North Korea recently conducted an MRBM (Medium Range Ballistic Missile) test with a range of 310 miles (500 km), although speculation by South Korean intelligence suggested it could have flown up to 1,243 miles (2000 km). This test followed a prolific series of tests by DPRK in 2016, raising concerns in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. The test, which was undoubtedly for signaling purposes, was conducted on February 12, 2017 and tallied with the Japanese-US summit held on January 10. The leaders of the two countries issued a joint statement that signaled their disapproval of the test and a pledge for renewed effort to cooperate more closely against the problematic Kim Jong Un regime. The test also came only ten days after US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis’ visit to Seoul on February 2, 2017 where he discussed closer cooperation between South Korea and the US. Subsequently, China, which has robust economic ties with North Korea, also came under pressure to contain North Korea. China is North Korea’s primary ally and accounts for more than 70 percent of its trade. Shortly afterwards, however, in a surprise move, China imposed a suspension on coal imports from North Korea, which is expected come as a major blow to the Pyongyang regime.
The latest North Korean test highlights two important challenges for the global community in the context of nuclear nonproliferation. The first, directly borne out of North Korea’s relentless trajectory of missile tests and no intentions to halt testing is arms buildup, a result of consequent US actions in the region. On New Year’s Eve, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un stated his ambitions to build and successfully test an ICBM. An arms race seems inevitable, as the US has planned to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea, which is perceived unfavorably by China. In January, China reportedly called for the US to halt this process, as the system poses a threat to the existing strategic stability and security of China. In the future, China might be tempted to acquire a missile defense system in response to US deployment of THAAD as well.
The other perceptible factor is the strengthening alignments of great powers with their smaller counterparts and increased polarization in the region. The first group consists of the Japan-South Korea-US alignment, while on the other side exists the China-North Korea connection. This is especially problematic because China and the US had recently reached a point of thaw in their relations, which had been chilly after US President Donald Trump made controversial statements regarding US’ One-China policy couched in ambiguous language, about his willingness to adhere to it. Adherence to the One-China policy was subsequently reaffirmed by Trump on February 9.
But if non-proliferation is indeed the ultimate interest of all the states involved, then alignments cannot be given precedence over the larger shared goal of nuclear non-proliferation. The non-proliferation regime has increasingly been viewed with skepticism. At the heart of it, the NPT, which was drafted with the ultimate goal of complete disarmament as an end, is facing new challenges like the India-US nuclear deal and nuclearization of North Korea. This is exacerbated by states’ alignments with each other. Driven by security interests these states have lost focus on strengthening non-proliferation regime. What is required, then, is the inclusion of de facto, but non-NPT nuclear weapon states into the global non-proliferation order. This will create more connectivity between NPT states and non-NPT states on non-proliferation issues. Jointly the states may take a stance against proliferation.
The North-Korean buildup is linked to Pakistan by some analysts and is an example of the lack of congruence between NPT and non-NPT nuclear states is in the way that the international community refers to the Pakistan “connection” with North Korea and the A.Q. Khan episode. Fingers are promptly pointed at Pakistan in the light of North Korean provocations. For example, in January 2017, an Indian scholar of South Asian affairs, Aparna Pande, labelled Pakistan the biggest threat to non-proliferation because of its past association with North Korea through its much controversial A.Q. Khan network. She also nitpicks US policy toward Pakistan, saying that it is complacent and unless nations such as Pakistan are made to “pay for bad behavior”, the threat to nonproliferation will continue to grow. In this analysis, she conveniently misses the fact that India was also a benefactor of the A.Q. Khan network in the 1990s, popularly dubbed the “fourth customer of the Khan network”. Moreover, in the course of this argument, Pakistan’strong commitment to non-proliferation, manifest in many steps that it has taken since 2004, is overlooked.
Currently, there are far serious concerns that plague the non-proliferation regime and they do not all come from Pakistan. There is a wide trust deficit between the de jure nuclear powers, particularly the US, and other states as is evident from the security situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The trust deficit resulting in the lack of policy convergence between states for global powers and their policies towards de facto nuclear weapon states. In order to reach common grounds, a much closer cooperation needs to be established between all nuclear weapon states, de jure as well as de facto, and a shift away from alignments.
The non-proliferation regime has been unable to address the demand side of nuclear technology and weapons and the formation of defensive coalitions, as well as a lack of steps to encourage mutually implementable checks and balances on these issues upturns the practice of vertical proliferation. Paradoxically, headway can only be made as long as the great powers show a commitment to decrease their own reliance on nuclear weapons in their respective defense policies. Therefore, as long as the US is committed to deploying missile defense systems in the Asia Pacific region, it cannot expect North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons ambitions either.
There exist no clear-cut policy options for US North Korea dilemma and no real incentives for North Korea to cap its missile programme. But a precedent to do so can be set for non-proliferation by cooperation between concerned countries. Pakistan has made significant efforts to act as a rational and prudent nuclear weapons state and can play a much larger role in the global non-proliferation regime if efforts are made to address the problem of vertical proliferation.