North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

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  • by Anup Shah
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  1. North Korea Withdraws From the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, January 2003
  2. North Korea carries out nuclear test, October 2006

North Korea Withdraws From the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, January 2003

In October 2002, North Korea announced it was restarting its nuclear programs, breaking a 1994 agreement to forego nuclear ambitions in exchange for the construction of two safer lightwater nuclear power reactors and shipments of oil from the U.S.

  • The Washington D.C.-based Center for Defense Information (CDI) noted that the U.S. had failed to abide by its obligations to North Korea in a previous agreement1. Pyongyang is justifying this move, CDI said, with the fact that the US stopped supplying the country with fuel for thermal power plants as it was obligated to do under a previous agreement between these two countries.
  • The BBC reported (January 10, 20032), North Korea felt that the US has not kept to its side of the Agreed Framework, as the construction of the lightwater reactors—due to be completed in 2003—is now years behind schedule.
  • The U.S. stopped shipments of oil to North Korea.
  • North Korea started to ask the U.N’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to begin to stop its operations. Eventually inspectors from the monitoring group from the IAEA were expelled, while North Korea maintained that it was only developing civilian uses of nuclear technology.
  • However, some experts fear that this will allow the development of nuclear weapons.

Amidst all these revelations, in January 2003 North Korea announced that its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT)3.

North Korea also threatened to resume ballistic missile tests, because of the failure in the agreements between the U.S. and North Korea4.

While all of this had been received with a mixture of concern, shock and anger, some have pointed out that perhaps it should not be so surprising. For example, as highlighted above, and elsewhere on this web site, for many years, controversial and aggressive policies of more powerful states may be perceived by smaller ones as threatening, and may urge them to consider various military options themselves, risking an arms race and regional insecurity.

Annotating George Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Speech, and his comments on Iraq, the Institute for Public Accuracy highlights a number of questionable assertions that highlight a very different view of North Korea’s agenda (the annotations are indented and preceded by the analysts name):

On the Korean Peninsula, an oppressive regime rules a people living in fear and starvation. Throughout the 1990s, the United States relied on a negotiated framework to keep North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons. We now know that that regime was deceiving the world and developing those weapons all along.

And today the North Korean regime is using its nuclear program to incite fear and seek concessions.

America and the world will not be blackmailed.

[Rahul] Mahajan: North Korea kept its commitments under the Agreed Framework for years while the United States systematically violated its own. One of the primary requirements is that The U.S. will provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.—which emphasizes once again that North Korea’s concern in this crisis is self-defense, not plans to attack the United States, Japan, or South Korea. Not only did the United States never make this elementary commitment (international opinion and international law universally recognize that nuclear attack is fundamentally illegitimate), it has leaked plans that involve targeting North Korea for such an attack. Another component of the agreement was the delivery by the United States of a light-water reactor project by 2003. The United States presumably never had any intention of doing so and had made negligible progress toward such a goal in 8 years, even before the crisis flared up. North Korea’s recent violation of its own commitments is hardly surprising, given that U.S. conduct made the agreement meaningless.

[Stephen] Zunes: Indications are that North Korea kept its commitment during the 1990s but ceased its cooperation only recently. It is widely believed that North Korea decided to renege on its agreement as a direct result of last year’s State of the Union address, when President Bush declared North Korea to be part of an axis of evil along with Iraq and Iran. Seeing the United States prepare to invade Iraq and increase its bellicose rhetoric against Iran and themselves, the North Koreans apparently decided that they needed to create a credible deterrent in case they were next. They have offered to end their nuclear program in return for a guarantee that the United States will not invade them.

Responses to Bush’s 2003 "State of the Union" Address5, Institute for Public Accuracy, January 30, 2003

Daniel Plesch, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies in London comments on how U.S. President George Bush and his Administration’s aggressive policies in the recent past have not provided reason for nations like North Korea to think about more peaceful options, and is worth quoting at length:

North Korea has decided to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, invoking its legal right to do so.

The move increases international tension and the risk of Japan reconsidering its position on nuclear weapons.

But it is in line with the new approach to global security adopted by the Bush administration.

