North Korea’s Nuclear Test

South Korean Television covers the North Korean Nuclear Test

South Korean Television covers the North Korean Nuclear Test

On Monday North Korea tested a nuclear device, prompting sharp criticism from the Obama administration and provoking renewed discussions of expanded sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The Central Intelligence Agency reported that Monday’s test was more powerful than previous nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean government in 2006 and 2009.

The test, conducted in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, led North Korea’s closest ally, the People’s Republic of China, to summon the North Korean ambassador in protest. The North Korean government defended its action as an act of self-defense necessitated by “U.S. hostility,” and promised to continue its efforts if necessary. According to the United States and its allies, North Korea is operating in violation of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

What does the NPT actually do? The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty spells out the obligations of signatory states under three separate areas. First, non-nuclear weapons states agree not to pursue the development or deployment of nuclear weapons. Second, recognized nuclear weapons states (under the NPT, these are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who coincidently are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) agree to undertake efforts towards total nuclear disarmament. Finally, the right of all states to the peaceful use of nuclear power is guaranteed.  However, there are several nuclear weapons states which are not party to the treaty. India, Israel, and Pakistan—all of which are believed to possess nuclear weapons—are non-signatories and thus fall outside the obligations of the treaty. North Korea was a signatory but formally withdrew from the agreement in 2003. Iran remains a signatory to the treaty but is believed to be developing nuclear weapons in violation of its treaty obligations. South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s but decommissioned its nuclear stockpiles in the early 1990s, making it the only state ever to voluntarily decommission an existing nuclear weapons capability.

So is North Korea in violation of its obligations? The answer depends on who you ask. The United States’ position (generally supported by the international community) is that North Korea’s nuclear program violations its international obligations. North Korea, however, regularly asserts that it withdrew from the NPT and can therefore pursue a nuclear program in its self-defense.

This, of course, raises the broader question about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons as a deterrence. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction, popularized during the Cold War, suggests that the threat of total destruction associated with the use of nuclear weapons by two nuclear weapons powers renders the use of those weapons unfeasible, as no winning strategy could result. The use of nuclear weapons is essentially self-defeating. But the threat posed by possessing nuclear weapons—indeed, the prestige of nuclear weapons—is a powerful motivator for states to pursue such weapons, often even in the face of high social and political costs, as the cases of Iran and North Korea attest.

What do you think? Does North Korea’s nuclear program present a threat to the United States? Is North Korean nuclear policy best explained as a rational pursuit of the national interest? And how does international law help us understand the debate surrounding the North Korean nuclear program? Take the poll or leave a comment and let us know what you think.


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