The North-Korean nuclear programme: How evil “evil” really is?

On August 28th North Korea’s nuclear programme made the headlines. Again. The bold and hair-raising launch of a ballistic missile which flew over Northern Japan stirred up just enough havoc to challenge Trump’s most recent threat that Kim Jong-un’s nuclear programme would be met with “fire and fury” should it not be discontinued[1]. Amidst mounting tensions, however, one may inquire: how bad North Korea’s nuclear programme really is? Answering such a question requires the thorough analysis of a handful of factors, namely: why would North Korea want to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads? Why would other countries — some of which possess nuclear weapons themselves — want to deter it from doing so? And, from an international law’s standpoint, how evil has North Korean been by pursuing its nuclear programme?

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can be traced back to over six decades. As the Cold War geared up following the end of the Second World War (1945), Kim Il Sung’s desire of a reunified peninsula under a socialist regime grew stronger. What ensued was the Korean War, which ravaged the Korean Peninsula from June 1950 to July 1953, and witnessed one of the first of countless skirmishes of a then bipolar world. Sung’s defeat, embodied in the 1953 armistice — which created a demilitarised zone at the 38th Parallel, North and South Korea’s mutual border –, convinced the Eternal President (Sung’s household name) that a more robust arsenal would be needed should he ever wish to see a reunified peninsula and, most importantly, to put off the United States’ increasing menace and meddling policy. It is believed by historians that upon the conflict’s start, the URSS’ supreme leader, Stalin, engaged his North Korean counterpart in a much needed, outgoing and welcoming dialogue: “Are you short of arms?’’, asked Stalin. ‘’We’ll give them to you. You must strike the southerners in the teeth.’’[2] Simply put: King Jong-un’s (the current supreme leader of North Korea and Kin Il Sung’s grandson) recent advances in his country’s nuclear program essentially steams from an over-half-a-century-old realistic approach of international politics: deterrence power[3].

Deterrence power is instrumental if one is to grasp why North Korea has so vigorously pursued its nuclear programme. Unlike within a country’s territory, the international system is deprived of any higher authority capable of ruling out disagreements amongst nations. That means that when a weaker country is “bullied”, there is not much it can do other than resorting to its own available means of protection. That characterises our world as an anarchic world where the interests of the weaker often succumbs to those of the strongest. In that sense, countries acquire nuclear weapons not so much to deploy them in combat than to avoid that very submission and thus safeguard their interests. That is deterrence power. What is the probability of a non-nuclearized country ravaging a war against a nuclearized country? What are the chances of two nuclearized nations ever going to war when they know that their nuclear arsenals, if ever deployed against one another, would sweep them both off the map? That assumption, as coined by Hans Morgenthau[4], is called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), for it would be mad the use of nuclear weapons amongst nuclear nations. And since nations are supposedly[5] rational actors, a nuclear war would never break out, especially if most countries possessed those weapons.

Having stated why North Korea wishes to possess nuclear weapons, it is worth reflecting upon the reason(s) why other countries have repeatedly made joint effort to persuade it otherwise. That can be done through a brief and objective look at the previous five or six decades. Fifty-five years after the nerve-racking Cuban missile crisis (October 1962); forty-seven years after the coming into force of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP), in 1970; and over twenty-five years past the end of the Cold War (1991), the threat of an all-out nuclear war has not died out. The NTP particularly (which will be further discussed), is instrumental in the understanding of countries’ increasing concern over and meddling in North Korea’s nuclear programme. Simply put, a nuclearized North Korea may spur neighbouring countries such as South Korea (to mention just one) into developing their own nuclear weapons, thus putting in jeopardy the much-feared and fought-back nuclear proliferation (i.e. more countries possessing nuclear weapons).

