The New Nuclear Question(s)


Serious discussions of nuclear weapons and their use have not left the international stage since the 1940s. This year has seen significant developments in nonproliferation and disarmament efforts – but also more uncertainty and divisiveness regarding nuclear policies in general. From the international community seeing both progress and setbacks regarding legal intervention in nonproliferation; to the US elections, which have caused a frantic reorganizing of academic projections for future US foreign policies and actions; to, of course, the fact that North Korea is inching ever closer to full nuclear launch capability, this is a time of increasing unpredictability regarding the global response to the threat of nuclear weapons, arguably unlike any time since the Cold War. It’s 3 minutes to midnight, but that clock was set almost a year ago – and since then, nuclear tensions have only risen.


New international legislation: one step forward, one step back, one step sideways

The United Nations (UN) has always stood for peace and responsibility in regards to nuclear weapons, and has facilitated key treaties like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, the most important nuclear legislation to this day, asserts member states’ commitments to disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear energy, and reinforces a continued commitment to the treaty through periodic conferences. Just last year at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the P5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) issued a statement praising the three pillars of the NPT, vowing to “pursue practical steps towards nuclear disarmament,” and committing to bring into full force another key piece of legislation: the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

2015 also saw efforts by the UN General Assembly (GA) to work towards disarmament with the passage of Resolution 70/33, which created a working group to advise on steps forward regarding multilateral disarmament negotiations. This working group’s report, published September 2016, is revealing because it shows the underlying divides between states regarding the legality of disarmament, the limits to legal prevention, and the different understandings of the importance of nuclear weapons to collective security. The report also emphasized a focus on stigmatizing nukes and otherwise reinforcing an anti-nuclear weapon international community through other types of norm reinforcement. This report recommended convening in an official conference about disarmament, and from this suggestion spawned Resolution L.41 which attempts to take “forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” and was adopted by the GA on October 27th. L.41 became the catalyst in highlighting the divides within the international community’s debate on nuclear disarmament and caused a major shift in US policy: namely, the reversal of the Obama administration’s anti-nuclear position, which meant the US, instead of supporting L.41, actively campaigned against it alongside other P5 members.

To put this shift in context, compare the US’s campaign against L.41 with Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague in which he became the first US president to express support for full disarmament. Even in June of 2016 when Obama visited Hiroshima, his speech focused on changing the nature of war itself to eliminate nuclear weapons from the conversation – a very normative approach, as was suggested by the GA working group report. In regards to the 2017 conference proposed by L.41, the US agreed with the rest of the P5, who all reiterated their nonparticipation in the voluntary conference, citing the current security climate and the lack of concrete solutions expected from the conference. The US even pressured NATO countries to vote against the resolution, arguing NATO was fundamentally incompatible with full disarmament.

So the new vote to, as one international anti-nuke campaign headlined triumphantly, “outlaw nuclear weapons in 2017” is actually not a very sure sign of progress. The resolution did pass and enjoyed a great deal of support within the GA, especially from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. What remains to be seen is how these states, especially rising regional powers who supported the resolution such as Brazil and South Africa, can use the conference as a platform in the favor of disarmament. While the conference will be a gathering of states that do not have nuclear weapons, and therefore might seem useless, there is also the potential to both reinforce anti-nuclear norms within the broad international community. This may include working to put into force the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, as well as possibly putting diplomatic pressure on the P5 to at least come to the table on nuclear disarmament.


Addressing the DPRK-shaped crisis in the room

As much as the international security community works to regulate existing nuclear arsenals and frets about the massive destruction possible if a non-state actor like IS somehow got access to a nuclear weapon, there is a real and rapidly evolving threat of enormous importance in North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is an authoritarian regime that, since the Korean War, has called for the destruction of the Republic of Korea (ROK), the US, and all of the US’s allies. Following the successful development of its nuclear program, the DPRK is relentlessly pursuing nuclear strike capability. In the past four years alone the DPRK has conducted over 25 missile and nuclear tests, detonating a 10-kiloton bomb in September and conducting one of the most powerful rocket launches the same month. Heightened DPRK aggression prompted one of the largest military drills conducted yet between South Koreans and Americans, which for the first time included training on the “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation” plan (KMPR). KMPR is a military response to be used in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack; the fact that the ROK and US have now felt the need to include it during the drill is a clear indicator that the US and its allies are increasingly concerned about the developing situation in the DPRK.

