Pyongyang’s strategy, nuclear diplomacy and international environment

By Maimuna Ashraf

International environment has witnessed fundamental transformation since the ratification of NPT in 1970s, because in the transformed multipolar global dynamic, with different nuclear stand offs, varying alliances and extended nuclear assurances, the application of the NPT is challenged by relevance and obsolescence. The discriminatory approach by NPT signatory states, in pursuit of their geostrategic/economic agendas is undermining the moral and legal authority of the NPT. Non Proliferation Regime (NPR) has to be reformed in order to cope with the current realities and enhanced challenges.  The efficacy and success of the NPT as a centerpiece of the international nuclear order had been raging for a decade, the clandestine development of nuclear weapons and enrichment program by NPT signatory states i.e. North Korea, Libya, Iran and the dilemma created by North Korean withdrawal from the treaty, posed a serious challenge to the non-proliferation regime.  Whereas, almost 40 countries are now believed to have the capability to make nuclear weapons or have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle.

Since the start of 2016 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been working towards further advancement of its nuclear and missile programs. The significant developments include DPRK’s claims to have successfully conducted the fifth largest nuclear weapon test, a Hydrogen bomb test, a successful satellite launch, formation of a new military unit KN-08 brigade to deploy ICMBs, and test-firing of a new anti-tank guided weapon. The international community has widely condemned all these developments. However, Pyongyang seems determined to keep enhancing its nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang’s nuclear technological advancements have remained a source of concern at the international and regional level. After DPRK tested its fourth nuclear device on January 6, 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed the toughest resolution UNSCR 2270 against the DPRK to date, in order to curb the advancement in its nuclear and missile domain.

North Korea plans to carry out more tests as it passes through a developing phase of its nuclear weapons development program, not much is known about North Korea’s nuclear strategy and its implications. The ambiguity rules and plays an important role in its nuclear weapons program. In the absence of North Korea’s policy document and institutionalization of its nuclear policy, it is not obvious what nuclear strategy North Korea would choose and why. Therefore, one can assume provisional interpretations about the embryonic nuclear strategy of North Korea.

If North Korea maintain the modest number, confines the nuclear weapons tests, appears defensive and restrains from using its deterrent forces, then this could have some positive implications on deterrence stability in the Korean Peninsula. Conversely, if North Korea, increases its deterrent forces, miniaturizes nuclear weapons, develops sophisticated delivery systems, acquires an assured second-strike capability and acts more offensive, then this may have greater security implications for the region. Apparently North Korea might move from the necessary constraints of minimum deterrence, which in turn would have awful security implications for the Korean Peninsula. This would put strategic pressures on South Korea and Japan regarding their legitimate security interests in the region.

DPRK says that it decided to withdraw from NPT in 1993 as it was facing issues regarding country’s defense and its sovereignty. However, US rather than addressing North Korea’s concerns, responded by imposing UN resolutions that called for full economic sanctions. Later, the talks were held between Kim II-Sung and Jimmy Carter without reaching any agreeable decision and both remained stuck to their respective stance. DPRK was dealing with US and IAEA, but policies towards DPRK remained unchanged which only moved from bad to worse. The North Korean perspective is that it had no option but to quit from NPT. The main substance of Six Party Talks is the denuclearization of Korean Peninsula. North Korea was wholeheartedly participating in it since long but finally it came to the conclusion that the main proposal of Six Party Talks is not really aimed at the denuclearization of Korean Peninsula or to maintain peace and security in this peninsula, instead it was aimed at disarming DPRK only. Pyongyang states that for as long US refuses to withdraw its army from South Korea, disapproves of converting Armistice Agreement into Peace Agreement, continues to provide nuclear protection umbrella to South Korea, does not give up its hostile policies that include the policy to topple the DPRK government and does not change its mind, DPRK will continue developing its nuclear program. North Korea asserts, it is developing all missiles under its nuclear program, it is for deterrence purposes only and North Korea will continue to develop these capabilities until it balances the security structure in the Korean peninsula.

Arguably, the contemporary international non-proliferation regime is in disorder, not due to North Korea, neither due to pre-Joint Comprehensive Action Plan Iran, but because of its inherent structural contradictions and operational flaws. There is a need for bold course of action; otherwise future of non-proliferation is likely to remain bleak. The promises enshrined in the NPT for NNWS have often been flouted by NWS. It is indeed trying to impose a technical solution to political problems. This approach of exclusives is rendering the NPT as a relic. North Korean nuclear advancements pose a serious challenge to the global non-proliferation regime and isolating North Korea has proved to be counter-productive. However ideal solution would be to resolve the issues with a balanced approach having sanctions and diplomatic engagement simultaneously.

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Maimuna Ashraf

Maimuna Ashraf works as a Senior Research Associate for an Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute. She works on issues related to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and South Asian nuclear equation. She writes for South Asian Voices, international blogs and national dailies.

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