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North Korea And A Nuclear Weapons Ban – Analysis

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By Frederick N. Mattis

To abolish nuclear weapons, North Korea and all states would have to join the ban before its entry into force, for three reasons. First, the nuclear ban (or abolition) treaty, often called a Nuclear Weapons Convention, would not create true abolition unless all states are parties to it. Second, current nuclear powers in all likelihood would not join unless the ban when enacted is truly global. (There already exists the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been joined by all but nine states as “non-nuclear weapon” parties.) Third, unanimity of accession by states would give the ban unprecedented geopolitical force for ongoing compliance by states – desirable in itself, and a crucial incentive for today’s nuclear weapon possessors to actually renounce their arsenals.

An enacted nuclear ban treaty would bring the following benefits to all states and people: freedom from the threat of nuclear war or attack, freedom from possible “false-alarm” nuclear missile launch, and freedom from possible terrorist acquisition of a weapon from a state’s nuclear arsenal.

As with all nuclear possessors, North Korea claims that its weapons are for “deterrence.” But the presence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons could actually work to cause demise of the North Korean regime. If the USA, in a moment of crisis, launches a pre-emptive (preventive) – strike even with just conventional weapons against North Korea’s nuclear weapons or sites, then a North Korean military response likely would become a full-scale new and terrible Korean War. North Korea can be bellicose, but it is reasonable to believe that North Korea does not want to engage in full-scale war against South Korea and the USA. (The USA, for its part, has proclaimed that it has “no intention” of attacking North Korea.)

The “Agreed Framework”

North Korea to its credit in 1994 even agreed, without a [prospective] worldwide nuclear ban, to freeze its plutonium-based nuclear weapons development program, and in return was to be provided fuel oil supplies by the USA, plus there was arrangement of construction subsidy for two safeguarded (internationally monitored) light-water nuclear power reactors for North Korean electricity production. Why did this plutonium-centered pact – 1994 “Agreed Framework” – fall apart eight years later in late 2002, which was followed in 2006 by North Korea’s first nuclear test explosion? Because the USA, aggravated when it discerned evidence of undeclared North Korean work or research on uranium enrichment – usable for nuclear weapons or for other, peaceful purposes – cut off in fall 2002 the fuel oil supplies that were an integral part of the Agreed Framework. North Korea regarded this as abrogation of the Framework, and expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and restarted plutonium nuclear weapons work.

It is conceivable, though, that North Korea would have refused to sign the 1994 Agreed Framework if uranium enrichment research or work was prohibited, and if so inevitably on familiar grounds that enriched uranium has its domestic, non-weapons uses (such as electricity production from power reactors, which generally use low-enriched uranium which is not suitable for weapons). But to those who say that the collapse of the Framework in 2002 shows extreme perfidy on North Korea’s part and that North Korea would never (reliably) maintain a denuclearization agreement, let this serve as a reminder that it was the USA, not North Korea, that first abrogated a major part of the Framework by cutting off oil supplies, and North Korea reacted by declaring the Framework null and void – and resumed plutonium-based weapons work, culminating in first test explosion on 9 October 2006.

2005 Joint Statement of Principles

Between the 2002 demise of the plutonium-centered Framework and that first nuclear test in 2006, a seeming breakthrough occurred with the Sept. 2005 denuclearization agreement called “Six-Party Joint Statement of Principles.” But this soon hit rough seas, particularly on the Statement’s obligation of parties to “discuss at an appropriate time the subject of provision of a light-water [power] reactor to [North Korea].” When North Korea averred that elimination of its entire nuclear weapons program would have to be preceded by provision of the power reactor (a huge construction project), recriminations ensued. But North Korea’s blustery assertiveness on this point was somewhat justified, considering the multi-year delay, under the fallen 1994 Agreed Framework, in merely commencing the Framework’s stipulated power reactor construction project: first concrete for footings was poured in early fall 2002 (shortly before the Framework’s de facto demise), whereas initial target completion date for first of two promised reactors was 2003. North Korea and the other parties to the talks, not North Korea alone, deserve retrospective blame for not clarifying in the 2005 Statement of Principles the issue of reactor construction in regards to its time-relation to actual North Korean nuclear disarmament.

With each side accusing the other of abrogating or disregarding the letter or the spirit of the 2005 Statement of Principles, the stage was set for North Korea’s aforementioned first (2006) nuclear test explosion. North Korea then returned to negotiations, and in December 2006, North Korea and the others of the six-party talks agreed to reaffirm the 2005 Statement of Principles. North Korea kept its word on this and proceeded to laboriously shut down its source of new weapons plutonium (Yongbyon reactor), and in return for fuel oil from South Korea, weapons inspectors were re-admitted into North Korea – and were given access they needed to confirm North Korea’s shutdown of the reactor and later demolition of its cooling tower.

So as of 2007, the North Korean plutonium nuclear weapons program was again stemmed from further growth (as it was for eight years with the 1994 Agreed Framework), although the issue of uranium enrichment – which in some aspects is a more difficult path to a nuclear arsenal than plutonium separation – was still unsettled. This relatively much better state of affairs ended in the wake of North Korea’s attempted launch of a satellite on 5 April 2009. The USA and others mightily condemned the launch, because it could have missile-applicability and was seen as severely provocative, whereupon North Korea expelled international inspectors and proclaimed that it was restarting its weapons program, and then conducted its second nuclear test on 25 May 2009.

