North Korea’s Withdrawal from the NPT

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Political Science

March 10, 2015.

Introduction

North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003. This was a significant turn of events because North Korea remains the only country that has become a member state of the (NPT) and then withdrew. This withdrawal triggered concerns in neighboring Asian countries, with the president of South Korea asking his North Korean counterpart to rescind the decision. North Korea’s decision was largely symbolic because the country had already admitted that it was pursuing a nuclear program. The aim of this paper is to examine why North Korea withdrew from the NPT and to provide recommendations on how to bring the country back. The paper sets out to test the hypothesis that North Korea withdrew from the NPT because of its distrust for the United States following its inclusion in the category of “axis of evil”.

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North Korea’s Distrust for the United States

There are many examples of situations where North Korea’s distrust for the United States has become evident. For instance, in 1994, the two countries entered into an agreement whereby Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear program in exchange for U.S aid. However, North Korea reactivated its nuclear facilities later that year after the United States failed to provide aid as agreed.[1]Washington indicated that it stopped sending aid because North Korea had already resumed its nuclear weapons program a few months after the signing of the agreement. This experience demonstrates the level of distrust that exists between these two countries.

            Today, the United States feels that its security is in jeopardy as long as the current regime in North Korea remains in power.[2] This is because the nuclear weapons that the country continues to develop can easily be used to launch attacks on U.S. interests or on U.S. soil. This sense of insecurity has even led the U.S. to contemplate a preemptive attack against North Korea.[3]When North Korea resumed its nuclear development program, it felt that it desperately needed nuclear weapons to leverage its position during non-proliferation negotiations with the United States. If an element of trust for the United States existed, the need to maintain its nuclear facilities even after the promise of aid would not have arisen.

The United States is a superpower yet it continues to rely on its status as a producer of nuclear weapons to protect its security interests. Countries with nuclear capabilities belong to a unique category of states that can deter potential adversaries from invading their core interests. If a superpower is unwilling to let go of its nuclear programs, it is unrealistic for one to expect a weak country like North Korea to do so. When one views this argument from the perspective of North Korean leaders, one is able to see the heightened sense of distrust that the country’s leaders have for the United States. By distrusting the United States, North Korea simply followed in the footsteps of India, Israel, and Pakistan, all of which view nuclear capability as a more effective way of deterring their respective adversaries than halting the nuclear development process and resorting to uncertain security assurances. Just like India, Israel, and Pakistan, North Korea was apprehensive of all the promises that were being made with a view to compelling the country to shut down its nuclear development facilities. Thus, the lack of trust for the United States by North Korea greatly played a role in the latter’s withdrawal from the NPT.

Security Threat Posed by the United States

            One of the two reasons that North Korea gave for withdrawing from the NPT was that joint exercises that were conducted by South Korea and the United States in 1993 posed a security threat to the country.[4]The The north Korean government had submitted a withdrawal notice to NPT member states as required by the non-proliferation treaty before deciding to cancel it at the last minute. In January 2003, it reinstated the withdrawal notice and went ahead to cease to be a member state of the NPT. While reinstating its withdrawal notice, North Korea complained that U.S. President Bush had included it in the “axis of evil” group. The country also expressed the view that the United States intended to launch a preemptive strike against it, although there was an inextricable political element to this claim.[5] Nevertheless, North Korea felt that withdrawing from the NPT and continuing with its nuclear development program would safeguard it against the security threat, real or imagined, posed by the United States.

            Moreover, the reality of a U.S. threat against North Korea was evident in 1993 after the UN Security Council failed to act to stop the country from withdrawing from the NPT. North Korea invoked its right of withdrawal from the NPT after the IAEA requested to carry out an inspection of waste sites that North Korea claimed was beyond the inspection mandate of the IAEA.[6]Following this turn of events, William Perry, the then U.S. Defense Secretary, presented a document to President Clinton justifying the use of force as a way of preventing North Korea’s imminent move to acquire nuclear weapons (Bunn and Timerbaev, p. 23). It is at this moment that former president Jimmy Carter reassured President Clinton regarding North Korea’s intent to cancel its withdrawal notice. Soon afterward, North Korea allowed UN inspectors to visit its nuclear sites for inspection purposes.[7]Although this move set in motion a long process of negotiations aimed at restraining North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, it did not eliminate the perception of the United States as a security threat by North Korean leaders. This may explain why North Korea decided to reinstate the notice of 1993 with a view to withdrawing from the NPT in 2003.

