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An international conference to review the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) opens at the United Nations Monday. The 1970 treaty is riddled with inefficacy, as illustrated by North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, Iran’s moves to enrich uranium, and the existence of an international black market for nuclear equipment and technology. Restoring confidence in the NPT regime largely depends on the conference.

Confidence building requires resolving, or at least reducing, the deep disagreement and mistrust that exists between nuclear haves and have-nots. All treaty nations have the collective responsibility to craft a more effective international system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

During the review conference, which is expected to last more than three weeks, a range of nuclear issues will get a full airing not only in keynote speeches by representatives from member states, but also in the committee discussions that follow. On the agenda are three general subjects: disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation and peaceful use of atomic energy.

The previous meeting in 2000 adopted a document calling on all nuclear-weapons states to make a “clear commitment” to total nuclear disarmament. The United States and Russia, which previously signed a treaty limiting strategic nuclear arms, reportedly still hold some 15,000 nuclear warheads between them. It is hard to reject criticism that the nuclear states have not been doing enough to reduce their deadly arsenals.

Criticism has been leveled particularly against the U.S., which is viewed as passive about nuclear-arms reduction. The administration of President George W. Bush gives top priority to preventing the manufacture of atomic bombs by “rogue states,” such as Iran and North Korea, and the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. Washington has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It is also opposed to a treaty designed to cut off production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, saying that verification is practically impossible.

All this and more has raised doubts about U.S. nuclear policy. For the conference to succeed, Washington should make clear that it is determined to protect and reinforce the NPT system, and begin to move more positively toward nuclear disarmament.

Japan should seize an opportunity. The government’s position is that all nuclear-weapons states should first reduce their arsenals. It also maintains that the CTBT should take effect at an early date and that talks on the fissile-material cutoff treaty should begin as soon as possible. Japan’s role is to coordinate. In particular, it needs to work for a U.S. policy shift.

How to deal with North Korea is a crucial question. The country continues a policy of nuclear brinkmanship, defying international calls for dialogue. The recent halt to reactor operations at the nuclear complex at Yongbyong — a move necessary to remove spent fuel rods — is widely considered a step toward making nuclear weapons.

The conference should send a clear message to the North Koreans: Give up your nuclear ambitions and return immediately to six-party talks. Failing that, the North could face U.N. sanctions. Before considering that option, though, the international community should urge Pyongyang to reverse its decision to withdraw from the NPT.

In a way, the U.S. may be giving North Korea an alibi for developing nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has denounced as “intimidation” Washington’s policy of nuclear deterrence and its doctrine of military preemption. As long as the North Koreans hold such a paranoid view, it may be difficult to persuade them to abandon their nuclear adventure.

Nonproliferation is a major pillar of U.S. security policy. But this does not mean that the U.S. alone can bolster its nuclear strategy. America, now developing new types of nuclear weapons to fight terrorism, would win more confidence internationally if it listened humbly to voices calling for a nuclear-free world and shifted its nuclear gears.

The NPT is an unequal treaty that allows only five powers — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China — to possess nuclear weapons. Nonnuclear states are allowed to use atomic energy only for peaceful purposes. Although this provision may be used as cover for nuclear-weapons programs, it should not prevent industrialized nations from helping developing ones in the peaceful use of atomic energy.

The conference will also discuss methods of preventing withdrawals from the NPT, such as imposing the same treaty obligations after a pullout and requiring the return of imported nuclear equipment to its original suppliers.

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