North Korea

G8 summit a chance for progress on nuclear threat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am


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Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the cornerstone of efforts to make the world a safer place. This weekend's G8 summit of world leaders in St Petersburg is an opportunity to move closer to consensus on how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's provocative missile tests.

The dangerous flare-up on Israel's border with Lebanon will be a distraction. US President George W. Bush's support for Israel has put him at odds with Washington's European allies. But the new hostilities are also a reminder that a troubled world cannot afford the spread of nuclear weapons or a new arms race.

A more positive note is to be found in the package of incentives that world powers have offered Tehran if it agrees to suspend uranium enrichment.

Only just revealed in full, they include the possible provision of light-water nuclear research reactors for peaceful applications in agriculture and medicine, as part of a package of research and development co-operation. This is in addition to helping Iran build reactors for producing electricity, guaranteeing the supply of nuclear fuel and a broad range of economic and political incentives.

The offer was not badly received, as evidenced by a softening of the shrill rhetoric from Tehran about its right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said a response cannot be expected any time soon. Five weeks having passed since the offer was made by the US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany, they have referred it to the United Nations Security Council and asked the council to adopt a resolution making it mandatory for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.

China's UN envoy has hesitated to confirm Beijing's support, saying the text of any resolution must be considered very carefully. Given that the abiding theme of Iran's defiance of international opinion is that it will not be 'intimidated', and that Tehran has not rejected the package, caution may be wise counsel at this stage.

As a friend of both Iran and North Korea, and with a permanent seat on the security council, China finds itself with a delicate role to play. A deal like that offered Iran has never been offered to North Korea. But it could one day form a template for a face-saving formula that could offer Pyongyang a way out of its isolation and desperately needed economic aid for its impoverished people.

Meanwhile, China, as host of the stalled six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programme, must persuade Pyongyang to return to the negotiations. This is urgent for the sake of regional stability. The suggestion from Japan that a pre-emptive strike on North Korea's missile bases might be necessary is evidence of that. The focus will be on President Hu Jintao at the G8 summit for signs of how China uses its growing influence in international affairs.