As the world’s attention is focused on Iraq, the North Korean nuclear crisis is developing quickly in an alarming direction.

The United States has put bombers on alert and North Korea is threatening all-out war, including possibly pre-emptive war. It has threatened the use of nuclear weapons, arguing that if the United States can wage pre-emptive war, it can, too.

Last December, North Korea threw out U.N. inspectors, then it withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In late January, North Korea began to take technical steps to extract and refine plutonium, the stuff of nuclear bombs.

We do not know if North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons at present, but if the current program continues, it is likely to acquire several in a few months’ time. It is only right that North Korea’s violations of its NPT commitments have received a lot of publicity.

North Korea has also violated its 1994 agreement with the United States, called the Agreed Framework. But U.S. violations of that agreement are also at the core of this dispute.

In 1994, the United States agreed to “provide formal assurances” to North Korea “against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.” The Clinton administration never gave that assurance. Then the Bush administration made matters much worse by naming North Korea as a potential nuclear weapon target, which was a direct violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

After that, President Bush named North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address. The United States continues its policy of possible first-use of nuclear weapons and has a demonstrated willingness to use them.

Until about 1991, it maintained about 700 nuclear weapons aimed at North Korea from South Korea. The United States has also announced that it may use nuclear weapons in retaliation for chemical or biological attack.

That’s a violation of U.S. commitments related to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has said that it wants to resolve the issue peacefully, but it refuses to negotiate a new agreement with North Korea even though both parties have violated the old one.

That is a big mistake.

The United States must provide formal assurance that it will not threaten to use, or actually use, nuclear weapons against North Korea. Such a security assurance should be part of the bargain that would return international inspectors to North Korea immediately and end its nuclear bomb program.

Nuclear weapons are illegal and immoral, no matter who possesses them. The U.S. policy of possible first use of nuclear weapons goes back to Hiroshima. Safety and security require that it be scrapped now, not only for North Korea, but for all countries.

The alternative could be nuclear war and catastrophe.

(First published online by The Progressive on March 20, 2003)

See the original article and links to more about North Korea in The Progressive here.