In September 2016 North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, its biggest to date. Its neighbours South Korea and Japan were furious, and called for a strong response from the West. The UN Security Council passed a resolution strengthening sanctions and expressing the ‘gravest concern’ at the violation by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of no fewer than six previous resolutions. The US announced new joint naval manoeuvres with South Korea. In retaliation, North Korea tested a missile which, it claimed, could deliver a nuclear warhead to the West Coast of the US. On 30 November the Security Council approved a new resolution, imposing still more sanctions.
This sequence – tests followed by sanctions followed by more tests then yet more sanctions – has been going on for decades. Yet there is no complacency about the importance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Barack Obama is said to have told Donald Trump at their post-election meeting that North Korea is the biggest foreign threat the US faces, and it has been reported that it plans to launch another long-range missile soon after Trump’s inauguration. The need for a change of tack should be clear. James Clapper, Obama’s director of National Intelligence, has admitted that Washington’s goal of pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear programme is ‘probably a lost cause’, and that ‘significant inducements’ will be required to deal with the problem. Might Trump be able to find a new direction, in contrast with Obama and, the record suggests, with the road Hillary Clinton would likely have pursued?
Ten years ago, when Iran was the focus of the big powers’ nuclear concerns, I suggested that a deal might be possible whereby ‘Iran would be allowed limited enrichment rights (say, up to 5 per cent enrichment), together with security guarantees and technical help.’Five per cent is a level of enrichment sufficient for the manufacture of reactor fuel but not weapons. My view wasn’t shared by the US and the EU, which called on Iran to stop uranium enrichment altogether, or the UN Security Council, which imposed a series of sanctions. Both the Bush administration and Israel made clear that they hadn’t ruled out taking military action to disable Iran’s nuclear programme.
But there were other voices. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, a former head of policy planning at the US State Department, outlined a compromise that would limit but not end Iran’s ability to enrich uranium: it would be allowed to continue enriching uranium for use in civil nuclear reactors to produce electricity or medical isotopes, but not in nuclear weapons. (Iran had said on many occasions that it didn’t want to build nuclear weapons, but did wish to exercise its right to enrich uranium and to have that right recognised by the international community.) A deal along those lines has since been made. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was agreed in Vienna on 14 July 2015. Its chief measures meet the principal objectives of both sides. Iran’s right to continue enriching uranium is recognised. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have access to the country’s nuclear facilities and will continuously monitor them to see that the limits on enrichment are not exceeded.
This is a much healthier state of affairs than the current impasse with Pyongyang. North Korea has been in the nuclear business for a long time. In the 1960s it began to build a reactor at Yongbyon, having taken advantage of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, under which details of nuclear reactors were declassified, to copy the British Magnox reactor design used at Calder Hall in Cumbria. The public perception of Calder Hall was that it was a civil reactor used to generate electricity. In fact it was designed to produce plutonium for Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. North Korea intended Yongbyon to produce plutonium for the same purpose.
Decades later, in 2006, North Korea began testing nuclear weapons. In January last year it announced that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. The five weapon states recognised by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (which also happen to be the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) all have hydrogen bombs with explosive yields in the megaton range (a megaton is equivalent to a million tons of TNT). The yields of North Korea’s recent tests have been much smaller, about twenty kilotons (a thousand kilotons are equal to one megaton). It is unlikely that North Korea’s hydrogen bomb was of a design similar to that of the bombs possessed by the weapon states. What it probably did was ‘boost’ the yield of the nuclear bomb by adding the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to the plutonium in the core of the weapon. This allows more compact weapons to be built for a given yield, making it easier to develop ballistic missiles to deliver them. North Korea has been developing the means to deliver a potential weapon since the 1980s. Its first ballistic missile was the short-range Hwasong, based on the Soviet Scud missile, which it sold to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1990s it built the intermediate-range Nodong, with a range of about a thousand kilometres. In 2012 it put a satellite into orbit. Last year it carried out a flurry of missile launches, including one from a submarine, most of which were successful. According to Gary Samore, the White House’s chief nuclear negotiator during Obama’s first term, North Korea is technologically more advanced than Iran.