In regard to how evil has North Korean really been by pursuing its nuclear programme, it is worth shedding light upon the Non-Proliferation Treaty (TNP) and, ultimately, upon the concept of sovereignty. The signing and coming into force of the NTP in 1968 and 1970, respectively, is to this day the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. The treaty has basically three goals: promoting the dismantlement (disarmament) of all nuclear weapons arsenal, thus bringing the nuclear arms race to a halt; making sure that non-nuclearized countries develop military-oriented nuclear programmes (non-proliferation); and fostering the energy uses of nuclear power (peaceful uses). In the period between the 1953 armistice and 1985, North Korea’s nuclear quest made it crystal clear that it would not join the NTP. The year of 1985, however, witnessed a political volte-face as North Korea joined the NTP, but only to repeal it eighteen years later (2003) on the grounds of mounting US menace and meddling policy towards North Korea’s internal affairs[6].

Another paramount fact about the TNP is that that countries that had not developed their nuclear weapons by 1967 should, henceforth, undertake not to develop them. That is one problematic high-minded statement, for it “freezes” the distribution of nuclear power across nations. Another drawback is article 6, which touches upon a thorny question: dismantlement of the entire world’s nuclear arsenal. However pressing that was then (and still is), article 6 falls short of setting up a system that effectively oversees dismantlement and makes sure that signatories to the NTP fully comply with it. Rather, the nuclearized nations at the time (the Unites States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom) basically agreed to promote “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date”. When such lofty goals are read, particularly that of article 6, one inevitable question pops up: when is the dismantlement of the nuclearized nations’ arsenals to take place? “At an early date” leaves us clueless. Technically, hence, what the NTP has created is a two-tiered world: on the one hand are the nuclearized countries (today, there are nine) whose time frame to fully dismantle their arsenal is undefined. On the other are the non-nuclear countries which, if ever wishful of developing a nuclear weapon, would have their ambitions violently thwarted by the NTP. Once again, in an international system characterised by anarchy and whose nuclear power is possessed by only handful of nations, would it not be irrational to believe that the non-nuclear are on the same footing as the nuclearized?

In addition, and even more importantly, is the fact that having withdrawn itself from the NPT in 2003, North Korean no longer has to abide by its rules. If a non-nuclear signatory to the TPN develops a military-oriented nuclear programme, it will be breaching the treaty and most likely be subject to international sanctions. It is worth noting that Iran’s nuclear programme has also been met with those very penalties. However, as no longer a signatory to the NPT for fourteen years, which laws and/or treaties on nuclear proliferation, then, is North Korea in fact breaching? None.

Moreover, the concept of sovereignty must be taken into account. Since the coming of age of the definition of national states as we know it, a country that is recognised as such by the international community is endowed with sovereignty. Being sovereign, its policies — internal or external — should not be subject to international interference, unless that is permitted by the country itself. In that sense, it would not be irrational to conclude that the numerous and burdensome sanctions that have been put on North Korea — as a way of talking it out of its nuclear programme — coupled with the fact that it is no longer part of the NPT, run counter to the good and expected practises of international politics. In other words: how can one ever be penalised for breaking rules that it has not agreed with (or no longer agrees with)? Another disturbing fact is to look at Israel’s nuclear programme. As a country historically sided with the West, Israel’s military-oriented nuclear programme — which has placed it amongst the select group of nine nuclearized nations, despite not having acknowledged that it owns nuclear weapons — was never met with the harsh accusations and sanctions with which North Korea has been bombarded. Why’s that? The (Western) media might have the answer.

Conclusively, I would say that it is rather haughty of the nuclearized nations, especially the United States in the recent North Korean’s nuclear weapon crisis, to press for — and at times to demand with “fire and fury” — that countries let go of any nuclear weapons ambition when the nuclearized countries themselves hold a destructive power that could destroy humanity many times over. The United States is the only country that have developed, tested and deployed in combat two weapons of mass destruction (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945), killing around a quarter of a million people. The Americans can boast of possessing the world’s second biggest nuclear arsenal with over 6,000 nuclear warheads. Russia, in turn, has got a couple hundreds more, rendering it the world’s most nuclearized nation. Altogether, the 9 nuclearized countries’ arsenals amass over 22,000 nuclear warheads[7]. Digesting and comprehending this is not easy as it runs counter to a world where countries should be equal. Thus, it ultimately prompts one to inquire: how evil North Korea’s nuclear programme really is?

