The drive to acquire nuclear weapons is thought to stem largely from local threat perceptions. The point becomes all the more clear when we take stock of the countries where the nuclear weapons activity is limited to.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) nuclear weapons program initially started as a response to the not-so-veiled nuclear threat from Truman during the Korean War. During a press conference on November 30, 1950, Truman acknowledged that using the nuclear bomb was part of the contingency planning. (Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A History, multiple other sources) and during 1951 active hints – moving Mark IV nuclear capsules – were dropped to convey that the usage was imminent. Beyond 1953, US’s continued presence in the Korean peninsula and in the Sea of Japan is seen as a key reason as to why North Korea assiduously followed its nuclear program. Iran’s drive for acquisition of Nuclear Weapons can be similarly understood as a response to guard against the US threat.
It is, however, hard to imagine what particular use the smallish stockpile of nuclear weapons would be to DPRK. Any nuclear escalation by it will surely be met by an ‘overwhelming’ US response. Simply put, there is no deterrent against a super-power. Except for perhaps an alliance with another superpower. (I will come to this point later.) However, nuclear weapons provide a country with the capability of making an assault on it costly for the superpower by attacks on its key allies (Japan and South Korea). So while North Korea is held in check by the incredible US military power, the US, in turn, is held in check (to some degree) through North Korea’s ability to inflict damage on its allies. The same goes for Iran, which feels vulnerable to unprovoked US attack, given its inability to inflict damage on its ally (Israel) in the region.
Strategy toward DPRK until now
The strategy to contain DPRK nuclear weapons program has consisted of the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, the multilateral ‘six-party’ agreement signed in 2007, and a multitude of covert Sun Tzuian attempts to effect regime change. All these strategies have ended at different levels of failure.
The Agreed Framework, which required the DPRK to â€œdismantle its nuclear facilities and dispose of all its weapons-grade plutonium, only temporarily interrupted production – the fuel rods, with weapons-grade plutonium embedded in them, were stored in a pool awaiting reprocessing, and never removed from North Korea – as DPRK simply re-prioritized its efforts to construction of delivery systems. The efforts culminated in the successful August 1998 Taepo Dong I missile test. DPRK, as AQ Khan confirmed in 2003, also developed an indigenous uranium enrichment capability in the intervening years. In a three week period in Dec 2002/Jan 2003, Kim Jong Il expelled all international weapons inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three months later the DPRK acknowledged it had nuclear weapons, and eventually tested one in Oct 2006.
After years of neglect, Six-Party Talks held in February 2007 resulted in an agreement that called for North Korea to shut down its 5 MW (e) graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon by 14 April 2007. Almost immediately, North Korea refused to comply with the terms of this agreement and the Yongbyon reactor continued operation for more than two months beyond the mutually agreed upon deadline. On 18 July 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency finally confirmed that all five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon had been shut down. Since that time, “disablement” has continued. However, more recently on 26 December 2007, Hyon Hak Pong, vice director-general of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, stated the disablement process will be delayed, in a statement reminiscent of the process of repeated delays practices following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
The 13th February agreement, which was signed on the precondition that US would release the $25 million dollars frozen by Washington at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which had allegedly helped the DPRK illegally launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills, is a much weaker agreement than 1994 one. The 13th February agreement avoids the term dismantling and uses the more ambiguous terms â€œabandonmentâ€ and â€œdisablementâ€, which allows the DPRK to essentially leave its entire nuclear infrastructure intact. Immediately following its signing, the DPRK state-run news agency announced that the offer of aid equivalent to 1M tonnes of fuel oil was made in connection with North Korea’s “temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities.”