North Korea has taken note of what happened to Iraq and Libya after they renounced nuclear weapons: the US took military action against both, and both countries’ leaders were killed amid violence and chaos. Pyongyang believes the possession of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them essential for the preservation of its power, as an ‘existential capability’, as Samore puts it. ‘It is the only way the regime can survive against outside pressure.’
Bill Clinton nearly pulled off a deal with North Korea at the end of his time in government. He was set to go to Pyongyang in December 2000 to sign a bilateral deal known as the Agreed Framework, but problems with the Israel-Palestine negotiations kept him in Washington. The chief element of the deal was a pledge that each side would have ‘no hostile intent’ against the other; it was, in other words, a non-aggression pact. North Korea would have signed the NPT as a non-weapon state and been subject to IAEA inspections; in return, the US, Japan and South Korea would have given North Korea economic assistance.
Once in power, George W. Bush ditched the Agreed Framework, but took up the diplomatic route again in 2003 when the Six-Party Talks began between North and South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan. The goal was essentially the same: North Korea would be given economic assistance in return for an undertaking not to pursue nuclear weapons; it would join the NPT, and the Yongbyon plutonium-producing reactor and fuel assembly plant would be decommissioned. Inspectors from the IAEA and US visited Yongbyon, and in July 2007 the IAEA confirmed that the reactor had been shut down and sealed. Then the two sides began to find fault with each other. North Korea balked at the unending requests for information about the history of its nuclear programme – it had already supplied 18,000 pages of documents. The US was aghast when it emerged that North Korea had been pursuing an undeclared uranium enrichment programme. (It had also secretly supplied a nuclear reactor to Syria based on Yongbyon; Israel discovered it and bombed it while it was still under construction.)
It is now too late to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it should be possible to negotiate an agreement that minimises the risk of its using them – that was the aim of the various negotiations on arms control between the US and the USSR throughout the forty years of the Cold War. North Korea’s principal goals are, first, recognition of its status as a weapons power and, second, a ‘no hostile intent’ pledge of the sort Bill Clinton would have made in the Agreed Framework. For the US and its allies, the goals would be to persuade North Korea to cease testing nuclear weapons within a fixed time frame, to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and to give notice of missile launches.
Some of this – the diplomatic recognition of North Korea by the US, the statement of ‘no hostile intent’ – should be relatively easy to achieve. A hotline should be set up between the US and Pyongyang (in addition to the existing line between North and South Korea), and a new forum established, bringing the five weapons powers together with India, Pakistan and North Korea, to agree on ways to avoid accidental nuclear war and to increase the security of existing nuclear weapons. Confidence-building measures should be put in place: the parties should agree to give warning of nuclear tests and missile launches, and to invite representatives of other states to observe launches. In return, economic support for North Korea could be discussed bilaterally with South Korea, regionally with South Korea, Japan and China, or in new six-party talks. There could be discussion of an agreement to phase out UN and EU sanctions, step up trade relations, and to supply North Korea with energy (the Agreed Framework made provision for a nuclear power station along with shipments of heavy fuel oil).
Many arms control experts will be unhappy with these proposals because they recognise that there are in fact eight states which have successfully tested nuclear weapons, and nine, with the inclusion of Israel, that possess deliverable nuclear weapons. Doesn’t that signify the end of the NPT? The NPT forbids non-weapon states from acquiring nuclear weapons: it does not prevent the five weapon-state parties from modernising their weapons or increasing the numbers and yields of those weapons. It is neither a disarmament treaty nor an arms control treaty. France under De Gaulle always understood that. In 1967, when the draft non-proliferation treaty was agreed between the US and USSR, the French foreign minister, Maurice Couve de Murville, explained that Paris would not take part because France
considers that the draft treaty, as it currently stands, settles nothing. It does not represent any progress towards disarmament. It sanctions the supremacy of some countries over the rest of the non-nuclear nations … We think that we should not, by taking paths of this kind, lead the world [to] believe there is disarmament where, in fact, there is only a strengthening of the monopolies of the great powers.
