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North Korea Test as Spur to Nuclear Disarmament

It truly is remarkable how those who worship at the altar of nuclear weapons condemn others wishing to join their sect as heretics. The problem is not nuclear proliferation, but nuclear weapons. The solution therefore is not non-proliferation, but nuclear disarmament through a universal, non-discriminatory, verifiable and enforceable nuclear weapons convention, modelled on the lines of the chemical weapons convention.


North Korea Test as Spur to Nuclear Disarmament

It truly is remarkable how those who worship at the altar of nuclear weapons condemn others wishing to join their sect as heretics. The problem is not nuclear proliferation, but nuclear weapons. The solution therefore is not non-proliferation, but nuclear disarmament through a universal, non-discriminatory, verifiable and enforceable nuclear weapons convention, modelled on the lines of the chemical weapons convention.


t is a sobering reflection that two generations of people have grown up under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. For most people the nuclear reality has become an inescapable element of the strategic landscape. Confronted with a world they cannot change, sensible people accommodate their behaviour to reality. But the turning points in history have come from the actions of those unreasonable people, including Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi in India, who decided to change the world instead. We need similar apostles of peace to break out of the nuclear box today.

The nuclear future is less rosy today than when the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was indefinitely extended in 1995. The current triple crisis arises from noncompliance with NPT obligations by some states engaged in undeclared nuclear activities and others that have failed to honour their disarmament obligations; states that are not party to the NPT; and non-state actors seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Already by the end of 2005, the list of concerns included North Korea’s weaponised nuclear capability,1 worries expressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Iran’s nuclear programme,2reports that Saudi Arabia may be contemplating off-the-shelf purchase of nuclear weapons,3reports of mild misdeeds by South Korea,4 Taiwan5 and Egypt,6 apprehensions of a new uranium enrichment plant that would give Brazil a nuclear breakout capability,7 anxieties about the 27,000 nuclear warheads with a total yield of 5,000 megatons held by the five nuclear powers (with just Russia and the US accounting for more than 26,000 warheads), fears that Washington has been lowering the threshold of normative barriers to the use of a new generation of nuclear weapons, evidence of an extensive multinational nuclear black market that demonstrated the inadequacy of the existing export controls system,8 and the prospect of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. The only good news stories were that Libya walked away from that path in December 20039 and that Iraq does not have them.

Storm Clouds

Having withdrawn from the NPT in 2003, on October 9, 2006 North Korea conducted a small nuclear test. Nuclear weapons help it to offset the loss of the Soviet strategic counterweight, the infinitely greater economic dynamism of South Korea, and a perceptible diminution of Chinese enthusiasm for its erstwhile ally. In the past Pyongyang has skilfully used a combination of threats, bluster and tactical retreats to win numerous economic and diplomatic concessions. It may now have played its last card. If the regime is fully quarantined and collapses, or is attacked and defeated, the resulting instability will hardly be welcomed by others in the region. Conversely, if it survives as a nuclear weapon power, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan might be tempted to follow suit. Either way, threatening storm clouds will gather pace.

The first country to engage in nuclear breakout in 1998, India, has deplored North Korea’s test as a threat to regional peace and stability and for highlighting the dangers of clandestine proliferation. Thus does India join the ranks of the nuclear powers preaching nuclear abstinence while engaged in consenting deterrence. Others have condemned North Korea’s test as “brazen”, “grave” and “provocative”.

It truly is remarkable how those who worship at the altar of nuclear weapons condemn others wishing to join their sect as heretics. The problem is not nuclear proliferation, but nuclear weapons. The solution therefore is not non-proliferation, but nuclear disarmament through a universal, non-discriminatory, verifiable and enforceable nuclear weapons convention, modelled on the lines of the chemical weapons convention.10

I abhor rather than applaud the North Korean test. That is because I believe nuclear weapons are abhorrent, period. We face four nuclear choices: the status quo, proliferation, nuclear rearmament, or abolition.

Restoration of the 1970 status quo (when the NPT came into force) would require a rollback of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, as well as curtailment of Iran’s programme. Trying to denuclearise south Asia or the west Asia is as unrealistic as demanding immediate nuclear abolition. It cannot be achieved by finger-wagging at the nuclear naughtiness of recent gatecrashers into the nuclear club. The latest test, like those of 1998, confirm the folly of believing – in defiance of common sense, logic and all known human history – that five powers could indefinitely retain their monopoly over one class of weapons.

