10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

North Korea Re-Starts Plutonium Production

It's enough to give you radioactive indigestion. While the United States deals with a potential economic meltdown, North Korea has decided to restart plutonium production at its five-megawatt nuclear reactor.

That's the word from the world's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. This was how Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson, put it:

...The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the DPRK, asked the IAEA to remove seals and surveillance from the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon. This work was completed today ... The DPRK has also informed the IAEA inspectors that they plan to introduce nuclear material to the reprocessing plant in one week's time.

What does this mean?

Well, in 2007, the North Koreans signed a deal with South Korea, the US, Japan, China and Russia. They agreed to dismantle the Yongbyon reprocessing plant (which is used to produce weapons-grade material) as a step towards the elimination of their nuclear weapons program. Now, it appears that North Korea will be back in the plutonium-making business, back doing that voodoo that they do so well -- creating the potential to make more nuclear weapons.

It's hard to gauge intentions, and many moves in the North Korean nuclear chess match have been abrupt and unexpected. Pyongyang has been frustrated by Washington's refusal to remove North Korea from the US list of nations that sponsor terrorism. The US wants proof that the North Korean nuclear program is completely closed down. They came to an impasse. And now this. The only thing certain is the situation's uncertainty. But one aspect of the situation is very interesting -- the timing of the move to start up the plutonium plant.

The United States is struggling to cope with a Category 4 economic hurricane -- and as the eye of the storm passes over Washington, North Korea decides to execute an U-turn on nuclear weapons. Hmmm. It all leads me to an observation: More and more, other countries perceive the United States as pre-occupied and weakened by poor governance in the public and private arenas.

Instead of looking to us for leadership, they look to us with distrust and defiance. Look at South America for some examples. The US has lost respect and influence through our invasion of Iraq, our official sanction of torture, the mismanagement of our financial sector and our refusal to adopt a true policy of nonproliferation on nuclear weapons.

Our suffering reputation should trigger a self-image reality check. Look at what has happened to Americans in the past decade -- we are poorer, more pessimistic and less secure. In the telling measure of how we take care of our most vulnerable citizens, we have gone backwards. We can only offer the weak excuse that we have not launched programs to feed our hungry, create jobs for those out of work and house the homeless because we were too busy spending billions of dollars on fighting wars that we chose to start. Now the government wants to spend even more money on propping up financial companies that are failing.

To me, the lesson of all this is clear: Time is running out. We need to lead the world while we still can.

The world sees the US double standard on nuclear weapons for what it is -- a cover for maintaining the staus quo of nuclear haves and have-nots. We get outraged at North Korea for having the potential to make at most a handful of nuclear wepons. But we, of course, have around 9,000, including more than 1,000 on high alert. The White House gives major lip service to nuclear nonproliferation, and all the while, the Bush administration pushes plans to create new warheads of our own like the reliable replacement warhead. We must stop this useless posturing. Proliferation has boomed in spite of it. Instead, I propose drafting a new US nuclear weapons policy.

We would have moral authority, as well as power, if we adopted the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and began working for the phased and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. If you think it can't be done. You're wrong. They said the same thing about slavery. They were wrong. And if you're curious about the hows, whens and wherefores, here is one example of a plan for a new policy drafted by Dr. David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation .

The world order is changing. Fears of a new Cold War are growing. China grows daily in economic power and influence. In 10 or 20 years, the hierarchy of nations could look quite different. We must act now on nuclear weapons not only because the threat requires quick action and the solution will take years to implement, but because the nuclear weapons issue is an opportunity to unite the world.

Yes, that's right. We could help unite the world. Think about it. Eliminating nuclear weapons is everyone's issue. Working for nuclear disarmament is just a form of disaster prevention, after all -- a way to preserve the pursuit of happiness, a way to enjoy our families, our homes, our businesses, our playgrounds, our churches and our parks in peace.

A new approach could also also can provide a template for approaching other global problems like climate change. We have been taught that nuclear disarmament is controversial and unsafe. But once we leave behind that bias, once we really consider the benefits of international co-operation to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, a new conclusion emerges. It is this: the truly dangerous option is the status quo of proliferation and weapons on high alert. The facts are important here - they make it clear that work towards nuclear weapons abolition is not "radical," it is just an attempt to improve and ensure public safety.

Public safety and international welfare. Hmmm. Probably the only approach that hasn't been tried with North Korea. They could reject it, of course. But isn't it worth a try?

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is an educational charity that seeks a new US nuclear weapons policy. The Foundation is gathering one million signatures in a public education campaign, US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World -- An Appeal to the Next President of the United States. The text of the Appeal sets out seven prudent steps -- such as de-alerting nuclear weapons -- that would make the world safer. The names will be delivered to the White House on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009.

People can read the US Leadership Appeal and sign on at