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"If employed properly," writes Wittner, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons "could facilitate negotiations with the North Korean regime. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

A Negotiated Curbing of North Korea's Nuclear Capabilities Is Good, But Not Good Enough

Fortunately, there is an alternative to living on the brink of nuclear catastrophe: abolishing nuclear weapons.

Lawrence Wittner

The North Korean government’s progress toward developing a long-range nuclear weapons capability, accompanied by bellicose pronouncements, has been alarming enough to spark worldwide public dismay and new sanctions by a unanimous UN Security Council. But even if, at the very best, sanctions (which, so far, have not worked) or diplomatic negotiations (which have yet to get underway) produce a change in North Korea’s policy, that change is likely to be no more than a freeze in the regime’s nuclear weapons program.

And that will leave us with a very dangerous world, indeed.

Most obviously, North Korea will still possess its 10 nuclear weapons and the ability to employ them against other nations.

In addition, eight other countries (the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan) possess a total of roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons, and none of them seems willing to get rid of them. In fact, like North Korea, they are engaged in a nuclear arms race designed to upgrade their ability to wage nuclear war well into the 21st century.

There is nothing to prevent these countries from using nuclear weapons in future conflicts, and there is an excellent possibility that they will. After all, they and their predecessors have been waging wars with the latest weapons in their possession for thousands of years. Indeed, the U.S. government unleashed nuclear war against a virtually defeated Japan in 1945 and is currently threatening to use nuclear weapons against North Korea.

Moreover, even if one assumes that the leaders of these nations have reached a higher level of moral development, there are plenty of terrorists around the world who would gladly employ nuclear weapons if they could buy or steal them from these nations. Given the instability of some of these countries―for example, Pakistan―isn’t this likely to happen at some time in the future?

Also, many of the world’s nearly 200 nations are quite capable of building nuclear weapons―if they decide to do so. One reason that they have not is that they have been patiently complying with the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which provides that signatories refrain from developing nuclear weapons while the nuclear powers disarm. But, after almost a half-century of waiting for a nuclear weapons-free world to emerge, most non-nuclear nations are fed up with the nuclear monopoly of nine nations. And some are considering the possibilities of ignoring the treaty and developing their own nuclear arsenals. That’s what India, Pakistan, and North Korea did.

Finally, there is the possibility of an accidental nuclear war, triggered by a misreading of “enemy” intentions or defense gadgetry, action by drug-addled or drunken soldiers guarding nuclear missile silos, or crashes by submarines or planes carrying nuclear weapons. Machines and people are fallible, and it takes only one mistake to create a nuclear disaster.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to living on the brink of nuclear catastrophe: abolishing nuclear weapons. And this alternative is not as far-fetched as some might imagine.

Thanks to popular pressure and occasional government response, there has been very significant progress on nuclear disarmament. At the zenith of worldwide nuclear proliferation, nations possessed some 70,000 nuclear weapons. Today, as a follow-up to international disarmament treaties and independent actions by individual nations, nearly four-fifths of these weapons have been scrapped.

Indeed, in an historic action on July 7, 2017, the official representatives of 122 out of 124 nations attending a special UN-sponsored conference voted to adopt a treaty prohibiting nations from developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or threatening to use nuclear weapons. (There are 193 sovereign states in the UN.) The treaty also prohibited nations from transferring nuclear weapons to one another. According to Costa Rica’s Elayne Whyte Gomez, president of the conference: “This is a very clear statement that the international community wants to move to a . . . security paradigm that does not include nuclear weapons.”

Unfortunately, the nine nuclear powers boycotted the treaty conference, and have announced their refusal to sign its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In a joint statement released after the treaty’s adoption by the conference, the U.S., British, and French governments declared: “We do not intend to sign, ratify, or ever become party to it.”

Even so, action on the treaty is proceeding. On September 20, nations from around the world began formally signing it at the UN headquarters in New York City. Once 50 nations have become signatories, it will become international law.

If employed properly, the treaty could facilitate negotiations with the North Korean regime. Admittedly, there is no particular reason to assume that North Korea is any more eager than the other nuclear powers to agree to this ban on nuclear weapons. But calling upon North Korea to act within a framework that deals with eliminating the nuclear weapons of all nations, rather than one that prohibits only the nuclear weapons of North Korea, might provide a useful path forward.

Of course, the most important benefit of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is that it lights the way toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

Thus, negotiating an agreement with North Korea to restrain its nuclear program remains important. But, like the signers of the treaty, we should recognize that the danger of nuclear annihilation will persist as long as any nations possess nuclear weapons.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner  is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" (2009).

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