President George W Bush has either withdrawn from or expressed his opposition to implementing a number of key global arms control agreements.

These include:

  • the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty;
  • the Biological Weapons Convention;
  • the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • and the process of strategic arms reductions with Russia.

The treaty signed with Russia - the Sort Treaty - is a treaty without content and has no operative provisions.

At the same time as withdrawing from these treaties, the Bush administration initially withdrew from the political process with North Korea designed by former President Bill Clinton, and which had rolled back but not entirely removed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

[By branding North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil], a decision that that country interpreted as tantamount to a declaration of war … the North Korean regime would appear to have nothing to lose in building a weapon that the West has long declared as having a deterrent effect.

… [The Bush Administration’s] own rhetoric and policies of pre-emptive strikes—perhaps with nuclear weapons—encourage other states to assume that they live in a world of nuclear anarchy and to act accordingly.

President Bush’s policy has swept away the achievements of decades in building global controls on the worst of weapons and replaced an effective policy with nothing more than bombast.

Daniel Plesch, Viewpoint: N Korea follows Bush’s lead6, BBC, January 10, 2003 (Emphasis Added)

Recently, it seemed as though a break-through had occurred when North Korea said it will halt all nuclear weapons development. However, shortly after that, it said it will not give up its nuclear program until the US provides it with a civilian nuclear reactor. The media treated this as a set-back, seemingly ignoring that this was part of the original deal in the first place, mentioned further above.

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North Korea carries out nuclear test, October 2006

While media and US attention appeared to be on Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea carried out a nuclear test, the first week of October, 2006. Unlike most other countries that had done nuclear tests, North Korea warned the world six days earlier that a test was imminent.

At first, there was skepticism that it was a nuclear device, but a few days later, the US confirmed the nuclear explosion. It was one-tenth the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 19457, with less than a kiloton in yield, US officials said.

Another BBC article notes that North Korea is thought not to have any bombs small enough to put in a missile8, and although they could try dropping one from a plane, the world is watching closely and that nuclear capabilities do not necessarily imply a fully-fledged nuclear bomb, or a warhead that it can be delivered to a target.

In the past, North Korea has tested ballistic missile delivery, once over Japan, too. Their range appears to be limited for the moment, while their capabilities may not be developed to intercontinental extent, countries in the region are nervous.

Around the world, there was condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun feared the move could spark a nuclear arms build-up in other countries the same BBC article noted. Japan pledged that it will not develop nuclear weapons because of continued reassurance of the bilateral alliance with US.

As the BBC also added, both China—North Korea’s closest ally—and South Korea, while critical of North Korea’s actions, were against the idea of a military response, even though both nations have put their troops on a higher state of alert. They, and Russia, favored some form of sanctions via the UN.

Investigative journalist, Tim Shorrock, notes an interesting analysis by Shen Dingli, whom he describes as one of China’s most astute political analysts, whereby China may see North Korea as a nuisance, but necessary ally, to protect its southern flank from possible US aggression9.

The US, meanwhile, stated they would never rule out the use of force, though would pursue a diplomatic solution, too. The sanctions that the US wanted were those that would fall under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which would be mandatory and ultimately enforceable by military means. President George Bush warned North Korea of grave consequences if it gives nuclear-related technology to any state or non-state actor.

The BBC claimed that Iran has voiced support for North Korea but did not elaborate. The BBC may be saying that Iran support’s North Korea against any calls for sanctions, because Iran condemned North Korea’s nuclear test10.

The UN Security Council did vote on sanctions against North Korea, (who ridulously claimed it an act of war). The sanctions do not automatically mean military action if there is failure to comply. Instead, another resolution would be needed for that. The sanctions do ban military exports to North Korea, as well as sales of nuclear technology, and bans the sales of luxury goods. Finance freezes, travel bans, of key personnel involved in nuclear related activities and inspections of cargo is also part of the resolution.

North Korea has also sent out mixed messages about the possibility of a second test. It might not be too unexpected, as disappointing and concerning as it would be, because from North Korea’s perspective, a second test might send a message to others that it is serious, and it may serve to act as a deterrant to anyone wishing to take them on.

