International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World, Australia

12 January 2016

North Korea must be brought back to the negotiating table and arms control may be the only realistic option, Ramesh Thakur writes.

North Korea is the only country to have defected from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Its pursuit of nuclear weapons began in the 1960s, accelerated in the 1980s and led successively to its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 and the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework that had frozen Pyongyang’s nuclear program. It has made repeated commitments to abandon the weapons path in return for security assurances and economic assistance, shelved its nuclear ambitions temporarily and then broken its promises serially. Its 2006, 2009 and 2013 nuclear tests drew international condemnations and UN-mandated sanctions. On 6 January Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested an hydrogen bomb.

An H-bomb is a step up in destructive power that gives more explosive yield for a lighter weight but has less radioactive fallout. The 2006 and 2009 tests were plutonium-fuelled; we do not know whether uranium or plutonium was used in the 2013 test. Until then Pyongyang was not believed to have mastered the technology to miniaturise warheads and make them robust enough to withstand the rigours of a ballistic missile flight trajectory, such as high gravity forces, vibrations and temperature extremes.

That calculation will have to be revised dramatically if the H-bomb claim and the development of a submarine-launched delivery capability (which Pyongyang says it tested last May) are confirmed. While experts are sceptical, time and again Pyongyang has demonstrated the determination, and in due course the technical expertise, to make and test nuclear explosive devices.

We cannot be confident of Dear Leader Kim Jong-un’s motives. They could range from trying to ward off a genuinely feared threat to bolstering leadership credibility by projecting toughness, locking in support of the military, strengthening domestic cohesion and positioning himself to extract economic concessions. It is part of established theories of strategic deception to make your enemy believe you will act irrationally and vindictively when your vital interests are attacked. The unfavourable demographic, economic and alliance comparisons with the South, further intensify the North’s anxieties. Nuclear weapons can also serve as a hedge against a United States attack: would Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have suffered their horrible fates had they acquired deliverable nuclear weapons?

Most countries and peoples of the world are deeply concerned about the grave dangers posed by the bomb and are engaged in efforts to eliminate these inhumane weapons. Political tensions and grievances can be addressed only by political means, not by aggravating existing tensions and escalating an arms race. North Korea’s provocative actions can only increase regional and international tensions and hamper efforts to reduce nuclear risks, and to minimise the numbers and role of nuclear weapons, and eventually abolish them entirely.

More on this: North Korea's nuclear program is a global threat and must be treated as such | John Carlson
The world lacks a realistic options strategy for dealing with Pyongyang. Condemnations by the UN Security Council of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic programs have become so ritualised that they corrode the UN’s credibility as its demands are continually and serially defied. The path of still more punitive sanctions and isolation seems to lead nowhere. Unilateral punitive measures are impractical because of China’s default tolerance for Pyongyang.

Sooner or later North Korea will have to be brought back to the negotiating table. Denuclearisation may no longer be a practical goal. Arms control may be the only realistic option. A ‘solution’ would limit the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and put firm restrictions on its export and transfer policies: no addition to the nuclear arsenal; no more tests; no quality upgrades in sophistication of its bombs; and no export of nuclear or missile material, components or technology.

Why should a strategy of deterrence not work against North Korea when it worked against the far more formidable and powerful Soviet threat in the Cold War? We managed to live with thousands of nuclear weapons being added to the Soviet arsenal year after year; why should the sky fall if a few more bombs are built by some additional countries?

Some answer by branding North Korea a ‘rogue regime’. Such demonisation has two negative consequences. It adds to their paranoia and deepens their determination to strengthen nuclear weapons capability in order to complicate the calculus of anyone seeking regime change. And it makes it difficult for outsiders to craft political responses to the security dilemma or seek a reconciliation based on compromise and mutual accommodation: the only acceptable goal is complete rollback, not containment based on deterrence.

The key to any solution is China’s ability and willingness to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea. As a status quo power, China has a strategic stake in the NPT and does not want it to unravel. Preserving North Korea as a territorial buffer remains a critical security goal. The worst possible outcome from Beijing’s point of view is a collapse or defeat of the North Korean regime that would cause a flood of refugees to stream across the border into China and bring South Korean and US forces right to China’s borders – precisely the trigger that provoked China to counter-intervene in the Korean War in the 1950s in the first place.

That said, Pyongyang’s unpredictable, erratic and provocative behaviour heightens regional instability, strengthens US alliances with Japan and South Korea and nationalist sentiment in the latter two in favour of getting their own bomb, which would nuclearise China’s neighbourhood. It could provoke a pre-emptive strike against the North by the US. The risk of an unwanted conflict that would undermine China’s development goals lies more in the possibility of miscommunication, misperception and miscalculation that could see the cycle of provocation and escalation spin out of control. It is no longer enough for China to support others’ efforts. Instead Beijing needs to step up to the plate and assume the burden of leading the world’s efforts to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The only lasting solution to any regional nuclear proliferation crisis has to be the complete elimination of nuclear weapons under a universal, verifiable and enforceable international convention. The moral outrage from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who between them possess 98 per cent of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons, rings hollow. Nor can allies who shelter under the nuclear umbrella, including Australia, occupy the moral high ground. No one who insists on any continuing utility for nuclear weapons in safeguarding national security can reject that argument for North Korea.

This is especially so because to many non-Western countries, the major Western powers seem to have become addicted to bombing countries that cannot defend themselves and promoting regime change if the leaders refuse to kowtow to Washington’s dictates. So the second key component of a nuclear-weapon-free world is abandonment of forcible regime change as a policy goal which motivates fearful regimes to risk all in the quest for nuclear weapons. Given the brilliant record of the policy thus far, this may not be much of a self-sacrifice.

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Thakur, Ramesh. 2017. "Arms Control The Answer In North Korea - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.