Before casting all blame and obloquy on North Korea for the demise (although it may be revived in some form) of the denuclearization 2005 Statement of Principles (and subsequent 2007 understandings): the Statement and follow-up discussions did not specifically prohibit North Korean satellite launches, and therefore the launch did not directly or unequivocally violate that “reigning,” 2005 agreement. For its part, though, North Korea has by no means obeyed the panoply of U.N. Security Council Resolutions on its nuclear and missile programs; obviously the “sovereign state” of North Korea does not feel bound by such – which has also been the case for various other countries from time to time.

Short-lived 2012 Agreement

On 29 February 2012, North Korea in a seeming new breakthrough agreed to suspend uranium enrichment activity and institute moratoriums on nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid. Just six weeks later, though (13 April), North Korea attempted to launch another satellite. The effort failed, but its occurrence destroyed the agreement – just as U.S. and others’ reaction to North Korean satellite launch attempt of April 2009 had ended North Korean compliance with the 2005 Statement of Principles.

On 12 December 2012 North Korea proceeded with another satellite launch, this one successful. As with the 2009 and April 2012 efforts, because the rocket technology for satellite-launch could be missile-applicable, the USA and others denounced the action and pressed for further international sanctions against North Korea. The angered North Korea then conducted its third nuclear test, on 12 February 2013. But North Korea had never agreed to abstain from space-launches; in any case, one lesson from the roiling waters of nuclear negotiations with North Korea is to not expect anything of North Korea which is not explicitly called for in an agreement.

North Korea and a Nuclear Weapons Ban

Looking forward to a possible nuclear weapons-free world, it bears emphasis that North Korea twice verifiably froze its nuclear weapons (plutonium) program, for eight years with the 1994 Agreed Framework and then with the 2007 shutdown of plutonium-producing reactor and related steps pursuant to 2005 Statement of Principles. Also, although very short-lived, North Korea as just noted agreed (29 February 2012) to halt uranium enrichment and nuclear and long-range missile tests – until food aid promised to North Korea was rescinded when it conducted (failed) satellite launch in April. These actions by North Korea to freeze and in some cases even reverse elements of its nuclear weapons program (such as shutdown of Yongbyon reactor) were undertaken by North Korea despite the absence of a [prospective] worldwide nuclear weapons ban – and surely such a ban, when open for states’ signatures, would amplify the prospects that North Korea would join the ban and join the world in eliminating nuclear weapons.

It is possible, perhaps, that North Korea will (again) freeze important elements of its nuclear program or even eliminate its nuclear weapons, without a worldwide nuclear ban. But presumably this would require a major change in the U.S. stance toward North Korea – including one or more manifestations such as normalization of diplomatic relations, perhaps an official “peace treaty” or non-aggression pact (although the USA, as mentioned has stated that it has no intention of attacking North Korea), elimination of special U.S.-South Korean military exercises, provision of food aid and power reactor, etc. Given such prospective requests or demands, nuclear disarmament by North Korea is much more likely to occur in the context of worldwide abolition – which context, to the benefit of the USA and others, would hold much less justification for North Korea (even in its own eyes) to issue extreme “demands” or requirements before it would join. In addition: fealty to elimination of nuclear weapons by North Korea (or any state) would, for geopolitical and psychological reasons, obviously be much stronger with a nuclear ban treaty that regards states equally and that all states have joined.

Incentives to Join

Following are security and other advantages that would accrue to North Korea if it joined a nuclear weapons ban (along with all other states before entry into force):

First, under worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons, North Korea would no longer be subject to possible nuclear war – such as escalation of a border conflict with South Korea and its currently nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

Second, as mentioned earlier, North Korea would not be subject to (or “forced into”) all-out war (nuclear or otherwise) by possible U.S./South Korean pre-emptive attack during a crisis against North Korean nuclear weapons, missiles, or facilities.

Third, North Korea would be praised worldwide – for playing a crucial role in bringing the worldwide nuclear ban to reality.

Fourth, states would be inclined to engage in some or additional beneficial action such as trade with North Korea.

Fifth, on an inner moral level North Korean leaders and the people would feel deserved satisfaction that they had crucially aided worldwide liquidation of nuclear weapons – which persons everywhere know have an abhorrent and inhuman aspect, with their quadruple means of dealing mass death (blast, heat, radiation, firestorm).

Sixth, on the “psychological” level of nuclear weaponry and fairness, the USA and North Korea would be equal (with no states having nuclear weapons under the ban).

If, right now, a nuclear ban was introduced for states’ signatures, North Korea probably would decline to be an immediate signatory – or only with likely-unacceptable (extreme and sudden) conditions. But the above-noted security, prosperity, and psychological benefits to North Korea of worldwide nuclear abolition in all likelihood would, as more and more states join the ban and it approaches unanimity needed for entry into force, become evident to North Korea – which would not (as today) be “singled out” for nuclear abolition while other countries maintain their arsenals.

Frederick N. Mattis is author of Banning Weapons of Mass Destruction, pub. ABC-Clio/Praeger Security International.


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