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David CortrightNorth Korea’s nuclear test is a major blow to the international nonproliferation regime, the first time a country has withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and tested nuclear weapons.

This is a disaster that did not have to happen. It represents a colossal failure of U.S. foreign policy. When the Bush administration came into office, North Korea had only one or two bombs. It had agreed in 1994 to freeze its existing nuclear program and accept enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. When that agreement unraveled, the Clinton administration came close to negotiating a better deal in its final months in office. The Bush administration refused to carry on the negotiations and instead labeled Pyongyang part of the “axis of evil.”

Bush started a war against Iraq, which did not have the bomb, but allowed North Korea, which had a known nuclear program, to continue developing its capabilities. Bush’s aggressive war policy sent a clear message to North Korea: Don’t wait to get the bomb if you want to avoid Saddam Hussein’s fate. Pyongyang took that message and now has an estimated 10 nuclear weapons and is part of the nuclear club.

The Bush White House has refused to negotiate with North Korea, instead hiding behind the six-party talks and relying on China to pressure the North. This will never work. Pyongyang’s primary concern is the United States. We have maintained economic and diplomatic sanctions and military pressures against North Korea for more than 50 years.

The U.S. must take the lead in attempting to persuade North Korea to give up the bomb. We have all the cards diplomatically. North Korea has said repeatedly in the past, and reiterated again this week, that it would be willing to give up its nuclear program in exchange for a U.S. agreement to normalize economic and diplomatic relations and end military pressures. Let’s take them up on that offer.

Washington must also practice what it preaches. Washington’s “do as I say, not as I do” approach to nonproliferation is not credible and is widely criticized as hypocritical. It is like preaching temperance from a bar stool. The nonproliferation treaty was conceived as a grand bargain in which the acknowledged nuclear weapons states agreed under Article VI to disarm, in exchange for a pledge from all other countries not to develop such weapons. Ultimately the success of nonproliferation requires universality. As we pressure North Korea to give up the bomb, we must be prepared to do the same ourselves.

David Cortright is a board member of Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He is research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and president of the Fourth Freedom Forum.

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