The recent claim by Kim Jong Un that North Korea plans to develop the world’s most powerful nuclear force may well have been more bravado than credible threat. But that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.
The best guess is that North Korea now has sufficient fissile material to build 45 to 55 nuclear weapons, three decades after beginning its program. The warheads would mostly have yields of around 10 to 20 kilotons, similar to the 15 kiloton bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
But North Korea has the capacity to make devices ten times bigger. Its missile delivery systems are also advancing in leaps and bounds. The technological advance is matched in rhetoric and increasingly reckless acts, including test-firing missiles over Japan in violation of all international norms, provoking terror and risking accidental war.
The question now is how best to bring the pariah nation into the orbit of arms control negotiations and international dialogue. However remote the chances of that, the alternative risks a regional nuclear arms race.
A history of failure
The current impasse can be traced back to 1991 and the end of the Cold War. As part of its efforts to create a viable arms control treaty with the Soviet Union, the United States removed all nuclear weapons from South Korea.
This seemed sensible at the time, especially since North Korea had pledged itself to the cornerstone Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1985. This commits member states to arms control and reduction, with independent observers to monitor compliance.
The faith was misplaced. From 1993, North Korea went on to trick or fool every US president and most of the international community for the next 30 years, quitting the NPT in 2003 and detonating its first nuclear explosion in 2006.
This so upset the global balance of power that all members of the UN Security Council agreed that North Korea had to stop developing nuclear warheads and associated missile delivery systems. Nine rounds of sanctions since 2006 have attempted to enforce this, to no avail.
Former US president Donald Trump was the last to try, inviting Kim Jong Un to open the North Korean economy and even pledging to end the joint military exercises in the south that aggravated him so much. Kim promised to “denuclearise” and then did nothing.
Influence of Russia and China
By the end of this decade, North Korea could have 200 devices, en route to Kim Jong Un’s vision of becoming a nuclear superpower. This would still be a lot fewer than those stockpiled by the US and Russia, which possess 90% of all nuclear weapons. But it would put North Korea on or above current estimates for Israel (90), India (160) or Pakistan (165), and into the middle league with Britain (225), France (“under 300”) and China (350).
The ideal solution would be for North Korea to sign the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – but we need to realistic. None of the other existing nuclear powers are signatories, and we now live in an age of nuclear upgrades and expansion.
The war in Ukraine has changed everything, its main lesson seemingly being that weapons of mass destruction are still strategically useful. Indeed, the Ukrainians are paying a price for having given up their nuclear stockpile in 1994 after Russia promised not to threaten or use force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity or political independence.
Even if additional sanctions might work, both Russia and China have only recently vetoed an attempt to impose tighter sanctions on North Korea over its missile launches. To underline their position, they also recently conducted military exercises inside the South Korean air defence zone.
A regional arms race
All this raises a critical question: should the existing, ineffective sanctions be dropped in an effort to calm relations with North Korea and find a way forward? After all, there are precedents for eventual acceptance that countries have joined the nuclear club.
The US relented and dropped sanctions against India and Pakistan in 1999, despite both having never accepted the NPT. Nor has Israel, which has never even faced sanctions.
But for such a strategy to work, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel would need to become signatories to the NPT and its associated protocols. History suggests this isn’t a plausible option.
Three decades of non-compliance with international obligations by North Korea have not engendered trust or a willingness by surrounding countries to submit to a nuclear neighbour. More likely is a regional nuclear arms race, as happened when India got the bomb and Pakistan had to keep up, or when Israel triggered Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
South Korea, Japan and possibly even Taiwan are likely to follow suit, either asking to host US ballistic missiles or pursuing independent nuclear strategies – especially if they feel the US won’t defend them after the next presidential election.
None of this makes the world safer.