The long-anticipated tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (RevCon), which began only two days ago, on 1 August, comes at a time of precarity within the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Opening the Conference, US President Joe Biden emphasised how a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, calling for “substantive engagement on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation.” Yet, questions of a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remain unanswered, as the five-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from the deal approaches next year, and US-Iranian dialogue has hitherto not borne fruit. Moreover, only sixty-six states are party the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, established in 2017, the latest being Malawi, which ratified the Treaty in June 2022. Neither the five legal nuclear weapons states nor their allies show much compulsion to join the world’s first binding agreement urging the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.
Cleavages in the global nuclear order seem to be exacerbating, in no small part due to North Korea’s actions. The tenth RevCon comes at a far from jubilant moment. The last two such occasions, in 2010 and 2015, left a sour legacy, reinforcing the non-proliferation regime’s inability to reach any consensus on addressing the growing threats posed by horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation. Although Pyongyang infamously expressed dissatisfaction at the indefinite renewal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty at the RevCon in 1995, it has successfully exploited the fragilities in the global nuclear order in the early 21st century, to continue its nuclear development unconstrained by the non-proliferation regime.
Will August’s RevCon have any real impact on a state from whom nuclear weapons are not just dreams but visible realities? Despite RevCon’s seeming obsession with denuclearisation, is denuclearisation really feasible with respect to North Korea? Alternatively, should the international community move to an approach of “threat reduction”, amidst given growing rumours of possible nuclearisation of South Korea and Japan? This year’s NATO Strategic Concept explicitly mentioned North Korea by name, deeming its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes a “threat to our security”. Yet, if Pyongyang will never “barter the security and dignity of the state…for anything else”, as Kim Jong Un mentioned in December 2019, should the international community aim for a more concerted approach towards smaller steps to reducing the North Korean nuclear threat?
North Korea’s opposition to the global nuclear order
Previous RevCons have been notorious for raising hopes that are then quickly dashed. Each time, NPT signatories have failed to reach an actionable and consensual plan towards addressing threats to the global nuclear order. Each time, North Korea has emerged victorious, with a strengthened self-belief as a state that had nuclearised having withdrawn – even if under questionable terms – from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. In March 2005, two months before that year’s Review Conference, the DPRK’s Foreign Ministry announced, for the first time, that North Korea was a “full-fledged nuclear state”, an announcement that would seem dubious after the low yield of its first nuclear test on 9 October the following year. Nevertheless, since that first nuclear test, the story is well-known: not even a pandemic could stop Pyongyang from expanding the sophistication and range of its nuclear and missile capabilities. In 2018, Kim Jong Un’s claim that the DPRK no longer needed to test nuclear or long-range missiles, having reached the status of a “full-fledged nuclear state”, was one that the regime could assert with greater confidence than in 2005. This year, on 24 March, the self-imposed moratorium of 2018 would be broken, as the North launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017, albeit not the Hwasong-17 ICBM that the regime initially announced.
This year’s RevCon comes at a time of precarity in the Northeast Asian region. Former UK National Security Adviser, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, recently warned of a “dangerous new age of proliferation” spearheaded by China’s expanding conventional, missile, and nuclear capabilities, and as North Korea’s intention on gaining international recognition as a de facto nuclear state heightens. Marking the 69th anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire, Kim Jong Un warned how the strengthening of the US-ROK alliance is raising tensions on the Peninsula to “the brink of war”. In response to the pledge by Washington and Seoul, in May, to upgrade US-ROK ties to a “comprehensive strategic alliance”, Kim underscored the North’s readiness to face any “confrontation” with the US, and threatened how South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, and his “military gangsters” would be “wiped out” if any confrontation occurred.
Moving beyond denuclearisation
In May 2017, a preparatory committee for the 2020 RevCon, including the United States, South Korea, and Japan – but unsurprisingly, not China – endorsed a statement condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development, urging the DPRK to “return to the [Non-Proliferation] Treaty and the International Atomic Energy safeguards at an early date and abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” Those were the days of the early Trump administration, whose emphasis on complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) would continue even amidst the unsuccessful leader-to-leader summitry with Kim Jong Un in 2018 and 2019. Central to these summits’ lack of success was how denuclearisation was a starting point for discussion, immediately lowering the North’s incentive to offer any nuclear concessions, however paltry.
A nuclear North Korea is now little short of a fait accompli for the international community. Given this pessimistic possibility, would a more feasible approach be one of threat reduction? Threat reduction involves avoiding further expansion in the range and sophistication of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities; limiting Pyongyang’s existing arsenal; and rebuilding trust. Could the opening of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang offer one possible solution? Whilst this strategy tried and failed – owing to North Korea’s obstruction of talks – in the 1990s, North Korea in 2022 is not the same as thirty years ago. An additional, longer-term aim of threat reduction could involve North Korea abandoning its nuclear aspirations in favour of a latent nuclear capability, akin to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Yet threat reduction, whereby denuclearisation is no longer a starting point, also carries risks: first, the North Korean regime has – ever since first nuclear crisis of the 1990s, if not beforehand – defined its capabilities as a warranted response to what it perceives as a seemingly never-ending “hostile policy” emanating from the United States and its allies. Secondly, in response to an overt declaration of “threat reduction” compared to “denuclearisation”, North Korea may, in fact, markedly accelerate its nuclear development. Questions of South Korea developing an independent nuclear deterrent, even if in violation of its own NPT obligations, are thus raised.
In 1999, the conclusion of the Perry Review, a review of US policy towards North Korea conducted by former US Secretary of Defence, William Perry, poignantly stated how the world should deal with North Korea “as it is, not how we want it to be.” As the likelihood of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea only increases, it is time for the nuclear non-proliferation regime to rethink how it deals with its once-former member.