The primary purpose of the NPT was to allow the widespread use of nuclear reactors to produce electricity and isotopes for medical and industrial use, while preventing non-weapon states using them to help develop weapons. It has in general succeeded. Since 1970, when the NPT came into force, there have been no instances in which irradiated fuel from an IAEA-safeguarded reactor has been diverted to weapons use. The NPT regime will continue under the supervision of the IAEA whether or not another state is added to the group of nine already in possession of nuclear weapons. As long as Iran has safeguarded its reactors it will not be developing weapons using those reactors. The same is true of Kazakhstan or Turkey.
Once they had developed hydrogen bombs, France and China eventually joined the NPT as weapon states. The NPT confers obligations on weapon-state parties: not to give nuclear weapons to other states, and to continue negotiations towards the goal of nuclear disarmament. But the weapon states haven’t engaged in meaningful negotiations on nuclear disarmament or arms control for many years. Each of the five is engaged in modernising its nuclear forces. For the US or UK to call for North Korea or India or Pakistan to give up its nuclear weapons is hypocritical. In any case, as Kenneth Waltz asked in a well-known paper from 1981, who’s to say that a nuclear-free world would necessarily be more stable than a world with one nuclear power? Or that a world with one nuclear power is more stable than one with two, or a world with two more stable than a world with many? Couve de Murville believed that a world in which nuclear weapons were a necessary component of statehood would be one in which they would probably be used. But a nuclear-free world might be unstable too if it were thought that a particular state was secretly building a weapon. And a world with just one weapon state could be especially dangerous, since the military in that state would bring pressure on civilian leaders to take advantage of their monopoly – as the US military did until the USSR acquired the Bomb in 1949. A world in which nuclear-armed states can be paired off may well be more stable than one in which they can’t. India and Pakistan engaged in four full-scale wars between 1947 and 1999. Since 1999 both countries have acquired nuclear arsenals and have managed to avoid war.
After the breakdown of the Six-Party Talks, the understanding took hold that it was impossible to deal with the North Koreans. But the country now has a new young leader, Kim Jong-Un, who, although he has continued his family’s harsh autocratic rule at home, does at least know something of the outside world. He went to school in Switzerland, is a basketball fan and reportedly drinks good wine and Scotch whisky. The Washington Times reported before the US election that ‘an official North Korean state media outlet’ had endorsed Trump, calling him a ‘wise politician’ who will take a ‘hands-off approach to North-South Korean relations’. Trump has said ‘I would speak to [Kim], I would have no problem speaking to him,’ and that he would press China, Pyongyang’s only major diplomatic and economic supporter, to help find a solution. By contrast, the Obama administration often put pressure on Beijing, but the intention was to implement sanctions on North Korea, not to look for a way out of the problem.
To prepare the ground for negotiations the Trump administration could follow the lead of two previous Republican presidents. In September 1959 Eisenhower asked Khrushchev to visit: the first time a Soviet leader had been invited to the US. Khrushchev and his wife travelled around the US, stopping off in Hollywood, where they met Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra. In 1971, under Nixon, the thaw in relations between the US and China began with the visit to China of the US table tennis team; Nixon followed soon after. In 2013 Kim Jong-Un invited the basketball star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang; reciprocal visits by NBA teams to Pyongyang and the North Korean national team to the US may help. The all-female Moranbong Band, whose members were reportedly handpicked by the North Korean leader himself, could be invited to the US. Eventually, an invitation might be extended to Kim himself. Khrushchev was annoyed at not being allowed to visit Disneyland (he was told the crowds posed a security hazard). Kim’s brother once went to Japan in order to see Disneyland Tokyo, but was deported before he could get there. It’s possible that arranging a visit for Kim could help provide a basis for progress even in the most difficult negotiations.