North Korea[1]

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At an early stage of the discussions that ultimately led to the TPNW, only one nuclear-armed country voted in favor: North Korea.[2] That was shortly before President Trump threatened them with “fire and fury.”

Kim Jong-un became “supreme leader” of North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. He rules a very secretive state, and is considered by many in the West to be the most dangerous man in the world who has his finger on the nuclear button.[3]

The contrast between North and South Korea, in terms of economic development and prosperity, could not be greater. South Korea is a very advanced, highly industrialized and thriving “Asian Tiger,” trading with the rest of the world and closely tied to Japan, Australia, the USA and even China. North Korea, on the other hand, is poor, isolated, technologically less developed, and authoritarian.

During the 1990s, North Korea went through some very difficult times, including a famine that killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of its people. Floods and drought knocked out 85 per cent of its electricity generation, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union around that time, North Korea was left with China as its only ally and benefactor. Today, even China is tiring of the situation in North Korea, as UN sanctions bite even further into an already bleak and desperate situation there.

Kim Jong-un has one overriding priority, and that is the survival of his country.[4] Shortly after 9/11, George W. Bush labelled Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil,” and later added Cuba, Libya and Syria to that list. Within a few years, Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was dead and his country in ruins. The same fate befell Libya and Colonel Gaddafi. The US tried unsuccessfully to topple Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Syria itself remains in a desperate state. Iran is certainly very high on the US hit-list, and to a lesser extent so is Cuba. That’s five out of the six. Is it surprising that North Korea might feel somewhat threatened by the United States?

Many Western diplomats and commentators claim that Kim Jong-un is acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in order to be able to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States. These people argue that it is only a matter of time until he achieves this capability. They say he must be stopped before he does.

Given all the credit that the US and other countries continually give to “deterrence,” it would be surprising for Kim Jong-un not to believe the same – that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is, in fact, successfully “deterring” a possible US attack.

But if Kim Jong-un were to believe that a pre-emptive US strike on his country was imminent, he might well decide to launch whatever nuclear weapons he has before he loses them. And if the US military were to believe that Kim Jong-un was about to launch his nuclear weapons at the US, they might well launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea to try to prevent that from happening. This is the most dangerous aspect of the nuclear deterrence game, because intercontinental ballistic missiles take only a few minutes from launch to impact. They cannot be recalled once they are launched. And there is precious little time for double-checking whether an attack is really happening or not.

There is every reason, as with China, to think that North Korea would respond favorably to the US signing the TPNW. But for North Korea to reciprocate would require further confidence-building measures, since the US has already bombed that country to smithereens once, and could easily do so again, with purely conventional weapons.

We can see why North Korea fears for its existence. At one point, the US had over 1,000 nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea. These were all removed by 1991, but US continues to conduct massive war games with South Korea and US nuclear missile submarines still patrol the waters around North Korea. Any agreement to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons would have to include making the whole of the Korean peninsula nuclear-free, and also the waters east and west of it (the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan).

That might go a long way toward convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. But what’s most important, since the Korean War still technically continues to this day, would be a peace treaty officially ending the war and providing security guarantees against any future hostilities. Then, it’s up to the people of both Koreas to decide about opening borders or even reuniting their country as one.

[1] This section taken from Wallis, T., Disarming the Nuclear Argument, chapter 7, p.83.

[2] See ICAN. (n.d.-e). North Korea.

[3] He is now perhaps being superseded in this role by the Mullahs of Iran, however there are no “safe hands” for unsafe weapons.

[4] Some say his only priority is his own survival or that of his family, or of the regime. But neither he nor his regime can survive if his country does not.