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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 78, Cover design by Paul Aston Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 78, July/August 2004

News Shorts

US proposes "no-verification" Fissban to be negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva has spent a frustrating year. Despite serious statements on serious issues and valiant attempts from some ambassadors to break the dispiriting years of deadlock, the CD is nearing the close of its 2004 session with nothing much to show for its efforts.

The most significant event of the year was widely viewed as negative. From January onwards, the CD has been awaiting the outcome of a US interagency process to review policy on negotiating a treaty to ban the production of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons (fissban). Though the leaks and rumours emanating from Washington this past year were not encouraging, some delegations clung to the hope that following China's major concession on the agenda in 2003, when it dropped its demand for negotiations on 'prevention of an arms race in outer space', the United States would put something on the table that would enable the CD finally to get to work, starting with the fissban.

They were to be bitterly disappointed. In a few lines in a statement on July 29 that ranged from Iran and North Korea to landmines, US Ambassador Jackie Sanders told the CD that the United States had come to the conclusion that effective verification of a fissban was "not achievable". She reaffirmed the US willingness to abide by its 15-year moratorium, and appeared to call for the much-delayed negotiations to proceed on these new terms.

Although Sanders promised more information about what the US envisaged for this proposed 'no-verification fissban' almost nothing has appeared on the record, and CD ambassadors remain confused about whether Washington wants to scrap, renegotiate or bypass the current mandate, agreed in March 1995. Widely known as the "Shannon mandate", this specifies "a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." [CD/1299] Speaking at the Arms Control Association in Washington DC, Dr Frank von Hippel, formerly President Clinton's science advisor, accepted that verification would be a political challenge, but "it is technically feasible to establish the means to effectively monitor and verify compliance with the treaty in order to detect and deter clandestine nuclear bomb production efforts."

Though it is understood that informal discussions have been taking place, few CD delegations have commented on the US policy about-turn, perhaps hoping that by the time the CD reconvenes in January 2005, things might look different again.

South Korea Discloses Secret Nuclear Experiments to the IAEA

In late August, the government of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) told a visiting IAEA inspection team about a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment programme using laser technology. It was claimed that a group of "rogue" scientists back in 2000 had carried out the experiments to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) without government authorisation or knowledge. In the late 1970s, the US suspected South Korea had an incipient nuclear weapon programme and forced its closure.

While the laser enrichment of uranium, a process in the manufacture of HEU for nuclear weapons, is not actually banned under the NPT, provided that it is properly declared to the IAEA and subject to safeguards, the revelation of secret South Korean experiments has serious political implications even if the quantities were not militarily significant.

The disclosure was reportedly volunteered following concerns raised by IAEA inspectors who had been denied access to a particular building during a routine inspection at the Taejon facility.

At a time when the Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear programme are stalled, the revelations are likely to hand a propaganda weapon to Pyongyang, which admits to reprocessing plutonium, but has repeatedly denied US accusations that it has a uranium enrichment programme as well. The revelations may also affect efforts by the IAEA and international community to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. Following discovery of a clandestine programme to enrich uranium in 2003, the United States has been pressing for the IAEA to declare Iran in breach of its NPT obligations and report it to the UN Security Council for punitive action. Tehran claims that Iran's laser enrichment programme was for peaceful purposes, and, as South Korea also insists, in the past. (The Iranian facility was reportedly dismantled in May 2003.)

Though the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea raise many more concerns, the fact that South Korea, a close US ally, stands exposed by the IAEA for not having declared a similar clandestine programme complicates the picture. If the different violations are not treated with comparable severity, some will cry hypocrisy.

India tests Agni II missile

On Sunday August 29, India test-launched an Agni II surface to surface missile with a range of up to 2,500 miles and capable of carrying a nuclear or conventional payload of up to 1000 kg. Launched from India's missile test range at Wheeler Island, Orissa State, this was reportedly the third trial of the Agni II.

Source: International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2004.

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© 2004 The Acronym Institute.