Since their emergence in the 1940s, nuclear weapons have remained a crucial factor in international relations. With the end of the Cold War, the nations of the world began avoiding large-scale conflicts that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. However, not all countries have been adhering to the regime of nuclear non-proliferation. In 1990, the US Department of Defense confirmed via satellite images that North Korea had constructed a nuclear reactor (Davenport 2020). Attempts to stop North Korea’s nuclear problem yielded temporary results at best. Nuclear weapons at the disposal of a rogue state pose a significant threat to international security, which necessitates careful attention to the issue. Analysis suggests that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons because of the resulting threats to regional stability, aggressive policies that provoke a new arms race, and the potential crisis of nuclear non-proliferation.
Destabilization of the Korean Peninsula
One reason why the international community should prevent North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power is the fact that it challenges regional security in the Korean peninsula. Liberalism theory seeks security through peaceful cooperation between stable democratic regimes, and a warmongering rogue state poses an immediate threat from this perspective. The security landscape in Korean Peninsula is already complex because it has immediate relevance for the national security of the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia, with the latter two being authoritarian regimes not always inclined to cooperate (Choi 2015). Coupled with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the peninsula potentially becomes one of the hottest points in the contemporary international landscape. It explains why the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as liberal democracies, united their efforts to counter North Korea’s nuclear program (Japan Times 2021a). These efforts indicate a concern about the potentially dreadful consequences of North Korean nuclear armament (Bennett et al. 2021). Given the importance of the region to multiple crucial players in international relations, this position seems entirely justified.
Apart from the immediate security challenges, North Korea’s nuclear program raises concerns about the possibility of further uncontrollable spread of nuclear weapons. On the one hand, since the international community has little control over the country’s nuclear research, there is no accounting for who could acquire nuclear technologies from North Korea. Moreover, a sudden collapse of the regime is not out of the question either. If it occurs, it may leave the fruits of its newly-developed nuclear technology ripe for the taking by non-state actors, including international terrorists (Gentile et al. 2019). Generally speaking, the management of nuclear weapons in the wake of regime collapse tends to pose formidable challenges. For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the status of nuclear weapons left within one of its successor states, Ukraine, required years of great power negotiations in 1991-1994 (Yost 2015). Given the aforementioned strategic importance of the Korean peninsula, designing a mutually acceptable joint great power response to the potential collapse of North Korea may present an even more daunting task.
Finally, the underlying problem with North Korea’s nuclear program is the lack of trust in the Pyongyang regime. The North Korean government does not have the best history in terms of upholding its international obligations, which leads to legitimate doubts about its ability and willingness to adhere to them. To illustrate, North Korea made bargains to stop its nuclear weapons program with both Soviet Union in 1984 and the United States in 1994 – only to break both (Lee and Nacht 2020). Pyongyang is also infamously secretive about its political priorities and the preferable ways of achieving those, meaning that other states can rarely, if ever, be sure of North Korea’s intentions (Chung 2016). Considering both these factors, the threat to the stability in the Korean peninsula posed by North Korea’s nuclear armament becomes even more acute. Even if North Korea genuinely does not intend to use its nuclear weapons and proclaims it openly, other states with a stake in the region would have a hard time believing it. Thus, the North Korean nuclear program inevitably destabilizes the Korean peninsula, which is why the international community should take measures against it.
Arms Race in Northeast Asia and Beyond
As mentioned above, the Korean peninsula is immensely strategically important for several key players in international relations, including the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. After the end of the Second World War, the international community made significant progress in its attempts to prevent the arms race and the resulting threats to collective security (Dalton, Mischita, and Zhao 2018). The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which will be discussed in more detail later, remains a cornerstone of this approach and a manifestation of the liberal notion of security based on cooperation for mutual interest. North Korea’s blatant disregard toward nuclear non-proliferation may cause – and, by some accounts, already causes – nations in the region to shift back to a realist vision of international security through the balance of power. This approach may cause a regional arms race that can all too easily spiral out of control. The security dilemma created by the North Korean armament has already caused the United States and Japan to enhance their military forces, thus starting a military competition in Northeast Asia.
One example of how the North Korean nuclear program leads directly to an arms race in the region is the impact that it has on South Korea and, by extension, the United States. It is important to remember that many South Korean population centers are satiated closely to the border between the two nations, meaning that even tactical nuclear weapons can pose a grave danger to the country (Gentile et al. 2019). Given that South Korea is an important tally for the United States in the region, North Korea’s nuclear tests have also prompted the enlargement of the American military contingent in the region (Roehrig 2016). Among other steps, it included the dispatch of nuclear submarines and the deployment of THAAD, a sophisticated anti-missile system, in South Korea (Roehrig 2016). However, China and, to a lesser degree, Russia may view this increase in American military power in the region as a security threat to their interests. As a result, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions make an all-out arms race between the three most capable armies in the world becomes a tangible possibility.