Reasons for failure
While the 13th February agreement holds the six-parties – China, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the U.S. â€“ accountable, each has different motives and capabilities of performing the duty. For instance, while China may admonish DPRK publicly â€“ as it did when DPRK fired ballistic missiles on the 4th of July and then conducted a nuclear test on 09 October – it has little incentive to be a truly accountable. After all, the nuclear threat from NK concerns the US much more than it does China. Similarly, Russia has little incentive to police North Korean compliance. Japan and the US have very little leverage with North Korea due to non-existent trade links, that make any possibility of tangible economic threat moot, and South Korea seems disinclined. North Korea, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the security guarantee to comfortably forgo its nuclear program which makes it’s giving up of nuclear capability unlikely.
Strategy for success
Putting NK’s security needs at the heart of the debate is essential to gain a better understanding of how to craft a more sustainable agreement for North Korea. To gain a better understanding of its security needs, I will briefly survey the threat posed by Japan/US combine.
The US has over the past many years led the most cavalier foreign policy in the world. The policy has led to numerous regime changes, more failed regime changes, countless assassinations, and support of terror groups. In East Asia, US maintains a significant military presence, has bi-lateral security agreements with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea â€“ and as co-guarantor of their security flexes muscle at each of their expressed security worries – and regularly issues damning rhetoric like ‘axis of evil’. While US’s capability to launch an attack in East Asia has been severely compromised due to the ongoing conflagration in Iraq, it nonetheless remains a potent and continuous threat to North Korea.
While Japan has a strictly ‘pacifist’ constitution, it hasn’t stopped it from building a very sophisticated and well armed “self-defense force”. Similar kind of ambiguity underpins its nuclear strategy. While Japan under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, promulgated the â€œThree Non-Nuclear Principlesâ€ on 05 February 1968 and has been a tireless promoter of non-proliferation at a variety of international venues, it also has one of the largest stockpiles of enriched plutonium in the world â€“ estimated at over 46 tons. While the majority of its plutonium is in storage in France and the UK, an estimated 5.7 tones (still enough to build in excess of a thousand of nuclear weapons) exists within Japan. In addition, Japan currently possesses approximately 3 tons of â€œnearâ€ (i.e. roughly 90% Pu-239, 7% Pu-240, 3% Pu-241) Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu), and could immediately begin production of larger quantities of WGPu and Weapons Grade Uranium (WGU) for more reliable and higher yielding warheads. It also has potent delivery vehicles in the form of H-2 (ICBM capable of carrying a 4,000 kg payload over 15,000 km), and M-3SII (IRBM capable of carrying a 500 kg payload approximately 4,000 km). In addition, Japan possesses a robust Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (TBMD) system which forms the centerpiece of “deterrence by denial” strategy. Since 2002, many high-level Japanese officials have openly discussed the possibility of Japan pursuing an indigenousness nuclear capability. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara have bluntly called for â€œrevisingâ€ the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.
Kim Jong Il is primarily interested in maintaining himself as North Korea’s Dear Leader. US rhetoric about democratization and omnipresent military threat jeopardize that. A â€œnon-use of forceâ€ agreement between the US, South Korea, and the DPRK would go a long way in ameliorating North Korea’s concerns but still won’t remove all doubts from either side. Minus the trust in such a treaty, all things go back to some version of the status quo. A better idea would be to rope in China and ask it to sign a protection deal with North Korea styled on US Taiwan agreements. Of course, China’s interest in roping in North Korea is debatable given that a nuclear North Korea is a concern for the US and not China. China, however, can be enticed by incentives. This kind of a deal would mean sacrificing some of the military supremacy that the US has enjoyed in East Asia but in the longer term, it would lead to a safer region for its allies.
Threats from non-state actors and other contingencies
Since â€œChicago Pile Oneâ€ â€“ the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction – in 1942, a total of 9 Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) have emerged. In addition to the 9 current NWS, Japan possesses the capacity to produce nuclear weapons on a quick notice. Two other countries, Libya and South Africa have come forth and disbanded their nuclear weapons programs.