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[1] “The missile flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido at 6:06 am local Japanese time, according to Japan’s state broadcaster NHK, landing in the waters 1,180 kilometers (about 733 miles) east of Hokkaido’s Cape Erimo”. Read more at: “North Korea just launched a missile over Japan”; https://www.vox.com/2017/8/28/16217988/north-korea-missile-launch-japan-trump-august-28-2017.

[2] Read more at “How North Korea’s Nuclear History Began” (TIME | History”: http://time.com/4692045/north-korea-nuclear-weapons-history/.

[3] As one of the world’s most isolated country (if not the most), it is rather difficult to tell if North Korea’s plan of reunifying with the South under a socialist regime is still alive. Notwithstanding, it should not be taken as a given and immutable fact that it will never again see the light of day. Statesmanship often undergoes considerable changes of course along time. Since the 1953 armistice the world has seen, from both sides (North and South Korean), attempts of looking over past resentment, but, also, spikes of tension were witnessed. It is the latter that has recently been making the headlines. To put it in a nutshell, if a dreamt reunified peninsula is not (apparently) at the basis of the North Korean nuclear programme, the fear and grudge of a growing US encroachment, is. (the author’s note).

[4] Hans Morgenthau (1901–1980): in the field of international relations studies, H. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations: the struggle for power and peace is, along with and following Edward Carr’s The Twenty Year crisis: 1919–1939, the founding works of Modern Realism. Amongst Morgenthau’s concepts coined in his book is that of MAD. “In the discipline of international relations there are contending general theories or theoretical perspectives. Realism, also known as political realism, is a view of international politics that stresses its competitive and conflictual side. It is usually contrasted with idealism or liberalism, which tends to emphasize cooperation. Realists consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power. The negative side of the realists’ emphasis on power and self-interest is often their skepticism regarding the relevance of ethical norms to relations among states”. Read more at: “Political Realism in International Relations”; https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism-intl-relations/.

[5] I have recently written an article on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Passed on July the 7th, the Treaty is to be open to signatures this month (September, 2017). In the text, I argue that the fact that 122 countries have signed the treaty will eventually outweigh the fact that the nine nuclearized nations (The USA, Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea itself) have not. That, in turn, would essentially mean a blow to deterrence power, as it suggests a considerable change of most countries’ security policies. To read the article (written in Portuguese), please go to: “Tratado sobre a Proibição de Armas Nucleares (TPAN)”; https://deniselicia.wixsite.com/voltaaomundo/single-post/2017/07/26/Tratado-sobre-a-Proibi%C3%A7%C3%A3o-de-Armas-Nucleares-TPAN.

[6] North Korea’s ‘Detailed Report’ Explains NPT Withdrawal (2003): “As we can see from the aforementioned facts, the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula is a product of the US anti-DPRK hostile policy. At the same time, it is thoroughly an issue between the DPRK and the United States and a problem that should be resolved between the DPRK and the United States by sitting face to face with each other. Therefore, the most realistic measure for basically resolving the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula and peacefully breaking through the prevailing grave situation is only to conclude a non-aggression treaty between the DPRK and the United States. (…) Although we withdrew from the NPT, our nuclear activities will be limited to the peaceful purpose of electricity production at the present stage. If the United States discards its hostile policy against the DPRK and discontinues making nuclear threats, we will be ready to prove, through a separate verification between the DPRK and the United States, that we will not make nuclear weapons”. Read more at: KCNA ‘Detailed Report’ Explains NPT Withdrawal — https://fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/dprk012203.html.

[7] The information on the world’s nuclear arsenal was taken from Marcos Valle Machado da Silva’s Master’s 2010 paper “O Tratado Sobre a Não-Proliferação de Armas Nuclear (NTP) e a inserção do Estado brasileiro no regime dele decorrente” (p. 126–31), which can be read at: http://www.funag.gov.br/ipri/btd/index.php/10-dissertacoes/2171-o-tratado-sobre-a-nao-proliferacao-de-armas-nucleares-tnp-e-a-insercao-do-estado-brasileiro-no-regime-dele-decorrente.

An International Relations degree holder; a language, history and economics aficionado; and a soon-to-be Economist who sees writing a thought-untangling act.