Inter Press Service (IPS) notes the observation of Alan Romberg, a Korea specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Centre, that the US being against negotiations, helped push North Korea into performing this test11. Given the administration’s past rejection of Chinese and South Korean appeals to engage Pyongyang, Romberg was quoted as saying, the likelihood is that there won’t be progress (in negotiations) between now and the end of the Bush administration … the North’s decision to test was importantly based on that calculation.

The same IPS article notes that many in the Bush administration are against direct negotiations with North Korea, instead hoping to squeeze it until the regime collapses. The US has already managed to stifle North Korea’s ability to access much of the global banking system. US policy of squeezing it may be working and the nuclear test may have therefore been an act of desperation.

Another IPS expands on this describing how various prominent neo-conservative hawks in the US are urging even the nuclearlization of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, and punishing China12 (whom they think has considerable influence over North Korea). They also reject the idea of talks with North Korea, and suggest that talks between various key nations must be resisted by the United States, for military means are the only way, they feel. Some have also called for sabotage, espionage, information operations, subversion, and deception against the paranoid dictatorship.

Whether the US will have the ability (politically or militarily) to really consider a full scale military operation is questionable at the moment.

Chinese Political Analyst, Dingli, mentioned above, detailed five reasons why he feels North Korea will believe the US will not attack it13:

  1. The nuclear deterrent effect;
  2. The deterrent effect of the North Korean conventional forces;
  3. The opposition of South Korea and Japan, the allies of the United States;
  4. The opposition of China, Russia, and other countries;
  5. The restraining effect on the United States due to the Iraq situation, the Iranian nuclear challenge, and the chaotic situation surrounding Lebanon and Israel.

Dingli also commented that to some extent, China is constrained in what influence it has over North Korea, as there is a two-way dependency between the two countries for varying reasons. Dingli, writing before North Korea performed the nuclear test, also noted that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] considers its national interests to be greater than its relations with China. It will not give up the independent guarantee of national security gained through nuclear tests just because of China’s concerns and the possibility of China applying pressure on it. Therefore the DPRK is bound to hold that the advantages of conducting a nuclear test outweigh the disadvantages; hence it will proceed with a nuclear test.

While North Korea has reason to feel threatened, it will attempt to pursue nuclear options more aggressively. If reaction to this is more aggressive, especially by the US, who—if the influential hawks have their way—will undermine any negotiation attempts, North Korea may become more desperate. At the same time, acting softly on North Korea may encourage the ruling regime that it can get away with nuclear weapons development.

At the moment, North Korea’s concern apears to be to try and just get guarantees it will not be attacked, and in that context its nuclear weapons development program seems to be for deterrent purposes, rather than outright (and suicidal) attack. Some fear that this will only be one step towards more ambitious power-hungry goals, but that might be fear-mongering, for it is far easier to take an aggressive position against a clearly nasty dictatorship, than to see if there is any way to negotiate out of this.

A dangerous situation has allowed itself to fester, and Daniel Plesch quoted above almost 4 years earlier is worth quoting again here, because the mainstream media have almost completely failed to discuss this aspect:

[By branding North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil], a decision that that country interpreted as tantamount to a declaration of war … the North Korean regime would appear to have nothing to lose in building a weapon that the West has long declared as having a deterrent effect.

… [The Bush Administration’s] own rhetoric and policies of pre-emptive strikes—perhaps with nuclear weapons—encourage other states to assume that they live in a world of nuclear anarchy and to act accordingly.

President Bush’s policy has swept away the achievements of decades in building global controls on the worst of weapons and replaced an effective policy with nothing more than bombast.

Daniel Plesch, Viewpoint: N Korea follows Bush’s lead14, BBC, January 10, 2003 (Emphasis Added)

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  • by Anup Shah
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Document revision history

Added notes about North Korea’s nuclear test
Short notes on North Korea saying it will not stop its nuclear programme until it receives the promised civilian nuclear reactor, and that it was the US that gave Iran nuclear know-how in the 1960s and 70s when the US supported the Shah dictator.