The non-proliferation history of the North Korean nuclear program is not as pessimistic as one may think, at least in terms of political symbolism and the idealistic hopes of the stakeholders. On the ground, in terms of inspection, rhetoric, and signed documentation, there have been sparks of hope for lasting denuclearization during brief moments in the non-proliferation history. But the process has been complicated by a host of internal and external political factors and environmental dynamics, sometimes unrelated to the nuclear proliferation issue.
Lesson number one is that the external environment is an extremely important factor for discussing nuclear non-proliferation in the case of North Korea, i.e., the external political dynamics of Northeast Asia must be conducive for serious talks on North Korea, and the current round of the North Korean crisis is one such moment as all stakeholders are frantically asking for peace and war avoidance. Beijing and Moscow have asked for calm and cool headedness while the US and its allies are self-restrained and at this stage are giving priority to diplomacy.
Historically, North Korea acceded to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985 and almost pulled out of it in 1993 but stayed on until 2003. In the initial stage of the non-proliferation treaty, North Korea wanted to pull out as it had been asked by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to let its inspectors into its nuclear waste disposal areas and this sparked off disagreements. But a year later, in 1994, following fervent diplomacy, a treaty was inked between North Korea and the US to take apart North Korea’s graphite rod nuclear reactors in exchange for international help in the construction of light water reactors.
In 2003, North Korea pulled out of the NPT and restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and announced to the world that it had constructed nuclear weapons and started a missile program. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the other stakeholders and dashed the hopes for a lasting solution.
In 2006, North Korea’s long-distance ballistic missile tests began and this was capped off with its first recorded atomic weapon test, prompting the international community to respond with economic sanctions designed to punish Pyongyang. In 2007, North Korea approved the shutdown of its nuclear reactor to obtain international aid. The six-party talks began to discuss an agreement that would see the complete removal of nuclear facilities but Pyongyang missed the prescribed deadline. Yet patience persisted. In 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower unit in the Yongbyon facility. The smell of peace was pervasive in the air and an air of positivity existed that pointed towards the possible resolution of the Korean Peninsula nuclearization problem. In that year, North Korea was also taken out from the US watch list of terrorism sponsors.
Korea is believed to have sizable reserves of uranium in its geological makeup
and the international political climate remains tense in the latest standoff.
North Korea is believed to have sizable reserves of uranium in its geological makeup and the international political climate remains tense in the latest standoff.
But a trust-deficit and lingering suspicions bedeviled the deals. Both sides were suspicious of each other’s intents. Some parties were keen to look at ambiguous sites. But North Korea refused to allow unrestricted access to its nuclear facilities. 2009 witnessed another round of North Korean nuclear tests. In 2010, North Korea inaugurated a uranium processing facility whose symbolism was ambiguous and resulted in different interpretations by North Korea and its adversaries. By then, the hopeful denuclearization process had fizzled out. Another chance came in 2012. This was a time when North Korea was facing food shortages. Its government declared freezing its long-distance missile tests and nuclear weapons development in exchange for food from the West, including the US. But a sudden missile test by Pyongyang scuttled the moratorium deal and the denuclearization process went back to square one. North Korea restarted its facilities in the following years and the denuclearization process broke down completely.
In 2013, Pyongyang declared its intention to continue with nuclear and long-distance ballistic missile testing. With the death of Kim Jong Il, the new leader Kim Jong Un seemed to place accelerating North Korea’s nuclear weaponization program as one of the country’s top priorities. In 2013, the first nuclear test under the Kim Jong Un regime took place. In the following year, South and North Korea exchanged artillery fire. Tensions rose. In 2015, North Korean intentions to miniaturize nuclear warheads to be fitted onto missiles was publicly made known. It made further progress in 2016 when it tested a suspected hybridized hydrogen bomb. The power of the tested bomb was 10 kilotons.
Currently, many experts believe that Pyongyang does not have miniaturization capabilities and that its hydrogen bomb has not been perfected as yet. But the progress and advancements made by North Korea provided insights and revelations for the international non-proliferation community. From then on, the global community’s major nuclear questions related to North Korea have been: Can Pyongyang miniaturize nuclear warheads for missiles? Do they have unambiguous hydrogen bomb capabilities? How close are the North Koreans to a functioning inter-continental ballistic missile? (Its intention to test a potential ICBM was made known in 2017.)
By the time of the current Korean Peninsula crisis, the US and its allies are fully prepared for the eventuality of escalation. The USS Carl Vinson supercarrier strike group engaged in exercises with Australia and sailed to the Sunda Straits before steaming towards the Korean Peninsula and meeting up with Japanese destroyers. US destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles are stationed off the Korean Peninsula. The US gave a preview of its major strike capabilities in Syria and Afghanistan with 59 Tomahawks lobbed at a Syrian airfield and a conventional Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) (said by some sources to be 11 kilotons) dropped on Afghanistan.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) is deployed in South Korea, and the sea-based Aegis system are mobilized in Japan and South Korea. Japan talked of preparing to evacuate 60,000 of its citizens from Seoul while preparing for the possibility of chemical weapons warfare (potential sarin tipped nuclear warheads). Beijing reportedly moved 150,000 troops to the border with North Korea and put its high-altitude bombers (H6 long-distance bombers) on high alert while cancelling Air China flights to Pyongyang (all of which were denied by Beijing and explained with reasons).
Taking into consideration brief moments of hopeful peace through negotiations in the past, North Korea’s disarmament history is not as complete or comprehensive as it should be. With the current crisis in the Korean Peninsula, there is a chance for peace and a return to the earlier state of functionalist constructivist cooperation if all stakeholders show the political will to do so. It will be complicated given the fact that North Korea is believed to have sizable reserves of uranium in its geological makeup and the international political climate remains tense in the latest standoff.