An evil that won't be stopped?
The flurry of speculation over whether North Korea's bid to blow up a mountain was a nuclear test confirmed just how edgy the world is about nuclear proliferation. But, equally, it underscored how little scope there is for halting it.
The North Korean situation is probably the lesser of immediate worries about the potential for the nuclear question to lead to conflict. Any ideas that the Bush administration may have had to use pre-emptive military action against Pyongyang have been trumped by the determination of China, Japan, South Korea and Russia to negotiate a way out. They believe that political and economic carrots are the only viable means of persuading the North to halt its nuclear arsenal development.
A far more dangerous situation exists with respect to Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions. The dangers of an attempt at pre-emptive action are very real, given that economic levers are much less evident and there is no China or Japan in the vicinity to deter the US or Israel from unilateral action. In the event of an election victory by President George W. Bush, one cannot rule out the possibility of the US taking the war to Iran on the grounds both of protecting the region and of striking at Iranian Shi'ite backing for insurgents in Iraq. Israel itself is perhaps a more likely originator of conflict, knowing that it will never receive more than a slap on the wrist from an administration which allows Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's expansionist goals.
In any event, the Iran situation raises two questions. Regardless of whether countries have signed up to renounce nuclear weapons, proliferation seems inevitable as more acquire the technology. The revelation that South Korean scientists conducted uranium enrichment experiments is almost certainly the tip of a global iceberg. It is unrealistic to assume that a country with South Korea's level of scientific and industrial skills would not be able to make a nuclear weapon at short notice. Japan would be even closer. Beijing must, presumably, be aware of the potential of Taiwan to create a crude nuclear weapon.
Countries not far behind in nuclear potential include Brazil, South Africa and various ex-Soviet states. That they do not pursue nuclear ambitions is because they see either no conceivable military or diplomatic use for them.
Iran is in an altogether different situation. It is a major country of immense strategic importance with two immediate neighbours - Russia and Pakistan - which are already nuclear, and two other nuclear states - Israel and India - which are not far away.
However, it does not yet have the industrial base from which it could readily build a weapon at short notice. Western threats in the name of non-proliferation ring hollow, given western silence on Israel's bomb, and the lack of any significant penalisation of Pakistan.
It is obviously in the general interest of those with nuclear weapons, such as China, to limit future ownership. But as all the existing owners continue to pursue selective application of non-proliferation, the goal is not achievable. In that case, it is surely better not to couch the issue in moral terms but in those of self-interest - as is the case with the likes of Brazil - or balance of terror, as in the India-Pakistan situation.
The desire to own nuclear weapons, or to be merely a few turns of the screwdriver away from such a position, is likely to grow as knowhow expands. The focus of non-proliferation needs to shift from often hypocritical as well as fruitless condemnations to preventing nuclear materials from falling into the hands of non-state players. Nations do not commit suicide. Individual bombers do.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator