- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 (UPI) — This is the year when we start waiting for nuclear proliferation to hit double figures.

There are now nine states known or firmly believed to have nuclear weapons, and once the 10th emerges, the rush will almost certainly be on.

One does not have to penetrate very far into the arcane game theories of the nuclear thinkers to understand why this should be so. Nuclear powers tend to come in pairs. The American Manhattan Project spurred Stalin to order his secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, to launch a crash program to match it. The French, for reasons of prestige, were then determined not to let the British remain the only European nuclear power. The Pakistanis were quick to follow the Indians, and so on.

Solitary nuclear powers embark on their own programs for fear of encirclement by threatening powers that might not be stopped by conventional means. That is why Israel and China launched, and South Africa started, their various programs — and in Israel's case this spurred Iraq to develop its own project in the classic "nuclear pairs" system.

North Korea's nuclear effort is an equally classic "encirclement" phenomenon, but one that is likely to spur more nuclear programs, because it is taking place in a region that is undergoing a fundamental destabilization.

Asia is now, in nuclear terms, the most dangerous place on Earth — and not just because India and Pakistan lack the sophisticated command and control systems that the United States and Soviet Union developed in the terrified wake of the Cuban missile crisis.

Asia is dangerous because China is fast becoming a full-spectrum regional superpower, and is already close to commanding not just nuclear but conventional military, economic and politico-cultural dominance over the Asia-Pacific rim. The only bar to this process is the somewhat distracted United States, which is already coming to terms with the prospect that it may not longer be able to guarantee Taiwan against Chinese conventional military threats.

China already has the quiet Kilo-class submarines, and the sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, that put into question the ability of the U.S. Navy to command the Taiwan Straits with aircraft carriers. China's recovery of Taiwan, in the teeth of U.S. military opposition, would be one of those world-changing military campaigns akin to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 or the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It would change everything. The world would be back to the bipolar balance that it lost with the Soviet collapse.

North Korea's nuclear bid may best be understood in this context. All around the Asia-Pacific, generals are warning their politicians of the speed of geo-political change that now looms. The military men in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam and the Philippines would be remiss in their duty if they were not warning that the nuclear option might have to be considered, against the day when the United States can no longer act as regional stabilizer. The first four of those countries have the technological skills to become nuclear powers by the end of this year.

It is little short of miraculous that the lid on the nuclear genie stayed shut as long as it died. For the first 30 years of the nuclear era, there were four countries with the power of the atom; the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France. China tested its first bomb on Oct. 14, 1964.

At some still-undisclosed point on the decade after China's test, Israel joined the nuclear club. Although its nuclear weaponry has yet to be officially confirmed, Israel is now believed to have close to 200 nuclear warheads, roughly the same as Britain and France, although all of Israel's delivery vehicles are relatively short-range.

In the past five years, India and Pakistan tested their own nuclear weapons. And if the statements of top U.S. officials like Secretary of State Colin Powell are to be believed, North Korea now has at least two.

That brings us to nine.

Had it not been for the good sense of Freddie de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who voluntarily suspended South Africa's well-advanced nuclear program, the nuclear club would already have been in double digits. And but for the universally condemned but merciful attack by Israeli warplanes on Iraq's Osirak reactor on June 7, 1981, Saddam Hussein could have been boasting of his nukes for the last 20 years.

There was a splendid outbreak of good sense in that heady period after the end of the Cold War. The Brazilian and Argentine civilian governments stopped the relatively primitive research efforts of their military predecessors, and the Kazakhs and Ukrainians voluntarily scrapped their nuclear inheritance from the old USSR.

But the North Koreans have re-opened the nuclear box, and nuclear powers numbered 10, 11, 12 — and maybe unlucky 13 — are waiting in the wings.

Happy New Year.

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