Can the differing world reactions to India’s missile test and North Korea’s attempted “satellite launch” be explained by the familiar saying that success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan? The more likely explanation is that the two tests are forcing the international community to confront implicit assumptions and contradictions with respect to the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, it had a three-way bargain. It was drafted and negotiated by some of those within the nuclear club. Not surprisingly, therefore, it embedded their interests and priorities. The nonnuclear countries were permitted access to technology and material to harness nuclear energy for civilian and development use if they forswore forever any plans to get the bomb. In return, the nuclear haves promised eventually to give up their own nuclear weapons.

But there was a marked imbalance of obligations, privileges and benefits. The nonproliferation requirement was precise, legally binding, verifiable by the International Atomic Energy Agency as the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and enforceable by the U.N. Security Council. The disarmament promise was vague, voluntary, not subject to verification, and not enforceable.

Since 1968, the imbalance has worsened as the NPT has been treated essentially like a nonproliferation rather than a prohibition regime. And additional conditions have crept into assistance with nuclear power for peaceful purposes as well, to ensure they are indeed peaceful.

That is, originally the bargain was nuclear power essential, proliferation bad, disarmament good: Let’s aim for convergence. The new equation is nuclear power troublesome, proliferation terrible, and disarmament perhaps good, but be careful what you wish for.

This has come about because the rhetoric is at odds with reality. The assumption behind the NPT is that nuclear weapons, owing to their very destructiveness, are uniquely evil and should be banned for everyone. Those who had them were given time to transit out of national security depending on the bomb. Those who did not have them were prohibited from ever getting them.

The different reactions to India and North Korea demonstrate the hollowness of this assumption. When Pyongyang announced the planned “peaceful satellite launch,” it was roundly condemned in the region, around the world, and by the United Nations. Japan even made preparations to shoot it down if it flew over Japanese airspace. The April 13 test failed miserably, with the only real surprise being that Pyongyang admitted the failure openly to its own people.

India’s April 19 test was fully successful. More, it tested a 5,000-km ICBM capability that puts Beijing, Shanghai and parts of Europe within range of Indian nukes for the first time. Hailed by most Indian analysts as a game-changer, the Agni-V was dubbed the China killer by some of the more excitable commentators.

A big collateral benefit for India is that international analysts are for the first time being forced to recognize that the prime driver of India’s nuclear policy is China. The added complications in bilateral relations with Pakistan is an acceptable collateral cost of gaining a deterrent capability vis-à-vis China that gives practical meaning to the no first use policy. For the range, mobility and “MIRVability” of Agni-V guarantee a survivable, second-strike retaliatory capability even if India is hit by a surprise nuclear attack. Incidentally, the Agni-V test came shortly after the commissioning of the nuclear-powered attack submarine the INS Chakra.

Another possible gain for India might be the added weight given to its claims to join the global nonproliferations regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (ironically, set up in response to India’s 1974 test), the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

Washington responded by urging all nuclear-capable states to “exercise restraint” but also praised India’s “solid nonproliferation record” and noted the “very strong strategic and security partnership” between India and the United States. A NATO spokesman said India was not considered a threat. Parts of the Chinese media warned India against overestimating its strength.

The public rhetoric is never matched by private concerns. In purely national security terms, of the nine nuclear armed states, Britain and France have the least justification for continued possession of the bomb. But when pressed in private, away from the cameras and an audience, no one claims that the bomb in British and French hands represents a serious threat to anyone else, whereas 100 to 200 bombs in North Korean and Iranian hands would indeed be cause for grave anxiety by others. It is just as clear that Middle Eastern states are far more acutely worried by a possible Iranian bomb than an actual Israeli bomb.

So, does the rhetoric-reality gap result from international political correctness?

The varying reactions to the two tests do not negate the argument that the logics of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament are essentially the same. The possession of nuclear weapons by some is the biggest stimulus to their proliferation to others. If they did not exist, they could not proliferate. Because they do, they will.

Their possession by a few is a sufficient guarantee of their proliferation to others; the only details to be worked out are by when and to how many. Conversely, nuclear disarmament by all is a necessary condition for nonproliferation.

The challenge is not if nuclear abolition, but how and when so that we do not tip into fatal nuclear or conventional major-power wars during the transition from a world that relies on the bomb to one freed from its nightmare. The related challenge is to make sure that the 30 or so countries that shelter under the nuclear umbrella of others do not feel so alarmed at the idea of nuclear disarmament by their protectors that they get the bomb directly themselves.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director, Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.

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