Bulletin

An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Expert views: North Korean nuclear proliferation

As North Korea continues on a path of nuclear proliferation, political scientists Nicholas Khoo (University of Otago) and Reuben Steff (University of Waikato) speak to the Asia Media Centre about the continuing deterioration of the status quo, the US role in non-proliferation in Asia, and effectiveness of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

North Korean military parade

Why have China and North Korea pursued nuclear and ICBM capabilities?

Nicholas Khoo: Beijing and Pyongyang developed their nuclear capabilities to counter what they perceived to be an enormous external threat.

When China achieved a nuclear weapons capability in 1964, it had adversarial relations with the United States and the Soviet Union. Both already possessed nuclear weapons. 

Obviously, the current North Korean nuclear weapons programme is a response to the US. 

The threat perception was sufficiently high that both China and North Korea shouldered extremely high costs to obtain nuclear weapons. 

China was relatively underdeveloped when it began its nuclear weapons programme in the 50s. Throughout the course of its nuclear development, North Korea has been one of the poorest countries in the world.   

Both states faced intense international opposition to their possession of nuclear weapons. In the 60s, China was viewed as acting outside international norms, not unlike how North Korea is currently perceived.

How does the US influence both non-proliferation and proliferation in Asia?

Nicholas Khoo: The US role is pivotal. 

Washington has only reluctantly accepted its adversaries having a capability to respond to a hypothetical US nuclear attack on them with a countervailing response. In technical terms, this is known as a relationship of Mutual Assured Destruction, or a MAD relationship.

Contrary to its implication, a MAD relationship is both desirable and stable. It is establishing a MAD relationship that is the challenge. After issuing numerous veiled nuclear threats against China in the 50s and 60s, the US had accepted China as a nuclear weapons state by the time of the Sino-US rapprochement of 1972. A relationship of mutual deterrence currently exists between the US and China. This is not to be underestimated.

The current difficulties between the US and North Korea illuminate the fact that establishing a relationship of nuclear deterrence is neither inevitable nor smooth.

It may surprise people that during the Cold War, the US actively intervened to curtail attempts by its allies to develop secret nuclear weapons programmes. From the 60s through to the 80s, Washington discovered its allies in Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei were at various stages in developing a nuclear weapons capability. The US intervened to curtail these programmes. The US balanced its interventions with assurances that sought to ameliorate the concerns which led their allies to seek nuclear weapons.  

North Korean soldier at DMZ

What are some likely scenarios for Asia in terms of nuclear proliferation, ICBM development, and ballistic missile defence?

Reuben Steff: The first and most likely scenario is a continuing deterioration of the status quo. Here, efforts by a state to progress their nuclear, ICBM and ballistic missile defence capabilities generate ‘tit-for-tat’ responses in adversarial states.

North Korea illustrates this fundamental dynamic. Pyongyang’s progression of its ballistic missile and nuclear-weapon programmes has generated pressures in Japan, South Korea, and the US to deploy additional missile defences. Japan recently announced it will expedite its decision to acquire new on-land ‘Aegis Ashore’ missile defence systems. The newly-elected Moon Jae In administration in South Korea has said it will honour an agreement to deploy new THAAD systems, even though Moon questioned the deal during the presidential election campaign.

Tit-for-tat dynamics are operative, to varying degrees, in the immediate regions surrounding China, Russia and Iran. US regional allies are enhancing their co-operation on missile defences with Washington. This has led Beijing, Moscow and Tehran to react by bolstering their own ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.

The cycle outlined earlier can be expected to continue in the immediate term, with a 'cold peace' hanging over parts of Asia and the prospect of nuclear proliferation looming in the background.

South Korean DMZ soldiers

A second scenario is where a state achieves a technological breakthrough that enables it to acquire a position of strategic superiority over its adversaries. In theory, this could allow a state or an alliance of states to impose one-sided political, or even military, resolutions on its adversaries.

This scenario is unlikely. But a limited breakthrough could come by a number of game-changing technologies, such as Directed Energy (lasers), hypersonic missiles, railguns, cyber weapons, unmanned autonomous robotic systems and/or the application of Artificial Intelligence to weapons design. While this is seemingly the stuff of science fiction, research in these areas is taking place right now.

A third and more positive scenario could come from a major political breakthrough in one or more regions. For example, the 'holy grail' of denuclearisation and Korean reunification – especially if it involved persistent cooperation between multiple regional powers over years – could have wider positive repercussions throughout Asia and beyond. The major powers could learn to work together to resolve the underlying drivers of regional security dilemmas, halting or reducing the intensity of tit-for-tat dynamics.

How effective is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which New Zealand recently helped pass in the UN, on contributing to denuclearisation?

Reuben Steff: To the extent that the Treaty represents the view of a large part of the international community (currently 122 nations have signed on) and contributes to norms that prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, it is to be welcomed.

However, none of the established nuclear-weapon states on the UN Security Council (the US, China, Russia, France and UK) or any of the other nuclear-armed states (Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea) were involved during the treaty’s negotiations. Nor have they signed it. It is difficult to see what practical leverage this treaty can bring to bear against these states.

Even if we could establish a consensus on a reduction in nuclear weapons, Treaty proponents would still have to grapple with vexing strategic problems. This includes how strategic stability and security assurances between nuclear states can be maintained if disarmament to low numbers takes place. Presumably, the nuclear weapons states will compensate for their reduced nuclear numbers by developing and deploying increasingly sophisticated conventional weapons. This will shorten the decision-making time available to political and military actors during future crises. In this context, the incentives for states is to retain at least some nuclear weapons to ensure an "ultimate deterrent" to external intervention.

Nicholas Khoo is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Otago, and Reuben Steff is Lecturer in the Political Science and Public Policy Programme at the University of Waikato. Khoo and Steff are co-authors of Security At A Price: The International Politics of US Missile Defense (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

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29 August 2017