Moreover, softening of the unilateral use of the military option over the past decade has given extra urgency to the motivation of would-be proliferators who fear being attacked by Washington. The Kosovo war sent a chill of apprehension down the spines of many countries who have their own secessionists. Who would be the next target of intervention by tomorrow’s international moral majority? The experience of a rampant western coalition simply bypassing the United Nations to violate the norm of non-intervention caused massive disquiet and unease and made many countries more determined to upgrade national defence.11 That lesson could only have been reinforced, especially for Iran and North Korea,

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 by the Iraq war: Saddam Hussein was attacked because he did not have nuclear weapons.12 Nuclear warheads and missiles suddenly acquired extra appeal as leveraging weapons.

In the case of advanced countries, the flow of enabling technologies, material and expertise in the nuclear power industry can be used, through strategic prepositioning of materials and personnel, to build a “virtual” nuclear-weapons portfolio capable of rapid weaponisation. Within the constraints of the NPT, a non-nuclear industrialised country like Japan can build the necessary infrastructure to provide it with the “surge” capacity to upgrade quickly to nuclear weapons. In April2002 Liberal Party leader IchiroOzawa warned that Japan could easily produce thousands of nuclear warheads if threatened by China’s growing military might, followed the next month by chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda musing publicly that in due course, the people of Japan could well decide to have nuclear weapons. It is possible that the public speculation on the nuclearisation of Japan, by US as well as Japanese spokespeople, was designed to coax China into curtailing North Korea’s nuclear activities and ambitions. Yet, now that North Korea has crossed the nuclear threshold, past rhetoric might lead to an element of self-entrapment for Japan.

Intentional Weaknesses in NPT

Some NPT weaknesses were intentional. For example, the wording of Articles 1 and 2 deliberately permits the nuclear powers to transfer nuclear weapons to other countries (cold war allies at the time) – that is, engage in geographical proliferation – as long as control of the weapons remained in their own hands. The popularity of regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, especially across the southern hemisphere, owed much to the desire to plug this loophole.13

The wish to marry two incompatible goals – US president Dwight Eisenhower’s vision in the 1950s of “atoms for peace” and non-proliferation – produced the odd juxtaposition of Articles 3 and 4 of the treaty, and led in time to crises in North Korea and Iran. For nuclear energy for peaceful purposes can be pursued legitimately to the point of being a screwdriver away from a weapons capability. More and more countries are bumping against the nuclear weapons ceiling even as soaring fuel prices increase their interest in nuclear energy.

Other NPT weaknesses became apparent with the benefit of hindsight. By failing to include clearly timetabled, legally binding, verifiable and enforceable disarmament commitments, it temporarily legitimised the nuclear arsenals of the N5. By relying on the promise of signatories to use nuclear materials, facilities and technology for peaceful purposes only, it empowered them to operate dangerously close to a nuclearweapons capability. It proscribed nonnuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons, but failed to design a strategy for dealing with non-signatory countries. It permits withdrawals much too easily.

While consciousness of the risks of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, militant fanatics and other nonstate groups has grown enormously, the collective memories of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have begun to fade (except of course in Japan). Because there is no standing agency or secretariat, the NPT depends on five-year review conferences for resolving implementation problems. Even these operate by the consensus rule, which does not make for decisive resolution of contentious issues.

If the NPT status quo is already history, and the risks of arms control reverses and proliferation are real, then we must either accept a world of more nuclear weapons and more nuclear powers, or move to a nuclearweapon-free world. There is no third way.

It is difficult to convince some of the futility of nuclear weapons when all who have such weapons demonstrate their continuing utility by keeping them. The preaching of exhortations and the coercion of sanctions need to be buttressed with the force of example. The case for independent British and French nuclear deterrent forces is not compelling.14 Another circuitbreaker in the countervailing nuclearweapons capability spiral is the US. Given its overwhelming military dominance with conventional arsenals, if its case to retain nuclear weapons is persuasive, then it should be even more persuasive for those countries that live in insecure neighbourhoods and lack the panoply of conventional military tools, underpinned by technological superiority, available to Washington.

Also, the best way to keep nasty weapons out of the hands of nasty groups is to keep them out of the hands of governments.

The NPT is tied to a frozen international power structure decades out of date. It became dangerously fragile because of the vertical proliferation of the nuclear powers for two decades, before they reconstructed the structure of cooperation in nuclear peace, called a halt to their proliferating arsenals, and began progressively to dismantle them under the virtuous cycle of mutually reinforcing unilateral, bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements and policies.

