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The End Of The Nuclear Age?

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Igor Volsky

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Yesterday, North Korea launched a rocket "that it said propelled a satellite into space but that much of the world viewed as an unsuccessful effort to prove it is edging toward the capability to shoot a nuclear warhead on a longer-range missile." The rocket's payload landed in the Pacific Ocean, and the U.S. Northern Command said that nothing entered orbit. Analysts called the launch a failure, "suggesting it might reveal a significant quality control problem." Just hours after the launch, President Obama gave a speech affirming "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Citing the danger of the black-market weapons trade and the threat of nuclear terrorism, Obama said the missile test illustrated "the need for action, just not this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of weapons."

A MEASURED REACTION: Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund and former Center for American Progress senior fellow, argued that the missile test, while disturbing, "is not a serious threat to the United States, nor does it justify a crash program to deploy an expensive, unproven anti-missile system." North Korea would still have to make three more key breakthroughs to create a nuclear missile capable of reaching the U.S., he wrote. However, as President Obama declared, "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something." He called on the U.N. Security Council to take action against North Korea, although "it remained unclear exactly what the West will be able to do" regarding punishment. The Security Council remained "at an impasse" on Sunday night, and the session ended inconclusively. Cirincione, for one, said that now is not the time to shy away from negotiations: "Recall that North Korea's biggest nuclear advances came from 2001 to 2006 after the Bush administration scuttled the 1994 Agreed Framework and attempted to coerce North Korea into surrender or collapse. Instead, Kim Jong Il restarted his programs, tested more missiles and their first nuclear explosion." In a statement after the launch, Obama said the U.S. "will continue working for the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through the Six-Party Talks."

RIGHT-WING FEARMONGERING: Predictably, the right wing immediately seized upon the missile launch to fearmonger. On Friday, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton intoned, "A ballistic missile that can reach the United States, can easily reach Japan, is a substantial threat." On Fox News Sunday, the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), and former House speaker Newt Gingrich all agreed that, as Kristol put it, "We can't tolerate these North Korean launches," and the U.S. must "act accordingly." However, last week he called for "preemptive actions" against North Korea -- possibly with lasers of some kind -- Gingrich was vague on exactly how he would go about it. "There are three or four techniques that could have been used, from unconventional forces to standoff capabilities, to say we're not going to tolerate a North Korean missile launch, period," he blustered. The National Review's Rich Lowry indicated that America's only option was to "develop a robust missile defense" and lamented that the "Obama administration is falling down" in that respect by possibly giving up a missile defense site in Eastern Europe. Gingrich and Kristol even used the test to beat the war drums for their favored target: Iran. "This test, in a sense, is a de facto Iranian test, and it makes more immediate the threat of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs," Kristol said. On Twitter, Gingrich referred to the "north korean-iranian missile launches," adding, "We know they work together. Is this launch a dual threat?"

OBAMA'S NUCLEAR PLAN: Hours after the launch, Obama "announced an ambitious U.S. arms-control campaign aimed at drastically reducing atomic weapons globally while still recognizing developing nations' rights to pursue nuclear power." He emphasized the leadership role the U.S. must take in reducing its weapons stockpile in order to persuade other nations to follow. "As a nuclear power -- as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon -- the United States has a moral responsibility to act," Obama said. "We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it." He will convene an international summit in Washington aimed at shrinking the world's nuclear arsenal, and will "propose creating a new international agency to pursue the effort, a senior U.S. official said." Obama is also working to create an international nuclear-fuel bank and pledged Sunday to "immediately and aggressively" push the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. "Nearly 148 countries have ratified the treaty, but it still awaits approval by the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and Iran." Sunday's speech follows last week's announcement that the U.S. and Russia aim to negotiate a new arms reduction treaty by the end of this year.