WITH a track record of six underground nuclear tests between 2006 and last year, North Korea is desperately yearning to be recognised as the world’s ninth nuclear power — trailing behind the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel.
But, that recognition seems elusive — despite the increasing nuclear threats by Pyongyang and the continued war of words between two of the world’s most unpredictable leaders, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Arguing that North Koreans have little reason to give up their weapons programme, The New York Times ran a story last November with a realistically arresting headline which read: “The North is a Nuclear Power Now. Get Used to it”.
But, the world’s five major nuclear powers — the UK, US, France, China and Russia — which are also permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have refused to bestow the nuclear badge of honour on the North Koreans.
North Korea, meanwhile, has pointed out that the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, were, perhaps, facilitated by one fact: none of these countries had nuclear weapons or had given up developing nuclear weapons.
“And that is why we will never give up ours,” a North Korean diplomat was quoted as saying.
Dr M.V. Ramana, Simons chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, said there was, however, hope in the recent placatory moves by North and South Korea.
“I think that the situation can return to a calmer state, although it is entirely possible that this calmer state would involve North Korea holding on to nuclear weapons. I suspect that for the time being, the world will have to live with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal,” he added.
“Although that is not a desirable goal, there is no reason why one should presume that North Korea having nuclear weapons is any more of a problem than India, Pakistan, or Israel, or for that matter, China, France, the UK, Russia, or the US,” said Ramana, author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.
Any peace process should be based on reciprocal moves: one cannot simply expect North Korea to scale down its programmes without corresponding moves by the US, he declared.
The number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War — from approximately 70,300 in 1986 to an estimated 14,550, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
According to US intelligence sources, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is anywhere between 20 and 50 weapons. The US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimates a total of over 50 weapons.
Joseph Gerson, president of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, said successive North Korean governments had pursued their nuclear weapons programme for two primary reasons: to ensure the survival of the Kim Dynasty and to preserve the survival of the North Korean state.
The US failed to fulfil its commitments under the 1994 Agreed Framework, by refusing to deliver promised oil supplies and endlessly delaying its promised construction of two light water nuclear reactors in exchange for the suspension of the DPRK nuclear weapons programme.
In 2000, former US secretary of defence William Perry and secretary of state Madeleine Albright negotiated a comprehensive agreement with North Korea. And president Clinton was to travel to Pyongyang to finalise the agreement. But, with the political crisis caused by the disputed outcome of the 2000 presidential election, he did not make that trip.
Among the first disastrous orders of business of the Bush administration was the sabotaging of that agreement. This, in turn, led to North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test, said Gerson, author of Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World, The Sun Never Sets…Confronting the Network of U.S. Foreign Military Bases and With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion and Moral Imagination.
While expectations for the meeting of North and South Korean officials, currently underway, were low, said Gerson, the world should be celebrating South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s winter Olympic-related diplomatic initiatives and the resulting functional Olympic Truce.
The way forward requires direct US-North Korean negotiations, possibly in multi-lateral frameworks like the Six Party Talks, Gerson noted.
As the growing international consensus advocates, resolution of the tensions will necessitate some form of a “freeze for freeze” agreement, limiting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for halting US threats to destroy or overturn the North Korean government and to implement previous commitments to normalisation of relations.
With this foundation in place, future diplomacy can be addressed finally, ending the Korea War by replacing the Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty and building on numerous proposals for the creation of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
In the end, Gerson said, the only way to prevent similar nuclear weapons proliferation crises was for the nuclear powers to finally fulfil their Article VI Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligation to negotiate the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals. IPS