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North Korea's Matches - Our Powder Keg
North Korea's Matches - Our Powder Keg
Andrew Mack, Director - Human Security Centre
January 15, 2003
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is often described as the legal cornerstone of international efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Today the effectiveness of the treaty, which entered into force in 1970 and has been ratified by no less than 187 states, is coming under increasingly critical scrutiny. North Korea's declaration last week that it was withdrawing from the NPT constitutes the most serious threat yet to confront the non-proliferation regime. No other NPT member has ever withdrawn from the treaty. The treaty's critics -- many of them close to the Bush administration -- claim that the NPT is worse than ineffective and that it may lull the international community into an unwarranted sense of complacency. They have a point. Take the case of Iraq. Prior to the war in the Persian Gulf, NPT-member Iraq was regularly given a clean bill of nuclear health by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But while officials from the global nuclear watchdog were inspecting Iraq's declared civilian nuclear sites, the Iraqis were creating fissile material for bombs at clandestine facilities miles away. Not to be outdone, the North Koreans, who had opened their declared nuclear facilities at Yongbyon to IAEA inspection, were also pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in another part of the country. Other critics (and not just conservatives) were worried about the historic bargain that lies at at the very heart of the NPT -- that states agreeing to forego nuclear weapons would be entitled to technical assistance from the IAEA for their own civilian nuclear programs. But suppose a state joined the NPT in order to gain civilian nuclear expertise to use in a clandestine nuclear weapons program? In this case, the NPT would be contributing to the very proliferation it was supposed to curb. This concern was not just hypothetical; Washington has been trying to dissuade Moscow from transferring civilian nuclear technology to Iran, an NPT-signatory, for precisely this reason. The IAEA also helped North Korea improve the efficacy of its uranium mining operations. The mined uranium was subsequently used in the North's nuclear weapons programs. Developing-country critics have rather different concerns regarding the NPT. They note that under the terms of the treaty, the five original nuclear states -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- undertook to move toward nuclear disarmament. Yet more than 30 years after the treaty was ratified not one of these states has given even the slightest hint that it intends to give up its atomic arsenal. All of these critiques are well-rehearsed, but few opponents of the NPT -- from either side -- appear to have noticed what is perhaps the major future threat to the treaty. Like the chemical and biological weapons treaties, the NPT is a "supply-side" non-proliferation agreement. That is, it seeks to keep weapons materiel, technologies and expertise out of the hands of would-be proliferators. Unfortunately, industrialization is rendering all of these supply-side regimes increasingly ineffective. As a country's level of industrial development increases, its need to seek nuclear technology and expertise from overseas declines. And, as the North Korean case reminds us, it isn't necessary to have a very sophisticated industrial base in order to build nuclear weapons with minimal outside help. As industrialization proceeds apace in the developing world, more and more countries will be able to build nuclear weapons using their own resources -- making the NPT's supply-side control mechanisms decreasingly relevant. Does this mean that the treaty is as useless as its more extreme critics claim? No. But its value lies less in its ability to control proliferation by technical means than in its role in sustaining and enhancing what has been called the "nuclear taboo" -- the global norm against the possession and use of nuclear weapons. However, the major threat to the nuclear taboo is not puny North Korea. Rather, it is the continued refusal of the nuclear-weapons states to respect the antinuclear norm they so hypocritically demand the rest of the world uphold. Finally, as a supply-side treaty, the NPT ignores the "demand side" of the nuclear proliferation equation -- those security and other concerns that drive states to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. Too often, we forget that even violently repressive regimes can be genuinely fearful for their security. There is no doubt, for example, that Pyongyang, designated member of the "axis of evil," feels militarily threatened by the United States. Year after year, the U.S./South Korean militaries have rehearsed for war against their common Communist enemy in the North. In exercises in 1998, the U.S. Air Force simulated nuclear strikes against the North. Washington has also persistently failed to honour its 1994 legal commitment to provide formal assurances that it will not threaten or use nuclear weapons against North Korea. To add to Pyongyang's paranoia, not only has its alliance with Moscow long since collapsed, but the military balance on the peninsula is now tilted decisively in favour of its enemies. For North Korea, nuclear weapons serve as a countervailing deterrent against U.S. nuclear threats and as a "strategic equalizer" in its confrontation with the conventionally superior South Korean and American forces on the peninsula. The "nuclear card" is also a source of considerable political leverage. The NPT was not designed to address the sort of politico-security concerns that have impelled Pyongyang down the nuclear-weapons path. The nuclear impasse on this strife-torn peninsula has been, and remains, a crisis of politics. It requires a political -- not a technical -- solution. Andrew Mack is director of the Human Security Centre at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, and former strategic planning director in the office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His publications include Proliferation in Northeast Asia (1996) and Asian Flashpoint: Security and the Korean Peninsula (1993).
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