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            Suggestions indicate that North Korea’s rationale for continuing with its uranium enrichment program was to use nuclear brinkmanship to build leverage during negotiations with U.S. political leaders.[8]The country has continued to view this approach as a viable option given the security threat it perceives from the stationing of U.S. military forces in Japan and South Korea.[9] North Korea’s threat of withdrawal from the NPC paid off well in 1993 because it led to the 1994 Agreed Framework in addition to the much-needed democratic recognition of the country.[10]At the same time, Pyongyang’s behavior of developing nuclear weapons secretly in contravention of the provisions of the Agreed Framework was motivated by the severe economic crisis the country was facing. There are doubts though regarding the extent to which North Koreans succeeded in cheating the 1994 deal.[11]Since the United States was not fulfilling its part of the bargain in the Agreed Framework ostensibly fast enough, Pyongyang, through its rhetoric, expressed its willingness to take desperate actions using its cache of nuclear weapons as a way of addressing its insecurities.[12]Similarly, Kim Jong Il, Korea’s leader at the time, was wary of the move by the United States to include it in the category of “the axis of evil”. In light of this threat, Kim felt that the only leverage he had against the United States and its hostile neighbors was nuclear weapons and thus he was not ready to lose this leverage.

Nuclear Weapons as a Security Guarantor for North Korea

North Korea expressed its intention to continue using nuclear weapons to build leverage with the United States when it withdrew from the NPT. By developing nuclear weapons, North Korea seeks to be taken more seriously by the United States. The nuclear capability provides an additional deterrent to a position that is already disadvantageous for the 90,000 U.S. forces states in the Pacific region and East Asia.[13] North Korea’s regular army comprises of 1 million servicemen, who are backed up by six million reserves.[14] Moreover, North Korea’s artillery and missiles can destroy U.S bases in South Korea, causing massive casualties. The nuclear capability provides an additional deterrent, meaning that the U.S. cannot succeed in carrying out a preemptive strike on North Korea without incurring huge losses. Moreover, such a strike would drag the United States into another messy war. The destructive potential of North Korea’s nuclear weapons makes it virtually impossible for the United States to launch a military attack against the Asian country. This realization must have played a critical role in informing North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the NPT.

            The importance of nuclear weapons as a security guarantor is demonstrated by the view by most analysts that North Korea will never trade away its nuclear weapons for political or economic benefits of whatever kind. The Six-Party talks failed to achieve this objective and so did the activities of IAEA inspectors and the signing of the Agreed Framework.[15] To the country’s ruling elite, strategic weapons such as nuclear arsenal are a primary means of preserving authority in addition to bringing about reassurance in circumstances where a perception of being overpowered by hostile forces led by the United States dominates the country’s political psyche.[16]The only thing that the North Korean regime takes pride in is nuclear capability. It accords the country’s political relevance at a time when it continues to lag behind in virtually all fields of human achievement, particularly when compared to its southern counterpart.[17] North Korean government officials have categorically stated that they will never discard those weapons as long as the U.S. administration continues to maintain a nuclear arsenal that is within the country’s range. This assertion goes a long way to explain the contribution the United States played in influencing North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the NPT and continuing with its nuclear development activities.

Recommendations for Bringing Back North Korea to the NPT

            This paper provides three key recommendations for bringing North Korea back to the NPT. First, the United States should work towards building good relations that will lead to the restoration of trust between the two countries. This may involve giving aid to the country as well as removing it from its list of rogue states that it often refers to as the “axis of evil”. Although the process of building trust may take time, it can ultimately lead to the closure of North Korea’s nuclear development facilities. Before this happens, the United States should have helped the country build a reputation as a responsible member of the international community.

            Secondly, the United States should declare and demonstrate that it does not intend to carry out a preemptive strike or support a process of regime change in North Korea. Instead, it should seek to promote bilateral arrangements that bring about mutual benefits to both countries. These arrangements would go a long way in building mutual trust between the two countries. They would also eliminate the danger of a messy, costly war that may lead to massive loss of lives as well as the collapse of many Pacific and East Asian economies. In other words, the United States needs to reorient its foreign policy on North Korea by resorting to the “soft power” approach to reflect the reality of North Korea’s stature as a nuclear power.

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Thirdly, the United States should demonstrate that it does not pose a security threat to North Korea by refraining from carrying out any military exercises either alone or jointly with its allies in the Pacific region. In other words, it should avoid isolating North Korea in any way since such a move only increases the country’s vulnerability and its tendency to take desperate measures such as the use of nuclear brinkmanship in an attempt to get leverage during political negotiations. These three measures may create an enabling political environment for the return of North Korea to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Conclusion

            The inclusion of North Korea in the list of states referred to by the United States as “the axis of evil” greatly contributed to the country’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea developed strong distrust for the United States, itself a nuclear power whose missiles are within North Korea’s range. Moreover, North Korea perceived the United States as a major security threat because of entering into security arrangements with North Korea’s rivals in the Pacific region, notably South Korea and Japan. In the face of this distrust, increased threat levels and growing desperation because of economic crises, North Korean officials felt that nuclear weapons provided the priciest security guarantor and a source of increased leverage during political negotiations with the United States. In conclusion, this paper confirms the hypothesis that North Korea withdrew from the NPT because of its distrust for the United States following its inclusion in the category of “axis of evil”.