Japan may serve as another example of how North Korea’s nuclear program may prompt an arms race and, by doing so, cause quick deterioration of international security in Northeast Asia. As a response to the development of North Korean nuclear weapons and delivery systems, Japan also claimed the necessity to boost its defenses. In particular, nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean military prompted the Japanese government to consider the development of capabilities to strike enemy bases (Japan Times 2021c). There is little doubt that the development of such capacities may provoke a response not only in North Korea but in other countries of the region that may feel threatened by this development.
The Japanese and American examples are both illustrations of the security challenges inherent in North Korea’s nuclear program. The liberal notion of international security works insofar states behave like reasonable actors interested in maintaining peace and refrain from challenging international security. However, Pyongyang’s insistence on acquiring the weapons of mass destruction creates what Ban (2020) calls ‘lopsided security.’ As the examples above indicate, such a challenge bay prompt even liberal democratic nations to shift to the logic of realism and balance of power. Within this logic of security dilemmas, an increase in one actor’s capabilities forces other actors potentially threatened by the change to enhance their own capabilities. This, in turn, may cause both the initial actor and other parties to feel threatened in their own right and try to reinforce its security at the expense of others. As a result, North Korea’s nuclear program potentially creates a vicious cycle of armament that can and will undermine security in Northeast Asia unless the international community addresses its primary cause.
Undermining Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime
As mentioned above, the liberal notion of security hinges upon international cooperation for achieving common goals. Nations of the world made considerable progress in this regard, at least insofar as it concerns nuclear weapons. The treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was first opened for signatories in 1968 (Lee and Nacht 2020). The document makes a distinction between the states that have devised and tested nuclear weapons prior to 1968 – namely, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China – and non-nuclear states. NPT’s central provision is the dedication of all signatories to preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons among the states that were non-nuclear as of 1968. In exchange for this limitation, NPT offers non-nuclear states to partake in the collective benefits of peaceful nuclear technology (Lee and Nacht 2020). Insofar, only four of the UN member states – namely, India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Sudan – refused to join NPT. With this in mind, one can conclude that NPT has been a reasonably effective deal in terms of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
North Korea constitutes a notable exception because it is the only country to have ever withdrawn from NPT. The history of the North Korean approach to the provisions of the treaty is particularly alarming. Signing the treaty in 1985 did not prevent the government in Pyongyang from launching its nuclear weapons program, which culminated in the detonation of its first nuclear device in 2005. To put it simply, North Korea blatantly disregarded the terms of the treaty long before withdrawing from it in 2003 (Lee and Nacht 2020). As a result, it is currently the only nation in the world that has successfully cheated the NPT and got away with it. This example creates a dangerous precedent by showing it is possible to receive the benefits of peaceful nuclear research from other NPT signatories and continue a nuclear weapons program at the same time. In simpler terms, the North Korean example makes breaking the NPT seem like a reasonable strategy, and, unless the international community reacts, more countries may follow suit. As noted above, it would undermine the collective security regime based on international cooperation and prompt an arms race instead.
This outcome becomes all the more likely because the mere fact of North Korean possession of nuclear weapons undermines the international security system architected by the NPT with each passing day. For example, President Trump proved willing to negotiate with Kim Jong-un personally in 2018. Some authors claim that the acting US President engaging in personal negotiations with North Korea acknowledges the country’s status as de-facto nuclear power (Mishra 2020). The problem did not become less acute during Biden’s presidency, as North Korea’s demonstrative willingness to continue its nuclear program presents the new president with largely the same issue (Japan Times 2021b). As long as the initial NPT ratifiers, including the United States as the most powerful nuclear power in the world, continue to acquiesce to North Korea’s nuclear armament, the possibility of others following suit increases. This threat to nuclear non-proliferation that goes far beyond Northeast Asia is the third and final reason why the international community should take steps to stop North Korea from having nuclear weapons.
As one can see, the international community should strive to prevent North Korea from having nuclear weapons for several reasons. First of all, it upsets regional security and international cooperation in the peninsula that is important to the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea at the same time. Secondly, a blatant military challenge provokes nations to think in realist rather than liberal terms and causes a new arms race among them. Thirdly, it poses a direct threat to the regime of nuclear non-proliferation and may cause other countries to follow suit. Given that the NPT had proven a reasonably effective example of security through international cooperation, North Korea’s violation thereof strikes at the very heart of international security as viewed from the liberal perspective.
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