NPT’s Failure, Our Failure With NK

The threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has worked between the superpowers and kept peace throughout the Cold War. But whether it happens or not, nuclear weapons still pose a risk to human civilization. Analysts suggest that it was a miracle we avoided an accidental nuclear holocaust. Thus, it is in our interest to promote the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty).

The NPT has done much to reduce the number of nuclear bombs in the world. Unfortunately, the NPT is likely to be faulty and unlikely to fully succeed in its present format.

First, the NPT calls on existing nuclear powers to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons but that is not happening. They have reduced their stockpiles in terms of absolute numbers but in the last ten years, they have been renovating their nuclear stockpiles at a rapid pace.

Second, the superpowers continue to engage in the nuclear arms race. The US withdrawal from the ABMT (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) means that the Chinese and Russians have to develop even more sophisticated nuclear missiles to overcome advances such as THAAD. The US even just announced the development of a high speed, low flying, and stealthy nuclear cruise missile.

Third, the NPT does not bar nuclear powers from intervening militarily in non-nuclear states that often face significant disadvantages in conventional arms and lack the nukes to fall back on. This asymmetry is a strong motivation to pursue WMDs including nuclear weapons.

Fourth, the biggest reason the NPT has failed and will continue to fail is that it does not offer a sufficient international peace regime that makes nuclear weapons irrelevant. This is precisely the reason we have failed to denuclearize North Korea.

In the ongoing war of words, we call North Korea an irrational rogue state that lusts for war and destruction. We talk as if a nuclear attack is imminent or as soon as they perfect the ICBM. Ironically, we ask the North Koreans to make the rational choice and accept denuclearization. We do this without offering any replacement for the security blanket it represents. We then stack on one sanction after another, which increases their poverty and their reliance on their nuclear card.

What we don’t offer is anything to address the underlying motivation for the North Korean nukes. North Korea and South Korea remain regimes in contest. The Armistice has not been replaced with a Peace Treaty. North Korean conventional forces are far inferior to the US-ROK Alliance. In short, we call on North Korea to denuclearize without offering sufficient peace that will make nukes irrelevant.

But perpetual war incurs exorbitant costs and risks. North Korea justifies their nuclear and missile tests as deterrence. They have given up nukes before as well as proposed a peace treaty. They could do both again. The problem has been that despite numerous joint statements, communiques, and overtures for peace, thus far, a robust peace regime has failed to materialize.

And given the case of Libya and Iraq, North Korea knows they cannot trust any document on paper, even if the US agreed to remove troops from South Korea. No, the US could just as well use our bases in Japan, Guam, and other areas to stage an attack on North Korea or worse, though unlikely, use our own ICBMs.

What may work to make peace and disarmament work, however, is a Comprehensive Peace Regime. One way to do that may be to back it up with a Peace Treaty backed by a UN Resolution committing member countries, specifically the UNSC, to militarily guarantee the territorial integrity of both ROK and DPRK from all external military attacks.

One caution may be the possibility of internal strife killing many civilians, so military intervention may be permitted in cases where the UNSC objectively finds that mass killings are taking place above a certain threshold. The intervention would also need to be ratified by the rest of the UN body.

Anyway, such a Peace Regime combined with mutual recognition, neutrality, and a gradual unification process could finally bring denuclearization, peace, and unification to the Korean Peninsula – call it a Comprehensive Peace Regime. It could additionally become the template for reforming the NPT and help further advance world peace.

This article was first published on June 15, 2017, in Korea Times.

Photo credit: KCNA via Reuters/AFP.