Due to the lack of diplomatic contact between the DPRK and much of the international community, the US and allies have so far relied on exacting pressure through sanctions, mostly on luxury goods. China and the US worked together to increase sanctions last March in response to North Korean aggression. Due to recent tensions, however, some argue that sanctions should be increased to include non-luxury or resource goods. Increased economic sanctions on non-luxury goods, however, is neither a simple nor necessarily ethical solution, and the international community must keep in mind the effect of increased sanctions on the North Korean people. The human rights situation in the DPRK is, in a word, abysmal, as the UN continuously points out. The international community must make sure that a resource ban would not interfere with the North Korean people’s ability to survive. This might mean relying even more on the Chinese to put more diplomatic pressure on the DPRK, a solution which would require delicate and probably difficult negotiations between the US, regional allies, and China, and which, due to the new uncertainty of the future of US foreign policy, might prove un-obtainable.


The future of US commitments to nuclear disarmament

The Obama administration’s back-and-forth on full nuclear disarmament has certainly set the US on track to ignore the upcoming 2017 conference and maintain that nuclear weapons are a fundamental part of current international security doctrines, but the US’s position could shift in the very near future. In a few months, of course, the Obama administration will exit and the uncertainty of the Trump administration will begin. The foreign policy platform Trump ran on is an ill-defined mixture of realism, isolationism, and American exceptionalism that seems to hinge on moving towards a more ‘transactional’ approach to US diplomatic relations, rather than continuing the tradition of broad alliance networks and participation in liberal institutions. Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail ignited a combination of fury and fear regarding his nuclear and defense policies in Asia: not only did he suggest more countries should have nuclear weapons, he also suggested pulling back US support for security alliances and defense treaties (including with Japan and South Korea) since he believes the US disproportionately holds up these agreements. And, while his campaign was mostly consistent with its anti-nuclear and anti-proliferation rhetoric, Trump has been critical of the state of the US stockpile and additionally refused to “rule out anything” in regards to whether he would ever actually deploy them.

This rhetoric has changed somewhat with his election, though. Trump denies that he ever meant Tokyo and Seoul should go nuclear, and senior foreign policy advisor Michael Flynn insists the Trump administration considers nuclear non-proliferation one of two top foreign policy concerns (the other being terrorism) and remains committed to US military presence and support. What remains to be seen is what specific actions the US will take in regards to Obama’s ‘pivot’ in support and attention to Asian allies, and whether a potential regression of US presence in the region will open a power vacuum for others. While nothing is clear in terms of concrete policy, it is incredibly likely that the US will remain firmly against banning nuclear weapons. Additionally, the US is likely to remain aloof, and perhaps will become more harshly against, binding international legal solutions to situations especially regarding security. The legitimacy of international courts in the US has little traction as is today, and Trump’s “America First” viewpoint also means he’s unlikely to compromise on American security in favor of what some countries would argue is better collective security through nonproliferation.


Going Forward

During the Cold War, it likely seemed unfathomable to most that one day, the world would look back to the simple bilateral principle of Mutually Assured Destruction with anything resembling wistfulness. Yet the years of two main bilateral security blocs have obviously passed, and instead states must now attempt to find a solution to the most pressing nuclear development, the DPRK’s increasing capability, even though they are fiercely divided on the legal, ethical, and practical merits of full disarmament.

Despite the P5’s dismissal of the GA’s disarmament discussions, there is significant merit in having those debates, and the GA should reflect on the working group report and continue to apply pressure to reinforce and tighten restrictions on nuclear stockpiles. Arguably, the most effective way the conference could change the nuclear security situation for the better is by figuring out how to get the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force, and looking to that and other legal precedents to work towards more long-term solutions.

In terms of the DPRK, too much depends on unknown factors: communication with the DPRK, and with China, could change because of US politics. The security alliances in Asia, while stable for now, are also a little uncertain post-election. Acknowledging the DPRK from an official, diplomatic standpoint is not an option for the US and many other states, and the DPRK is similarly unwilling to increase participation in the international community, so multilateral negotiations or mediations is unlikely. Instead, the states most vulnerable and most active in preparing for a theoretical DPRK nuclear strike – the ROK, US, Japan, and other South Asian and Pacific states – must rely on the little diplomatic contact provided mostly by China and on economic and political sanctions to influence the DPRK as much as possible. Meanwhile, the logical increase in military exercises to prepare for combat is just one more antagonization of the DPRK regime, and their development of nuclear weapons continues. Whether the solution is in stricter sanctions, which is potentially a human rights concern, or working to possibly open more communication between China, the DPRK, and the rest of the P5 and allies, the international community is left with more unanswered questions.


About Erin Bovee

Contributing editor for the Asia column / Senior studying peace, international organizations, and human rights in the School of International Service / Email me at / Twitter @ErinBovee