response from Iran heartened negotiators who had been searching desperately for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. If accepted by all parties and implemented, it would be indeed substantial progress.

But hopes were soon dashed. A month after the proposal was put on the table, an unexpected downside emerged. ElBaradei said in Vienna that the talks between the IAEA and Iran had reached deadlock. Moreover, he informed the IAEA Governing Board that a newly discovered nuclear plant in Qom with about 3,000 centrifuges to produce enriched uranium was "under construction." Iran failed to notify the agency of the existence of this facility. Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities or its work on heavy water-related projects as required by the Security Council, nor has it implemented the additional protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The IAEA reacted by adopting a resolution condemning Iran's move. Iran's response was quick and firm. It decided to build 10 more nuclear plants, a dramatic expansion of its existing nuclear program.

A disconcerting pattern

The Iranian and Korean nuclear issues appear to be repeating a remarkably similar pattern: talks between the parties break down from time to time and crises appear not infrequently. Whenever a crisis reaches an explosion point, flexibility would be shown and talks would resume—a dim light of hope to an anxious world that a turning point has appeared and we are one step closer toward the end of the tunnel. Yet, when the tension diminishes, another crisis soon crops up. The old scenario reappears. We are invariably repeating the same and endless cycle of "crisis-easing of tension-crisis again."

The end result: for every step forward, there are two backward ones. Each crisis and its subsequent resolution take the world farther and farther away from its set goals. The Korean Peninsula, instead of being denuclearized, is moving quickly along the track of nuclear weaponization. In Iran, nuclear facilities are being built at a nonstop pace, and increasingly unnerving activities are going on all the time.

These gruesome cycles inevitably lead people from expectation to frustration and from exasperation to desperation.

Progress and its retrogression worry not only diplomats who are directly involved in the talks and the public who can do little to influence the situation, but also state leaders who face mounting domestic and international pressure to find solutions one way or another.

U.S. President Barack Obama has, on a number of occasions, publicly expressed his impatience with Iran. He said the patience of the United States is limited and time is running out for Iran.

Russia, a traditional ally of Iran, also toughened its position. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel: "I wouldn't like to see all that ending in the introduction of international sanctions, as sanctions are usually steps in a very difficult and dangerous direction. But if there is no movement forward, no one is excluding such a scenario."

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