With the proclamation of the success of its first underground nuclear test on October 9, 2006, the Kim Jong II-led DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has become the eighth country on the planet to join the ranks of nuclear weapon States. As per the official announcement, the underground test was “conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology, 100 percent” and hails it as “a historic event” that will “contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the area around it.” Evidently, the eyesore of the Bush administration seems to have literally stirred the hornet’s nest without taking cognizance of the insidious fallouts that it might bear upon the future course of global nuclear power agenda and diplomacy, hitherto dominated by the US and a select few. Even countries beyond the domain of American influence, including China and the two neighbours of North Korea, Japan and South Korea, have reacted sharply to the nuclear test, which they visualize as a clear breach of international commitments. The magnitude of perturbation and panic underlying the volley of reactions erupting in the wake of North Korea’s intrepid venture reminds one of a situation when a naughty kid sitting on the back of a bull gets carried a naughty kid sitting on the back of a bull gets carried away by his jocular vein and goads his fingers into its ears forcing the beasts to ram into a crowd of bullfighters. And like the mischievous lad who is grilled, reprimanded and screwed up for committing such a brazen act, DPRK is being subjected to criticism and condemnation everywhere. Massive protest rallies and processions of people holding banners and placards with bold letters of condemnation and shouting slogans against DPRK are capturing the limelight in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. Undoubtedly, what North Korea has done is nothing less than a sort of nuclear extremism, marking a decisive violation of the basic objectives of the non-proliferation regime cherished so passionately by the nuclear powers. But the basic question is whether is could really be put off for long.

Only a few days before the test, the United Nations Security Council warned the DPRK that its dangerous action would lead to severe consequences. With the United States aggressively leading the campaign to punish it, some kind of tough collective action, beginning with the imposition of Security Council sanctions, seems indispensable.

In an atmosphere of intensifying paranoia, the international community cannot pretend it had no forewarning. Since 2003, when Pyongyang announced its decision to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has not been under any legal obligation to forswear the production or possession of nuclear weapons. In February2005, it asserted it had built nuclear weapons. On October 3, 2006 came a declaration spelling out in clear terms that “it would soon test a nuclear weapon, a prerequisite for bolstering the nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defence.” 10/9, that is the nuclear test by DPRK on October 9, 2006, formally throws in abeyance the grand bargain on which American nuclear policy in East Asia has rested: that in exchange for Japan and South Korea forswearing their right to nuclear weapons, the US would guarantee their security against nuclear attack by Russia or China and ensure there would be no new nuclear weapon state in the region. The US points man for Korea, Mr. Christopher Hill recently warned that Pyongyang could either have nuclear weapons or a ‘future”. But what really can Washington do under the profoundly changed circumstances?

The nuclear order, rooted in an unequal global nuclear bargain and dubiously legalized by the NPT, now lies in ruins. India (which put pressure on the global nuclear bargain as early as May 1974) and Pakistan punched a big hole through the ‘non-proliferation’ regime in May 1998. Israel, which for decades has had a sizeable arsenal of nuclear weapons, has also stayed out of the NPT with western support. In the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are dose to 30 countries that can be considered “virtual nuclear weapon States”. To put it otherwise, they have the technological capability to convert their civilian nuclear programmes into weapons programmes in a matter of months. It is undeniable that the preaching and practice of ‘non-proliferation’ is all about double standards, different sets of rules applying to different States in a global system sought to be controlled by the US. Thus, by definition, every condemnation of Pyongyang’s adventurism by a nuclear weapon State is based on double standards; you might say ‘hypocrisy’.

The Government of India might see North Korea’s action as greatly weakening the prospect of the India US civil nuclear cooperation deal winning approval in the US Congress. But even allowing for this, New Delhi’s condemnation of the October 9, 2006 test as being “in violation of its international commitments, jeopardizing peace, stability and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region” and as highlighting “the dangers of clandestine proliferation” sounds a bit rich. Post-Pokhran, New Delhi defended what it had done in the language of peace, national security, and deterrence, with the then Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously characterizing the nuclear weapon as “the kind of weapon that helps in preserving the peace.” But if on May 11 and 13, 1998, India violated no international commitments because it was not a state party to the NPT, North Korea can claim it acted in line with Article 10 of the NPT, the escape clause that stipulates: “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty has the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary event, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance.”

What is most significant is the fact that any realistic appraisal of Pyongyang’s nuclear test must go beyond calling into question the legality of its action, addressing the grave regional and global outcomes of its adventurism and seeing what can be done to undo the damage. China evidently feels terribly let down. The heightened insecurity of Japan and South Korea might now incline towards paranoia. The Bush administration, which must accept a major share of the blame for missing chances for a re-configuration of relations with the Kim Jong II regime, for its bluster against the ‘axis of evil’, and for imposing short-sighted financial sanctions, must now be restrained by other major powers, especially permanent members of the Security Council, from going down the road to another disastrous military confrontation. The six-party talks can yet be salvaged as a forum for a negotiated solution that surely lies in persuading North Korea that its way out of international isolation is to put the genie back into the bottle and renounce, in words as well as deeds, its nuclear weapon status.