North Korea's proclaimed intention to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is more than the bluster of a trouble-making rogue regime. It is a direct threat to the credibility of the most important international agreement of the nuclear age. If North Korea gets away with this, it will set a precedent that could be followed by other governments and undermine a bulwark of world stability.
Since the pact to stop the spread of nuclear weaponry went into effect in 1970, 156 nations have signed on and, until now, not a single one has attempted to withdraw. Certain nuclear-capable nations, such as Israel and Pakistan, have stayed out but the near-universality of the treaty's reach has been remarkable. It has served as a goad for the reduction of superpower arsenals. It has inhibited many nations from joining the nuclear club.
North Korea's defiance comes at a moment of high hopes and dread foreboding. The high hopes reflect the success of the International Atomic Energy Agency in destroying key components of Iraq's nuclear-weapons potential and, indeed, Pyongyang's long-delayed promise a year ago to accept IAEA on-site inspections. The dread foreboding stems from Ukraine's refusal so far to keep its promise to rid itself of its huge nuclear arsenal and sign the NPT. If the treaty's mystique is frayed by the North Korean action, the Ukraine, Iran and other governments might be tempted to go their own way. The Start I and Start II treaties would be in jeopardy. All this in a world plagued by ethnic-religious conflict and fierce regional rivalries.
Given these high stakes, President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher should give the Korean problem their personal attention. It is questionable whether the United States should have conducted massive military exercises with South Korean forces just as North Korea was wrestling with IAEA demands to inspect two sites of suspect nuclear activity. But these exercises will end Thursday; after that, the international community has a short window of opportunity to bring North Korea back into the NPT fold. Under terms of the treaty, a nation seeking to withdraw has to give 90 days' notice -- a period that will not expire until June 10. Adroit diplomacy is needed.
What is to be done? First, China and Russia should bring their influence to bear by signifying a readiness to help impose economic sanctions and further isolate a desperately poor country. Second, North Korea should be given to understand that international use of force will not be ruled out if it seeks to be a nuclear renegade. Its accumulation of sufficient plutonium to make at least one bomb, in the opinion of the CIA, and its export of 600-mile-range missiles to the likes of Iran have to be deemed intolerable and unacceptable.
North Korean rebelliousness on this issue must be turned back. Otherwise, there is a real danger of a chain reaction that could end arms control as we know it and undermine much of what has been accomplished in the past 30 years.