In pursuit of suitable deterrent

The recent deep underground nuclear explosion in North Korea measured 3.5 on the Richter scale. But the political explosion that followed has been off the charts.

Diplomats scrambled to find sufficiently strong words to denounce the test, and almost unanimous condemnation seemed to radiate from world leaders. With a single blast, this secretive country and its enigmatic leader grabbed the world’s attention yet again. 


While the precise details of the nuclear test are as of yet unknown, it seems fair to say that politically, the nuclear fallout will have worldwide implications. The UN is already said to be discussing invoking Chapter 7, which could lead to sanctions being applied if the Security Council can agree on the terms of their application.


North Korean representatives claim that the test was in response to hostility and provocation from the US. On this point at least, it is hard to argue with their logic.


Ever since the now-infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, the US has become more aggressive towards Kim Jong-il’s regime, making veiled and not-so-veiled threats. North Korea’s response has been to ratchet up the pressure and expedite work on their nuclear programme.


“It is easy to prevent the construction of a nuclear weapon site, but it is not easy to destroy an up and running nuclear facility.”

Abd al-Rahman Robleh, Somalia

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And who can blame them? Though acquiring nuclear technology undoubtedly requires a highly skilled workforce, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out the strategy behind their desire for nuclear weapons. North Korean strategists have surveyed the post-Iraq situation and have come to the conclusion that only countries without suitable deterrents get invaded and occupied.


From this standpoint, the answer seems clear: the best way to keep the US from attacking your country is to develop a nuclear arsenal. This is based on the underlying premise that the American administration will sit down to discussions and negotiate only if they have already discounted the use of force.



North Korean representatives claim that the test was in response to hostility and provocation from the US. On this point at least, it is hard to argue with their logic.

The diplomats will be deployed only if missiles are off the agenda. If the opposition has the ability to strike back, the fighter jets stay in the hangers, and the invading force consists instead of briefcase-carrying policy makers, chatting over dinners while posturing for photo-op handshakes.


Though anything is possible – this test could backfire and even further alienate the regime – any situation where the country is not under threat of imminent attack seems a preferable state of affairs to living perpetually in America’s gunsights.


Many Americans must be wondering how it got to this point. Some are probably genuinely bewildered as to why the tough rhetoric and hostile language from the Bush administration did not scare North Korea into halting all nuclear activities.


However, those who make it their business to study these issues must have predicted that this misguided policy would have exactly the reverse effect from what Bush intended.


More worryingly, a dangerous precedent has now been set – instead of dissuading North Korea, US actions impelled a regime that was contemplating “going nuclear” to stop contemplating and start doing something about it.


Here the analysis usually stops. No doubt media attention will continue to be focused on eccentric Kim Jong-il and his ostentatious missile parades for days and weeks to come.


But while the media plays and replays these clips for worldwide consumption, surprisingly little attention is being given to the fact that North Korea’s actions – while undoubtedly being detrimental to regional stability – are far from exceptional. 


The issue is not that North Korea now has the capability to produce nuclear weapons.  It is that North Korea has so to speak, “joined the nuclear club” – a club that already consists of seven card-carrying members and one silent partner.


After all, if the possession of nuclear weapons was really so serious that the whole world’s attention ought to be focused on North Korea now, surely the fact that America, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel all have nuclear weapons should merit at least some attention?


Not surprisingly, on this point, the governments of these countries have been conspicuously silent.


Even more interesting is the fact that many of these same countries are proud signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


The fact that America, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel all have nuclear weapons should merit at least some attention?

Drafted in the 1960s, the NPT divided states into two categories: the nuclear haves and the have-nots. By becoming signatories, the have-nots signalled their intention not to pursue nuclear weapons, thus addressing the danger of “horizontal proliferation” – the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. 


It is this issue of horizontal proliferation that American officials work hard to keep in the diplomatic spotlight. Iran and North Korea have been the two most obvious targets of this concerted campaign to convince the world’s population that countries without nuclear weapons should stay nuclear weapons-free.


A reasonable proposition, one might argue, since every nuclear weapon is a fundamentally a security risk – to put it bluntly, an explosion waiting to happen.


However, only a moderate amount of research on the conditions of the NPT reveals a startling inconsistency in the American position.


In addition to stipulating that non-nuclear countries commit to remaining non-nuclear, Article IV of the NPT imposed obligations on nuclear states to work towards the reduction and eventual elimination of their nuclear stockpiles.


This section of the NPT highlighted the issue of “vertical proliferation” – the qualitative or quantitative increase of weapons in the nuclear states.


In other words, the aim of the NPT was to stop nuclear weapons spreading as well as to abolish completely stockpiles of weapons in nuclear states.      


Though precisely how many nuclear weapons are held by states in the nuclear club is not known – answers range from about 15,000 and up – the fact remains that the nuclear states are clearly not holding up their end of the bargain.


Recently, the British government entered into discussions about replacing the UK’s ageing nuclear deterrent. And not only is America refusing to take any meaningful steps towards disarmament, but there is speculation that the US is covertly pursuing a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons for use in otherwise non-nuclear contexts.


The US must recognise that giving up its nuclear weapons is the only sure way to convince others not to “go nuclear”.

The American position therefore seems completely paradoxical: while Bush is moralising about how North Korea’s actions constitute “a threat to international peace and security”, the fact remains that America – the only country to ever employ a nuclear device – has massive stockpiles of weapons and is considering the development of new weaponry.


The moral of the story seems to be that if America, the world’s superpower, is unwilling to scale down its nuclear stockpile – believed to number around 10,000 – then the demand for other countries not to follow the nuclear path seems exceptionally hollow.


We all lose when nuclear proliferation occurs, either horizontally or vertically. If the US wants North Korea or Iran to give up the quest for nuclear weapons, then it ought to lead by example.


Since the perceived necessity for nuclear weapons stems more from a sense of insecurity rather than any specific strategic benefits (as the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan makes clear), the US would do better to provide security guarantees to non-nuclear countries while beginning to decommission its absurdly large and tactically useless nuclear arsenal.


The US must recognise that giving up its nuclear weapons is the only sure way to convince others not to “go nuclear”.


Today, when the primary threat of nuclear warfare comes either from accidental use (a mistaken launch would lead to total war) or from nuclear weapons being commandeered and deployed by “terrorist” groups (in which case attacking a trans-national network of non-state actors with nuclear weapons is clearly untenable as a response), there is nothing to be gained by perpetuating an obsolete Cold War approach to the nuclear question.


There is, however, everything to lose.

Joshua Hergesheimer is a Canadian freelance columnist based in the UK. His writing focuses on the implications of political violence in contemporary society.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

Source : Al Jazeera

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