Accessibility links

North Korea: Assessing Significance Of Pyongyang's Withdrawal From NPT

  • Jeremy Bransten

North Korea has announced it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with immediate effect, in a move further escalating tensions on the peninsula. In a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang declared its "total freedom from the binding force of the safeguards accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency." North Korea accused the IAEA, which is charged with monitoring compliance with the treaty, of being an "American stooge," and it said Washington is trying to topple its government.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL)) -- Pyongyang's announcement that it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the latest in a string of unilateral declarations made by North Korea in recent weeks that have brought worldwide condemnation and increased tensions on the peninsula.

North Korea recently expelled monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from the country after announcing it was restarting its mothballed civilian nuclear-power program, in violation of a 1994 agreement.

If North Korea's announcements were designed to focus the world's attention on Pyongyang, they have succeeded.

Mohammad el-Baradei, head of the IAEA, is in Washington today for consultations with White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on the issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, meeting in Moscow, are also devoting much of their talks to Korea.

While Pyongyang's announcements have raised fears, they appear to be the result of a tried-and-true pattern of North Korean diplomatic brinkmanship. North Korea went through a similar cycle of threats in 1993 and 1994, also announcing its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, before winning concessions from the United States on energy supplies. Pyongyang now claims it was just one day short of running out the clock on the 90-day deadline at that time, providing justification for its immediate withdrawal from the treaty today, with only one day's notice.

Among the demands Pyongyang has now put forward is a nonaggression pact from Washington, as it is unsatisfied with U.S. President George W. Bush's vow that he has no intention of ordering military action against the North.

Yesterday, Pyongyang sent two of its envoys for talks in the United States with the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. Richardson was Washington's ambassador to the United Nations under the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and had extensive dealings with North Korea in that capacity. Those North Korean envoys are due to hold a second round of talks later today.

The White House has been careful to note that Richardson is not acting as its official emissary, although he is due to report on the result of the talks to Powell.

So what is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and what is the significance of North Korea's withdrawal? The pact, which entered into force in 1970, has been signed by 187 countries, making it the most widely adhered-to multilateral arms control agreement in history.

The aim of the treaty is to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, while at the same time giving all countries the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful uses. Under the treaty, only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- China, Russia, Britain, France, and the United States -- who openly possessed nuclear weapons prior to 1967 are allowed to keep them, while agreeing to work toward eventual disarmament.

Since the treaty expressly permits the peaceful use of nuclear power by all signatories, what is the rationale for North Korea's withdrawal?

Gary Seymour was former U.S. President Bill Clinton's senior adviser on nonproliferation issues from 1995 to 2000 and helped draft the 1994 agreement with Pyongyang to mothball its nuclear program. He told RFE/RL the North Korean withdrawal from the NPT is a reaction to recent demands by the IAEA, which could have exposed what is widely believed to be North Korea's active nuclear-weapons program.

"What the North Koreans have said is that they reject the demands of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Association, which was expressed in a resolution passed on [6 January] to force North Korea to take a number of steps to expose their nuclear program, to monitor their nuclear program with inspections and technical equipment. So they have justified their decision as a rejection of the demands imposed on them by the International Atomic Energy Agency, through its resolution."

India and Pakistan are two countries that never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both have now become declared nuclear powers and remain members of the international community in good standing.

What makes North Korea, now also out of the treaty, any different? Plenty, said Seymour: "There are actually pretty substantial differences. First of all, as a legal matter, Pakistan and India never undertook any international obligations not to develop nuclear weapons, so as much as countries are not particularly happy about what they've done, they didn't violate any of their treaty commitments. North Korea is violating its treaty commitments, and so from that standpoint, it sets a precedent for other NPT parties. That's very, very significant in terms of the strength of the nonproliferation. So it poses a much different type of challenge to the international legal system than India and Pakistan did."

Equally important, according to Seymour, is the fact that North Korea, which is already believed to be armed with one or two nuclear weapons, poses a much more serious threat to the United States and its allies, such as Japan. "Whatever the legal details, as a political matter, North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, poses a much more significant threat to U.S. interests and to the interests of U.S. allies. In the case of India and Pakistan, there is very little concern that either country would threaten the United States. There's a concern, obviously, that they might threaten each other, and the U.S. doesn't want to see nuclear weapons used in South Asia, for obvious reasons. But the magnitude of the threat and the type of the threat that is faced is very, very different."

What is likely to happen next? Barring any breakthrough at today's talks in New Mexico between Richardson and the North Korean envoys, Seymour believes Pyongyang will stick to its guns, meaning the issue will likely have to be taken up by the UN Security Council.

Ironically, if one thinks of the Iraqi case, Seymour predicts Washington would most likely use a UN resolution to justify negotiations with Pyongyang. "I think it's very likely that the international community will respond, as they did in 1993, with some kind of resolution in the Security Council that would call upon North Korea to remain in the treaty, reject their rationale for withdrawing, and would probably call on member states to facilitate a solution. The Bush administration may use that or may take that Security Council resolution as a justification to begin talks with North Korea, just as the Clinton administration did in 1993. We'll have to wait and see how that develops."

For now, the U.S. administration appears to be holding to its conviction that any military action against North Korea would cause unacceptable casualties and devastation, meaning sanctions combined with negotiations in one form or another will have to take place.

For now, Pyongyang appears to have the upper hand.