References

Bunn, George, and Roland Timerbaev. “The Right to Withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): The Views of Two NPT Negotiators.” YadernyKontrol (Nuclear Control) Digest 10, no. 1 (2005): 20-29.

CNN.com. North Korea leaves nuclear pact. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/01/10/nkorea.treaty/  on March 9, 2015.

Corera Gordon. Shopping for bombs: Nuclear proliferation, global insecurity, and the rise and fall of the A.Q Khan network. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dembinski, Matthias. “North Korea, IAEA Special Inspections, and the Future of the Nonproliferation Regime.” The Nonproliferation Review 3 (1995): 31-39.

Dingli. Shen. “North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China.” China Security, 3 (2006): 19 – 34.

Du Preez, Jean, and William Potter. North Korea’s Withdrawal from the NPT: A Reality Check. Retrieved from http://cns.miis.edu/stories/030409.htm  on March 9, 2015.

Duncan, Raymond., Barbara Jancar-Webster, and Bob Switky. Online Asset to Accompany Chapter Three: “North Korea’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons”. In Raymond Duncan, Barbara Jancar-Webster, and Bob Switky, World Politics in the 21st Century, Student Choice Edition. 1-5. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009.

Fitzpatrick, Mark. “North Korea: Is Regime Change the Answer?” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 55, no. 3 (2013): 7-20.

Fitzpatrick, Mark. “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program”. In Mark Fitzpatrick. North Korean Security Challenges: A net assessment. 93-128. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011.

Hecker, Siegfried. “Lessons learned from the North Korean nuclear crises.” Daedalus 139, no. 1 (2010): 44-56.

Mazarr, Michael. “Going Just a Little Nuclear: Nonproliferation Lessons from North Korea.” International Security 20 no. 2 (1995): 92-122.

Moore, Gregory. “America’s Failed North Korea Nuclear Policy: A New Approach.” Asian Perspective, 32 no. 4 (2008): 9-27.

Pritchard, Charles. Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb. Washington, D.C: The Brookings Institution, 2007.

Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University (2014). North Korea and Nuclear Weapons – Policy Options. Providence: Brown University Press.


[1] CNN.com. “North Korea leaves nuclear pact” Accessed March 9, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/01/10/nkorea.treaty/.

[2] Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University North Korea and Nuclear Weapons – Policy Options. Providence: Brown University Press, 2014), 2.

[3] Watson Institute for International Studies, 2

[4] George Bunn, and Roland Timerbaev. “The Right to Withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): The Views of Two NPT Negotiators.” YadernyKontrol (Nuclear Control) Digest 10, no. 1 (2005): 20.

[5] Siegfried Hecker, “Lessons learned from the North Korean nuclear crises,” Daedalus 139, no. 1 (2010), 44.

[6]Mark Fitzpatrick, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program”. In Mark Fitzpatrick. North Korean Security Challenges: A net assessment (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), 102.

[7] Raymond Duncan, Barbara Jancar-Webster, and Bob Switky, Online Asset to Accompany Chapter Three: “North Korea’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons”. In Raymond Duncan, Barbara Jancar-Webster, and Bob Switky, World Politics in the 21st Century, Student Choice Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009), 1.

[8] Jean Du Preez and William Potter. North Korea’s Withdrawal from the NPT: A Reality Check. Accessed on March 9, 2015. http://cns.miis.edu/stories/030409.htm  on March 9, 2015.

[9] Shen Dingli, “North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China,” 25.

[10] Matthias Dembinski, “North Korea, IAEA Special Inspections, and the Future of the Nonproliferation Regime.” The Nonproliferation Review 3 (1995): 31.

[11] Gordon Corera, Shopping for bombs: Nuclear proliferation, global insecurity, and the rise and fall of the A.Q Khan network, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 100.

[12] Michael Mazarr, “Going Just a Little Nuclear: Nonproliferation Lessons from North Korea.” International Security 20 no. 2 (1995), 101.

[13] Shen Dingli, “North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China.” China Security, 3 (2006): 25.

[14]Dingli, Shen, “North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China,” 25.

[15] Gregory Moore, “America’s Failed North Korea Nuclear Policy: A New Approach.” Asian Perspective, 32 no. 4 (2008), 16.

[16] Mark Fitzpatrick, “North Korea: Is Regime Change the Answer?” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 55, no. 3 (2013), 8.

[17] Charles Pritchard, Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb (Washington, D.C: The Brookings Institution, 2007), 170.

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