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North Korea: Dealing with Nuclear States

To fully understand the current crisis between North Korea and the United States one needs to refer to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its objectives and implementation. In brief, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NTP) is a landmark international treaty, whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

The Treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the new nuclear weapon states. The treaty was opened for signature in 1968 and enforced in 1970. On May, 11, 1995 the treaty was extended indefinitely. A total of 191 states have joined the treaty, including the five nuclear weapons states. More countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, a testament to the treaty’s significance.

The problem with the treaty is in its implementation. There are two sides to the treaty implementation, the disarmament aspect which should apply to all those who already have nuclear weapons and are expected to disarm by gradually reducing their stockpiles and desisting from building more sophisticated and advanced weapons. The second aspect of the treaty applies to non-nuclear weapons states which form majority of UN member states.

What has happened so far, over the years, is that in reality, the nuclear weapons states have improved the quality and quantity of their nuclear weapons stock pile, so as to maintain their superiority, as well as, super power dominance. Their action is due to the fact that no country in the United Nations system is capable of bringing them to order, or of imposing sanctions on them. Consequently, they are left to regulate themselves.

 Rather, most of the UN energy and debates were devoted to ensuring that other non-nuclear states do not acquire nuclear capability. Even then, among the original non-nuclear states, there are those regarded favourably by the nuclear weapons states, or seen as mature enough to acquire and maintain nuclear weapons, such as Israel, South Africa, (under apartheid dismantled before hand over to Mandela).

The second group are countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and a few others in the Middle East, as well as other parts of the world including North Korea. Part of the problem is that there is no fair and even handed treatment of countries intending to acquire nuclear weapons. This issue may be responsible for the determination of some countries to view acquisition of nuclear technology as a fundamental inalienable right. This issue is at the core of the current North Korean nuclear crisis.

The idea of having a nuclear free world is noble and commendable, and should be supported by every country in the world given the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons. But then it must be pursued in an open, credible, fair and even handed manner.

The North Korean Nuclear Program

North Korea’s interest in nuclear weapons program dates back to the end of the Second World War. Since then, the country has developed a nuclear fuel recycle capability and has both plutonium and enriched uranium program capable of producing fissile material. At one stage North Korea declared it has roughly 38.5kg of weapons grade plutonium extracted from spent fuel rods in May 2008.  In November 2010, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment program ostensibly intended to produce low enrich uranium for power generation purposes. Though it is possible for the country to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes

North Korea military parade

North Korea military parade

North Korea has conducted 5 nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013 and twice in 2016, claiming that the January 2016 test was a thermonuclear device. Since President Donald Trump came into power in has conducted 9 tests. To ensure that North Korea’s nuclear ambition is truncated, the USA organized a six party talks between North Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States in 2013. After Kin Jong’s death, North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the United States. However, after a dispute in 2012 with the USA over the launch of a rocket, North Korea declared the agreement dead.

Current Crisis

Since 2003, North Korea is no longer a party to the Treaty on the non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Consequently, the country has come under sanctions after conducting a number of nuclear tests beginning in 2006.

Behind the US administration’s sudden urgency in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program is the realization that a growing body of expert studies and classified intelligence reports have concluded that North Korea is capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six to seven weeks.

This acceleration in pace explains why President Trump and his aides fear they are running out of time. For many years past United States presidents calculated that each incremental improvement in the North Korean nuclear program brings the country closer to joining the league of nuclear weapons states, that’s if it has not already done so many years ago. What no one knows is exactly the degree to which North Korean’s weapons program had gone and whether it is not too late in the day to do anything about it.

Those step by step advances have resulted in North Korean warheads that could possibly in a few years reach Seattle, in the USA. It was the threat and the actual conduction by North Korea of missile tests in 2017 that forced the Trump administration to issue a threat that it was ready to confront North Korea if it fails to suspend missile tests as well as other nuclear weapons program.

The threat was followed with the deployment of warships to the Korean peninsular under the excuse that it is part of a pre-arranged military exercise with South Korea. Many commentators have seen the latest US move as a bit dangerous and capable of inviting unintended military confrontation with the possibility of nuclear weapons being used.

The exact nature of what could be the US response to further nuclear tests from North Korea is not known, neither is it clear. However, former US presidents who have dealt with North Korean problem in the past have been patient and careful, knowing all the possibilities of miscalculations and what could go wrong. Past US administrations have threatened and imposed more sanctions, and called on China to reign in North Korea and have proposed dialogue; this must be in realization that North Korea is already a nuclear power. What North Korea is currently focusing on in terms of development and perfecting is the delivery system, the intercontinental ballistic missile capability (ICBM) able to reach any part of the globe.

Analysis

It is not every aspiring nuclear power that can be easily, safely, cowered into submission, more so, after such a country has been able to master nuclear weapons technology and gone ahead to produce and test such nuclear weapons. This is probably the main reason why past US administrations were in dilemma about how to proceed with North Korea, and to some extent Iran. It will not be reasonable but not impossible that a super power could be provoked to the degree that it will be tempted to militarily attack a nuclear state either with conventional or nuclear weapons. This possibility should now be the concern of the rest of the world including African countries

North Korea is technically no longer part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, consequently it cannot be said to be breaking any international law. The United Nations should be involved in this crisis to ensure the interest of all members of the international community is considered. China, the closet country to North Korea, has the best influence on Pyongyang and should be brought into the process. China has already stated that it is a delicate process where even she must tread carefully.

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