Written by Jyotsna Iyer, a second-year undergraduate student.
Of the many catastrophes that pose strikingly as faces of an impending doom to the world as we know it, the possibility of a nuclear war has kept the global community on its toes for a few decades now.
The conversation around this has resumed yet again owing to North Korea’s (DPRK) missile tests conducted on the 5th, 11th, 14th and 17th of January, 2022. The neighboring nation of South Korea (ROK) is one of the most worried and possibly affected by these developments.
The hypersonic missiles tested on the 5th of January have called special attention to themselves due to the increased threats posed by this advancement in DPRK’s missile technology. The hypersonic missiles, by definition are capable of moving at a pace that is five times the speed of sound. However, what makes these specific missiles stand out is its ability to maneuver, which means that the course of the missile can be carefully controlled and even changed.
This makes it harder for the missile defense technology of South Korea to track these missiles and determine their target. In addition to this, these missiles have a low flying range, another factor that puts the existing missile defense system at a disadvantage. This further strengthens the readiness of North Korean nuclear weapons to be launched. Experts have predicted that given the high possibility of not being able to respond in time during an attack, South Korea would consider a preemptive attack on the North Korean regime, heightening tensions in the Korean peninsula.
US has once again imposed sanctions on DPRK as a way of asserting pressure against the recent developments. DPRK had suspended testing of nuclear explosives and long- range missiles since the talks between their regime and the Trump administration, but has now resumed these activities on the account of ‘hostility’ by the US. Said hostility includes alleged US military activity in the region and a supply of weaponry to South Korea.
This chain of events is not at all something unfamiliar to the Korean peninsula. While the central conflict seems to be between the neighbors, US is as much a party to the issue as the two Koreas. South Korea is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT,) which is an international treaty aimed at nuclear disarmament, prevention of the spread of nuclear weaponry and promoting peaceful usage of nuclear energy. This treaty, which came into force in 1970, is legally binding to its parties, meaning that those who are party to the NPT must abide by its provision, failing which they would have to face repercussions.
However, North Korea and many other nations including India have chosen to not become parties of the NPT, stating the inherent inequality of the treaty as the main reason. The NPT was signed in the year 1968, and divides nations into two groups: nuclear weapon states and non- nuclear weapon states. There are five nuclear weapon states under the NPT, namely USA, UK, Russia, China and France. These are the nations that had a nuclear arsenal prior to the signing of this treaty and enjoy gross advantages under the clauses of this treaty.
The non- nuclear weapon states are prohibited from manufacturing or acquiring nuclear weaponry, are legally obligated to give regular information about their nuclear capabilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and undergo inspections by the IAEA. While it vaguely calls for all parties to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith’ towards nuclear disarmament, there is no binding provision for the Nuclear Weapon States to give up their weaponry. It is the power imbalance created by this inherent inequal treatment of its parties and the consequent threats to their national security that has kept many nations from signing the NPT.
In 1985, North Korea had shown an interest in signing the NPT and entered the treaty. However, the nation called for a withdrawal from the treaty soon after due to violations of the DPRK-IAEA safeguards agreement by the US and what it terms are ‘certain circles of the IAEA.’ North Korea claimed that US had continued it’s nuclear weapon program and joint military activities in South Korea despite agreeing otherwise, and that the IAEA inspections under the safeguards agreement had been used to breach the nation’s sovereignty.
Post the announcement of withdrawal, the US-DPRK Agreed Framework was signed. Under this agreement, the US was obligated to supply certain material required for peaceful development of nuclear energy in North Korea regularly for a certain period, post which North Korea would begin it’s process of nuclear disarmament. However, this attempt at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula also failed after North Korea withdrew on the grounds that US had once again been non-compliant to the binding agreement.
By looking at the Korean peninsula, which is one of the gravest examples of the complexities of and dangers posed by nuclear armament, the need for denuclearization becomes increasingly clear. It is integral to note that the aforementioned is only possible when the inequalities are rectified and the global platform is levelled for all parties to denuclearize without fearing a threat to their national security.