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North Korea: Why Shouldn't Pyongyang Join Nuclear Club?

North Korean soldiers on parade (epa) PRAGUE, October 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- By announcing that it has carried out a nuclear test, North Korea is laying claim to membership in the world's most exclusive club -- that of the nuclear powers. Its move has caused outrage across the world, but why should North Korea not be let in? For some answers, RFE/RL's Kathleen Moore spoke to Shannon Kile, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

RFE/RL: The five original signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- as well as others -- have nuclear weapons for defense. Why shouldn't others be able to join the club?

Shannon Kile: The original five signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, and the Soviet Union, now Russia - signed the NPT with the understanding under Article 6 that they would work in good faith towards general and complete nuclear disarmament. What we've seen in the intervening years is that they have retained and reaffirmed the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies. In some cases they have given new roles and missions to nuclear weapons and they seem to be committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. So there's clearly a double standard here. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea for there to be a general proliferation, that is for there to be a large number of states with nuclear weapons arsenals. The simple reason for this is that nuclear weapons are uniquely dangerous because they're uniquely destructive, and any time you have more states with nuclear weapons the odds increase that they may be used in military conflict, perhaps not even in terms of deliberately being used, but their use could come about as a result of accident, miscalculation, or the inadvertent escalation of nonnuclear conventional conflicts.

RFE/RL: U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about Pyongyang transferring missile technology to Syria and Iran. Is that the main worry with North Korea -- not that it could be capable at some point of launching nuclear bombs but that it could spread the technology to rogue states or terrorists?

"Pyongyang is well-known already for supplying ballistic missile technology to a number of states."

Kile: That has to be a concern for everyone. Here the concern is not only that North Korea will supply nuclear-relevant technology to countries elsewhere in the world, but also that it might supply weapons-usable fissile material to terrorist groups. The North Koreans deny that they would ever consider doing this and they dismiss it out of hand. But it's something the world has to take very seriously given the fact that Pyongyang is well-known already for supplying ballistic missile technology to a number of states, and it's also known North Korea has been involved in nuclear commerce as well with a number of states, in particular Pakistan through the [Pakistani nuclear scientist] A. Q. Khan [smuggling] network, so clearly this has to be taken seriously.

A Regional Arms Race Looms?

RFE/RL: Obviously there's great alarm in Japan and elsewhere in the region over North Korea's declaration that it has carried out a nuclear test. What about a possible knock-on effect? Could this spur an arms race in the region?

Kile: I don't think there's evidence there's any serious interest in Japan in terms of reevaluating the country's decision to be a nonnuclear weapons state. That's sometimes brought up as a possible consequence of a North Korean test, but I don't think there's any evidence there to support that claim. I think what's more likely in the case of Japan is that it will continue to reevaluate its current defense posture. It's moving towards having a more robust conventional military capability, including long-range strike capabilities. It's also very likely to move now even more closely into cooperation with the United States on a regional defense system. In the case of South Korea, it had a nuclear weapon program in the 1970s that it gave up under U.S. pressure, but, again, I don't think there's evidence to support the notion that South Korea may be interested in reconsidering its status as a nonnuclear weapons state. I think what you'll more likely see is South Korea drawing more closely into its military alliance with the United States.

RFE/RL: Of the nuclear weapons states, four are outside the NPT: India, Pakistan, and North Korea, plus Israel, which has never declared as much but is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal. They either never signed up or withdrew from the treaty. Doesn't this show up a pretty major problem with the NPT: if you want to comply you're in, if you don't, you remain outside or withdraw and no one can do anything about it?

North Korea "cheated ... and yet when it pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty nothing happened, the international community failed to take robust action against Pyongyang."

Kile: I think that's exactly right. One of the problems with the NPT now is that we have almost as many nuclear weapons states outside the treaty as are legally recognized under the terms of the treaty. And in the case of North Korea it was a nonnuclear weapons state party to the treaty, it then withdrew in 2003 and declared itself to be a nuclear weapons state, and of course it used its status under the NPT to acquire all the nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. Basically it cheated -- a clear-cut case of noncompliance with the treaty -- and yet when it pulled out of the treaty nothing happened, the international community failed to take robust action against Pyongyang. It's something that gravely undermines the legitimacy of the treaty regime, when states can be seen to flout its rules, exploit the rules, and -- frankly -- cheat and then get away with it.

RFE/RL: Was North Korea's claimed test successful or not?

Kile: The seismic measurements from the test indicate that it was an extremely low [energy] yield, lower by an order of several magnitudes than any other first-time nuclear test. And to be able to have a yield that low, if it's a nuclear yield, that would require a very sophisticated nuclear weapon design, basically a miniaturized design. The more likely explanation is twofold -- either the seismic data is incorrect, and it needs to be recalibrated to take into account the local geology, or North Korea attempted to detonate a weapon that didn't detonate completely, that there wasn't a full chain reaction. So ironically it may be the case that North Korea was trying to use this test as a political demonstration of its capability, and in doing so it actually raises more questions than it answers. It's too early to tell; we'll know in the next few days.