The Los Angeles Times and New York Times lead with North Korea's late-breaking announcement it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, effective immediately. The move—especially the "effective immediately" part—comes as something of a shock: Under law, those who exit the treaty are required to give 90 days notice. The Washington Post and USAToday (in editions that closed before the North Korea story broke) lead instead with the briefing Hans Blix gave the United Nations. Despite acknowledging that he lacked a "smoking gun," the chief weapons inspector reported that he is far from satisfied. The remarks from Blix also sit atop the world-wide news box at the Wall Street Journal.
"The nonproliferation treaty is being used as a tool for implementing the hostile U.S. policy toward [North Korea] aimed to disarm it and destroy its system by force," read a statement released by government-controlled media outlets in North Korea. The LAT lead reports that Pyongyang's position is that it already gave 90 days advance warning when it made similar noises about exiting the NPT in 1993. Without the treaty, North Korea has no obligation under international law to admit weapons inspectors. The paper points out that the move complicates the Bush strategy on the crisis, which centered on applying pressure to resume inspections. Now the leverage to make that happen is gone.
An expert confirms for the LAT that no nation has ever opted out of the NPT. "It is unprecedented. The North Koreans are charting new territory," he said. The paper is quick to remind that Israel, India, and Pakistan, all of whom are thought to have nuclear capabilities, never signed on to the 1985 treaty. Owing to heavy-handed Soviet influence, North Korea did—and has been grumbling about it ever since.
For the record, the official statement from the North Korean government—as quoted in the NYT—disavowed the use of nuclear weapons: "We have no intention to produce nuclear weapons and our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes such as the production of electricity."
A late-breaking story from the WP says the North Korean government has let it be known that it might change its mind about the NPT if the United States agreed to resume oil shipments. The shipments were stopped last October as part of the U.S. reaction to the discovery that Pyongyang had resumed the production of nuclear materials.
News of the withdrawal appears to have broken too late to get an official statement from the White House. But coverage from earlier in the day notices that Bush officials have started taking a tougher stance in the crisis. In addition to previous demands to halt the production and refinement of nuclear materials, a NSC spokesman yesterday called on Pyongyang to "completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program in a visible and verifiable manner."
In a separate story that seems to have been filed before the withdrawal was announced, the NYT reports that liaisons from Pyongyang are in New Mexico visiting new Gov. (and former Department of Energy head honcho) Bill Richardson. North Korea lacks diplomatic ties to the U.S., but they contacted Washington to set up the meeting. Given that Richardson, a Democrat, has no connection to the Bush foreign-policy team, it is unclear what North Korea has in mind. The NYT floats the idea that Richardson may be another Jimmy Carter, who ended the 1994 standoff by negotiating from outside the Clinton administration. But a Bush official quoted by the paper says it's not going to happen. The move to approach Richardson is "perhaps more constructive than building nukes," he says.
Blix dismissed Iraq's latest 12,000-page release as nothing new, and he charged that Iraq still hasn't made a "serious effort" to cooperate. He told the U.N. that Baghdad insists on monitoring all interviews with scientists—and has done its best to keep his inspectors from finding them. The NYT reports that what was supposed to be Iraq's complete and accurate list of personnel involved in weapons design has turned out to be anything but: It didn't even include all the names from lists submitted to the U.N. in the past. Blix concluded by reminding Iraq that "there is still time" for it to comply.
The NYT is the first to come clean about the true significance of yesterday's statements. According to the paper, they "did not appear to substantially affect the positions of the United States or other governments." As expected, the U.S. response to the statements cited them as evidence that Iraq was in "material breach" of the Security Council's resolution. Just as predictable were the reactions of Germany, Koffi Annan, and a host of others who spun the comments as an argument to give inspections more time.
Most of the United Nations coverage looks ahead to Jan. 27. That's the day inspectors are set to deliver a formal progress report to the Security Council. If that report sounds anything like this one, the U.S. could try to use it as a "trigger for military action," as the NYT puts it.
David Newman is a contributing editor at Legal Affairs.