Nuclear Weapons

North Korea’s nuclear test illustrates heightened need for diplomatic and arms control efforts

On May 25, the North Korean government announced it had conducted its second nuclear test. On May 26, it test fired two short range missiles, and on Friday, it launched a third.  A host of analysts, politicians and military experts have weighed in on these actions, rushing to shed light on their underlying cause. Some have suggested that the tests are aimed at both North Korea’s domestic community and the international audience, in an attempt to reassert ailing Kim Jong-il’s power preceding the expected accession of his third son. Others maintain that North Korea is using nuclear weapons as the primary bargaining chip in a strategy that seeks to garner both attention and concessions from the United States. While many theories abound, one misconception seems particularly disconcerting: namely, the notion  that North Korea’s tests are evidence that both diplomacy and arms control are the wrong courses for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the United States should strengthen its efforts in these areas for two key reasons.

Reason #1: Ignoring North Korea Doesn’t Work

The think tank Foreign Policy in Focus points out in an article entitled “North Korea and Malign Neglect” that non-diplomatic policies have  a well-documented history of failure with respect to North Korea. Foreign Policy in Focus explains,

We’ve been here before. When first Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush entered the White House, they each presided over a downturn in U.S.-North Korean relations. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration went ahead with a resumption of Team Spirit military exercises planned by its predecessor, which contributed to a serious worsening of bilateral relations with North Korea that culminated in the nuclear crisis and near-military conflict of 1994. The Bush administration, meanwhile, reversed the progress made at the end of the Clinton period, singled North Korea out for demonization, and practiced a policy of malign neglect for its first six years in office…

Malign neglect hasn’t worked. North Korea doesn’t respond well to being ignored. Its desperate economic situation — and the possibility that economic hardship will translate into political instability — has pushed the leadership in Pyongyang to do whatever it takes to secure an agreement, first with the United States and then multilaterally. As for the “malign” part of the equation, North Korea is certainly equal to the task of matching harsh statements from Washington or anywhere else tit-for-tat.

The Center for Defense Information concurs and similarly asserts:

As the United States and its allies continue to search for a plausible strategy to deal with North Korea, policy-makers should make a conscious effort to review past failed policies in order to formulate a better and reconfigured course of action. Replicating past efforts of resolving the Korean Peninsula conflict, based heavily on the assumption that the North Korean regime would inevitably collapse, is simply not the answer. Past sanctions and concessions made to North Korea have failed to bring about lasting solutions mainly due to the lack of coordination of the United States and its partners. Additional sanctions and condemnation without a properly thought-out collective strategy would only bring about nothing but newfound frustrations (emphasis added).

This is not to say that the path to diplomacy with North Korea will be an easy one. CDI asserts that it will be important for the US to strengthen its relationships with East Asian allies. Foreign Policy in Focus cautions:

The United States needs an audacious and hopeful plan of action for North Korea. Such a plan must go beyond a focus on denuclearization. North Korea has abandoned the Six Party Talks in part because it hasn’t gotten what it expected. It received only a portion of the heavy fuel oil promised. The partial lifting of U.S. sanctions hasn’t resulted in any major economic change. The country remains surrounded by countries that are still strengthening their military containment postures.

An audacious plan for North Korea would make good on the roadmap for economic and political integration that has already been outlined in the Six Party Talks. North Korea won’t give up its only major bargaining chip unless it gets something of comparable value.

Reason #2: North Korea and the Greater International Context

While it may be tempting  to now direct all our nuclear attention toward North Korea, it seems important to place this nuclear test in the scheme of world events. Yes, North Korea’s test is clearly serious. But as the New York Times points out:

North Korea’s announcement that it had tested a nuclear device on Monday is a stark reminder of the many dangers out there.

North Korea is only one state of the nine nuclear weapons states. The combined arsenals of the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan total approximately 20,000 weapons. About 95% of these 20,000 nuclear weapons belong to the US and Russia.  Creating a world that is secure from the nuclear threat entails diplomatic efforts that deal with these arsenals as well as North Korea. And because nuclear weapons — with their ability to destroy hundreds of thousands of people and whole cities in seconds — are so dangerous and their very existence makes it more likely that an accidental launch or theft will someday take place, diplomacy and a new era of international arms control efforts are the most realistic way to make the world safer. Negotiations between the US and Russia to reduce our nuclear weapons arsenals are already underway, and both countries should be pushed to seek deep, verifiable reductions down to 1,000 or fewer nuclear weapons as a first step toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide.

A key step forward would be the  Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s ratification by the US. The CTBT’s eventual entry into force would protect against future arms races and nuclear weapons development by new states by making nuclear tests like North Korea’s illegal, and by institutionalizing world-wide monitoring and verification mechanisms which would ensure such tests were easier to detect. As the New York Times states:

A formal ban on testing would make it harder for nuclear-armed states to build new weapons, and place another hurdle in the way of any country… thinking of starting an arsenal.

Eight states (the US, Egypt, Israel, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Iran) must ratify the CTBT before it becomes law. If the United States were to become the first to do so, it would go a long way towards strengthening the non-proliferation regime and toward strengthening its ability to bargain with other nuclear weapons states, even North Korea.