The road towards the nuclear-free destination includes still deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals; further constraints on the

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

extra-territorial interventions and a ban on any extra-terrestrial deployment of nuclear weapons; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); ban on missile test flights and on the production of fissile materials; and dealerting and de-mating of nuclear forces, warheads and missiles.

Such scenarios typically provoke dismissive comments from so-called “realists”. Realistically speaking, is there another option beyond those identified here? If not, then which is the most preferred option? As with Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism on democracy, the abolitionist option may well be unrealistic; all other conceivable options are even less realistic as strategies of security and survival. On balance, the regional and global security risks posed by the acquisition or retention of nuclear stockpiles exceed any security gains that can reasonably be anticipated from such postures. That is, nuclear weapons can confer security benefits, but these are outweighed by the political and security costs. The argument is based on four propositions.

Costs of Nuclear Weapons

First, the military utility of nuclear weapons is extremely limited. The advent of nuclear weapons meant that war, far from being a continuation of policy by other means, would in fact be the breakdown of policy resulting in mutual annihilation. Because most conflicts involve non-nuclear actors, nuclear weapons have not deprived wars and the threat of wars of all utility. But the use of nuclear weapons in such wars is limited by the fact that their political and moral costs would be greater than the desired military and political objectives. This is why even the two superpowers accepted defeat on the battlefield in Vietnam and Afghanistan rather than escalate to nuclear bombing. The Kargil War (1999) is the only instance of two nuclear powers fighting a war – but even then without using nuclear weapons.

The surprising thing is how little military benefit has been conferred by the possession of nuclear weapons. History refutes the thesis that Soviet expansionism was matched to the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The most spectacular Soviet territorial and political advances were made during 194549, when the Americans had a monopoly of atomic weaponry. Conversely, the disintegration of the Soviet Union occurred after they had attained strategic parity with the US. The nuclear equation has been irrelevant in determining the outcomes of any conflict since 1945. They are of no use to India in dealing with its myriad of enduring low-intensity insurgencies and innumerable threats to human security. Conversely, the Gulf War showed that a massive response with sophisticated conventional weapons can suffice even against a latent, implicit or nascent threat of chemical and biological weapons.

Second, the political utility of nuclear weapons is also extremely limited. Their very destructiveness means that they cannot credibly be threatened against nonnuclear states. Their only purpose can be deterrence of similarly nuclear-armed adversaries. But this creates its own fundamental paradox. If one side seeks to deter war by creating the fear that it will use nuclear weapons, then it must convince the opponent of its determination to use them in certain circumstances. If, however, the weapons are used and produce a like response, then the side striking first is very much worse off than if it had abstained. Posing an unacceptable risk to the enemy therefore necessarily poses the same risk to oneself. This may explain why Kargil remained conventional and why in 2002, full military mobilisation and bluster and threats on both sides notwithstanding, India and Pakistan did not go to war.

Third, there are substantial legal and moral doubts on nuclear weapons. In its famous advisory opinion in 1996, the World Court concluded that the use of nuclear weapons may not clearly be legal even for a country under armed attack. As for morality, nuclear deterrence openly contemplates – indeed must be directly based on – the deliberate killing of people in the millions.

Fourth, the NPT is discriminatory, is seen as discriminatory and will be progressively delegitimised and violated unless there is continual movement towards nuclear disarmament. The NPT was a double bargain. In return for intrusive end-use control over imported nuclear and nuclear-related technology and material, non-nuclear countries were granted access to nuclear technology, components and material on a mostfavoured-nation basis. The second bargain was in Article 6 of the NPT contract, whereby most states renounced the nuclear option in return for nuclear disarmament by the N5. But there was a marked imbalance of obligations between the two parts of the bargain. The non-nuclear weapon status was immediate, legally binding and internationally verifiable and enforceable. But there were no intrusive safeguards for the nuclear powers in their roles as suppliers of critical technology and components. More importantly, their commitment to disarm was not timetabled, nor precise, nor binding. The imbalance is no longer sustainable and the next to challenge it may well be Iran. North Korea’s test is a symptom, not the cause, of the NPT being a broken reed.

We should seek security from, not in, nuclear weapons. The only guarantee against the threat of nuclear war is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.15 They are the common enemy of mankind. Like chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons too cannot be disinvented. Chemical weapons are probably easier to reinvent, given how commonly used their ingredients are around the house. Like them, nuclear weapons too can be outlawed under an international regime that ensures strict compliance through effective and credible inspection, verification and control regimes. In most contexts, a step-by-step approach is the best policy. Such caution can be fatal if the need is to cross a chasm. In the case of nuclear weapons, the chasm that must be crossed is the mental conditioning of national and world security resting on weapons of maximum insecurity. If they did not exist, they could not proliferate and could not be used: neither by states nor terrorists, neither by design nor accident.




