North Korea (DPRK) has made clear that it expects recognition as a nuclear weapon state (NWS). It has now implied, like most existing NWS, that it would follow a policy of “no first use”. US policy continues to be that DPRK nuclear weapon capability must be eliminated, or the DPRK will be.
The nuclear weapon States (NWS) have many things in common. The most fundamental of these characteristics is that they know that their weapons are, for most practical purposes, not useable as weapons for war fighting. The reason for this is that any such use would, with virtual certainty, represent employing a cure that is worse than the disease
This is why they claim that, their nuclear weapons are deployed for deterrent purposes only; not for use by them, but simply to deter the use by others of the same weapons, against them. It’s also why most NWS have a declaratory policy of, “no first use.” NFU.
Three current developments with respect to the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by DPRK are particularly significant.
First, and most obviously, that they appear to have achieved significant nuclear weapons capability and associated means of delivery.
Secondly, their claim that they should now be recognized as a NWS and their suggestion that, like other NWS, they propose to maintain a NFU policy.
Thirdly, resistance to their actions on the part of the US includes the threat by the US, including by President Trump, of first use of nuclear weapons against them.
These circumstances are, justifiably, causing alarm and, a careful analysis of them is made more difficult by the miasma of bombastic and abusive statement coming from the leadership in both Pyongyang and Washington.
It takes a degree of cool to set that aside, but given the track record of attachment to posturing in both capitals, a cool headedness, on the part of others, would seem to be both necessary and, hopefully, possible.
The Trump administration’s stated policy is that DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme must be halted and eliminated. There is no sound reason to believe that this will be achieved. The ultimate way, in which it might be achieved, although not with certainty, is through the US attacking DPRK, to eliminated the programme by kinetic means; precisely as Trump has repeatedly threatened.
Efforts to deal with the DPRK programme, by non-military means; the deployment of comprehensive sanctions and or diplomatic and political pressure, including action towards regime change in Pyongyang, is unlikely to be adequately supported by other key states, including Russia and China. Equally, there is formidable opposition to military action by the US.
On the other side of this equation, Pyongyang has now begun to signal that it now considers that it has achieved it’s desired status as a NWS; as such, will follow a policy of NFU; and, may now place continuing expansion of weapons development on some sort of hold.
The idea that others, particularly Washington and Tokyo, will come to terms with this posture is difficult to envisage. Taking Pyongyang at face value is anathema to them, but at least some in those capitals may, at least privately, reckon that a policy, which approximates recognition of reality, has some virtues. The largest problem faced in Washington will be Trump’s discomfort with virtually any realities ,which do not appear to cast him as the muscular winner.
This problem is fulsomely illustrated in Trump’s marauding attitude towards the nuclear agreement between Iran and the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and the EU. Under that agreement, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons related programme,
All parties to that agreement and the IAEA, which verifies it, consider that it is working and strongly resist Trump’s continuing attempts to scuttle it. For him, the agreement with Iran is dreadful, apparently for no other reason than that it is an agreement with Iran.
These circumstances do not suggest that an agreement of a similar character with DPRK, although there would necessarily be key differences, would ever be contemplated by the US, as an approach towards containing the DPRK nuclear programme. But, it is surely under contemplation by others.
Efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, are elementally shaped by an egregious double standard. Eight States are acknowledged as NWS: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, all with a veto over the Council’s decisions, and India, Pakistan and Israel.
Now, DPRK has, as a matter of palpable fact, joined the NWS, even though the current state of affairs is one of refusal to acknowledge, let alone accept, this fact. Iran has been set aside from this mix, for the time being, as a potential NWS, which has agreed to desist, for now.
The choice the international community faces is where to situate DPRK within the overall nuclear arms control regime: inside the club of NWS or, in some manner outside of it, as a pariah.
Trump’s posture suggests a preference for war with DPRK, rather than some sort of accommodation of reality. But, an attack on DPRK would not only flagrantly violate international law; it would have disastrous consequences. It would be strenuously opposed by other permanent members of the Security Council, and, mercifully, for these reasons seems unlikely to occur.
Where Trump would then put what he would regard as a defeat, a rejection of his bullying, cannot be calculated, although, his ability to deny the truth of so many matters of fact, might save us all, in this instance.
The double standard on nuclear weapons, under which the big five protect their own NWS status and those of their friends: in particular that of Israel and now India (supported by the US), and Pakistan and DPRK (supported by China), has kept alive the nuclear weapons aspirations of others, particularly in the Middle east.
If DPRK’s application to join the NWS club succeeds, that is, some sort of accommodation of them as a NWS is reached, there is anxiety that others may follow it, of which Japan and Saudi Arabia could emerge as the next candidates for membership of the club. On the latter two, Donald Trump has opined, in his usual utterly careless fashion, that maybe they should consider acquiring nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley spoke publicly last week, of the US destroying DPRK if it persists in its disobedience, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said he believes the US is goading DPRK into war.
The nuclear club is a flawed and unequal one, but if the alternative to finding a carefully monitored and constrained place within it for DPRK, is a devastating war, then maybe they should be admitted, and its members should then give more attention, indeed as they are in fact pledged to do, to re-writing the overall rules of the possession of nuclear weapons, with application to all. After all, their continuing possession of and reliance upon nuclear weapons remains a central stimulus to the proliferation of them
Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.