However, the critical nuclear threat is now thought to come from non-state actors. None of the 9 NWS can provide an exact accounting of the amount of Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) they possess. In Russia alone, only 64% of the basic Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) rapid upgrades (i.e. bricking over windows, installing detectors at doors) have been completed, and even fewer â€œcomprehensive security and accounting upgrades specifically designed for securing each facility and its stored material(s), have been completed. More ominously, cases of trafficking of nuclear materials are becoming more commonplace. The most recent case came on 01 February 2006 in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when North Ossetia resident and Russian citizen, Oleg Khintsagov attempted to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium to a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer. This uranium was obtained from the nuclear material storage facility in Novosibirsk, Siberia; the same facility suspected to be the source of another 2003 nuclear material trafficking case which involved the seizure of 170 grams of HEU. Also in 2003, a court case in Russia revealed that a Russian businessman had been offering $750,000 for stolen weapons-grade plutonium for sale to an unidentified foreign client.
There is legitimate concern about non-state actors using nuclear weapons but using them would mean such an unacceptable escalation that would surely jeopardize the larger aims of whatever organization. But non-state actors are much less rational than nation states and diffuse organizations may mean that the ability to conclusively hit back at them is limited at best. The other concern is that neutralizing the organization may not neutralize the threat of the ideology that the organization may purport. On the positive side, however, â€“ non-state actors often times have depended on explicit nation state funding. As long as the nuclear material is traceable to its source â€“ something which isotopic analysis can do now â€“ the organization and the state actors funding it can be implicated providing each state actor with powerful incentive to control such activity by the organization they fund or support.
The US must embark on a much saner foreign policy course and tone down its rhetoric so as to ameliorate the security worries that countries feel. The other related action would be to see to it that countries like North Korea get their security guarantees from major powers to which they are close to. Little recourse exists as to dealing with non-state actors except strengthening state actors â€“ including providing help in sealing nuclear materials and instituting a strengthened security program. It is important to keep in mind that the chance of a nuclear attack is minuscule and expenditure on security should be commensurate to it.
Use of nuclear weapons has been stigmatized in the international arena to such a degree that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort for state actors, and likely for non-state actors too. The chance of usage of nuclear weapons hence remains minuscule and it is debatable whether it is worth focusing large amounts of resources on removing them from regimes with limited capacity to produce or use them. However, nuclear weapons do have strategic consequences (e.g. deterrence) on the ability of US to exercise power. The prominent worry is that with deterrence countries could feel emboldened to support terrorism. In addition, given the predicted cascading effect of nuclear weapons-neighboring countries feel threatened by nuclear neighbors and then their neighbors feel threatened etc. â€“ strategic consequences can be immense. The course of action that I prescribe above focuses on mitigating security threat of countries that are intent on building nuclear weapons. But the strategy comes with consequences. Ameliorating threat perceptions of North Korea may also imply giving up the chance of ever really threatening North Korea. And therein lays the bargain and a key dilemma. You can have a nuclear-armed country with deterrence that successfully deters your attacks or be in a treaty with you or another major power which also effectively provides deterrence to it. There are two key advantages to the latter strategy â€“ preventing the cascade effect, and limiting the threat of proliferation. The significant downside to both strategies is limiting the ability to mount punitive action. Given that alternative sanctioning mechanisms like levying economic sanctions have proven to be ineffective, very little edge ways space is available to counteract support for hostile entities except perhaps mounting negotiations â€“ which may not quite work minus the threat of the stick.
It is perhaps best to look at the issue as to how much harder does the presence of nuclear weapons make the launching of punitive action in face of hostile activities. The fact of the matter is that propensity for mounting war as punitive action â€“ even without nuclear deterrence – remains very low given the political and economic costs of war. So in the small minority of cases â€“ really Iran and North Korea â€“ presence of nuclear weapons may make US attack a little less likely from the already low number but given the overwhelming military superiority that the US enjoys â€“ not terribly less likely than non-nuclear scenario.
Seen hence, nuclear weapons possession can be seen as a marginal gain for the countries but nothing which will decisively tilt the power equation.