1 See International Institute for Strategic Studies,

North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A NetAssessment, Palgrave Macmillan, London,2004; Wade Huntley, ‘Ostrich Engagement: The Bush Administration and the North Korean Nuclear Crisis’, Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2004, pp 1-35; and North Korea: Where Next for the Nuclear Talks? International Crisis Group (ICG), Brussels, Asia ReportNo 87, November 15, 2004.

2 See Iran: Where Next on the Nuclear Standoff? ICG,Brussels, Middle East Briefing, November 24, 2004.

3 See Jonathan Power, ‘Turning a Blind Eye to Nukes: The US and Saudi Arabia?’ International Herald Tribune (IHT), August 4, 2004.

4 ‘South Korea Says It Enriched Uranium Four Years Ago’, Japan Times, September 3, 2004; ‘Top Scientist Acknowledges Uranium Tests’,Japan Times, September 5, 2004; ‘ROK Enrichment Tests Conducted ‘3 Times’, DailyYomiuri, September 5, 2004; ‘Seoul Admits Scientists Extracted Plutonium in ’82 Experiment’, Japan Times, September 10, 2004; James Brooke, ‘Report Details South Korean Cover-Up’, IHT, November 25, 2004; ‘S Korea Chided for Nuclear Tests’, BBC News (, November 11, 2004.

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5 ‘Taipei Held Nuke Experiments as Late as Mid-1980s’, Japan Times, October 14, 2004 and ‘Concern Over Taiwan Nuclear Ambitions’, Japan Times, October 17, 2004.

6 ‘Egyptian Scientists Produced Nuclear Material: Diplomats’, Japan Times, January 6, 2005.

7 Larry Rohter, ‘If Brazil Wants to Scare the World, It’s Succeeding’, New York Times, October 31, 2004.

8 ‘Nuclear Components Designed in One Country Could Be Manufactured in Another, Shipped Through a Third, and Assembled in a Fourth for Use in a Fifth’; Mohamed El Baradei, ‘Preserving the Non-Proliferation Treaty’,Disarmament Forum, 4/2004, p 5. See also Christopher Clary, ‘Dr Khan’s Nuclear WalMart’, Disarmament Diplomacy, 76, March/April 2004, pp 31-35.

9 The Bush administration was quick to claim the Libyan renunciation of the nuclear option as a tangible success of its Iraq war policy. It is just as plausible to link the Libyan decision to domestic political compulsions, the adverse impact of the international sanctions imposed on it in the 1980s, and the trend line for a negotiated end to the stalemate visible since the Clinton administration. See Thomas E McNamara (a former ambassador and assistant secretary of state who developed and implemented the UN sanctions policy against Libya as a special assistant to president George H W Bush in 1991-92), ‘Why Qaddafi Turned his Back on Terror’, IHT, May 5, 2004; and Geoff D Porter, ‘The Faulty Premise of Pre-emption’, New York Times, July 31, 2004. Many Arabs believe that as a result of the difficult insurgency in Iraq after the war, it is Washington that became more receptive to long-standing Libyan overtures and signals for an end to the confrontation. Thus both versions agree on the war being the deal maker, but for opposite reasons.

10 See Ramesh Thakur and Ere Haru (eds), The Chemical Weapons Convention: Implementation, Challenges and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, 2006.

11 See Ramesh Thakur and Albrecht Schnabel (eds),Kosovo and the Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention: Selective Indignation, Collective Action, and International Citizenship, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, 2000.

12 See Ramesh Thakur and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu (eds), The Iraq Crisis and World Order:Structural, Institutional and Normative Challenges, United Nations University Press,Tokyo, 2006; and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu and Ramesh Thakur (eds), Arms Control after Iraq: Normative and Operational Challenges, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, 2006.

13 See Ramesh Thakur (ed), Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones, Macmillan and St Martin’s Press, London/New York, 1998.

14 See Ramesh Thakur and Ralph Cossa, ‘Britain, India and Pakistan Could Start a Disarmament Club’, International Herald Tribune, July 11, 1998.

15 The most elegant and eloquent articulation of this argument remains the Report of theCanberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra, 1996. Its main thrust has been strongly reinforced by the BlixCommission, Weapons of Terror: Freeing theWorld of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms. Report of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMDC Secretariat, Stockholm, 2006.

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

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