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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Nuclear moves ease tensions

by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

An American offer to North Korea of a security guarantee and progress in talks with Iran on its nuclear programme have lessened tensions in two key areas of nuclear proliferation.

North Korean tanks on parade
North Korea has demanded a non-aggression pact

The moves have raised hopes that diplomacy can be a way of achieving one of the United States' policy objectives - stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

But while for now Washington is ready to talk softly, it still carries a big stick and confrontations, especially with North Korea, cannot be ruled out.

The proposed offer of a written guarantee to the North by the United States and four regional powers - China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea - "puts the ball back into North Korea's court," according to Adam Ward, Senior Fellow for East Asian Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Mr Ward told BBC News Online: "The pressure had been on the United States after the Beijing talks in August to come up with an offer to pave the way to substantive negotiations.

"The maximalist position adopted by the US then - that is, telling the North that it had to give up its nuclear programme in advance - was not seen as realistic by other countries."

Bilateral pact ruled out

North Korea has been demanding a bilateral non-aggression pact with the United States but that is not on offer. Washington has never liked such pacts ( the Eastern bloc used to demand them in the Cold War), fearing that its hands would be tied in a crisis.

In this case it also fears that the North would simply use a pact as a way of demanding more.

"North Korea might say that the US troops in South Korea violated such a pact," said Adam Ward.

In any event, it is highly unlikely that the US Senate, which has to approve all treaties, would accept one with North Korea.

North's concerns

Instead, a multinational guarantee is being suggested. This would try to address what are called "North Korea's legitimate security concerns."

In return North Korea would have to give up whatever nuclear weapons ambitions it might have and presumably allow full inspections again by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

South Korea's national security adviser Dr Ra Jong-Yil, has welcomed the American offer, telling the BBC that he was "very encouraged." He hoped that talks could take place by the end of the year.

Whether a guarantee would be enough for North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il is not at all clear.

If, as the CIA suspects, North Korea either has or could soon have one or two nuclear weapons, he could consider them a better "guarantee" than any piece of paper through which he would have to disarm.

Iran deadline looms

As for Iran, there are signs that a deal could be reached in time for the deadline of 31 October set by the IAEA for the resolution of concerns that Iran has been hiding a weapons programme.

If a country can be persuaded to follow the procedures of the NPT, then there will be no need of threats and less possibility of war

The issue here is whether Iran will agree to more intrusive inspections to check that it is not processing uranium to weapons grade levels.

Iran has in return demanded that it be allowed to continue with nuclear development for peaceful purposes, as indeed it is allowed to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran's President Mohammed Khatami has said that his country will do "whatever may be necessary to solve the problem."

Foreign ministers' visit

A visit to Tehran this week by the British, French and German foreign ministers underscores the importance of this issue internationally.

The reason is simple. If a country can be persuaded to follow the procedures of the NPT, then there will be no need of threats and less possibility of war.

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge
"At the very least it amounts to a subtle change in US policy"

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