The non-proliferation regime in crisis

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The non-proliferation regime in crisis

Han Yong-sup
The author is the president of the Association for International Security and Cooperation and former vice president of Korea National Defense University.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which took effect in 1970 to prevent nuclear wars and nuclear proliferation, marked its 52nd anniversary. The 10th review conference started in New York on Aug. 1 and will wrap up on Friday. Of the 193 United Nations members, five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, the UK, France, Russia and China — are recognized as nuclear-weapons states. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are defined as outlier states, while the remaining 184 countries are non-nuclear states. Over the past half century, the NPT is generally evaluated as an effective regime, but its future is not that bright.

The five recognized nuclear states are extremely split. At the current review conference, the stance of the United States, the UK and France is completely different from that of Russia and China. For the NPT to properly function, the nuclear states must perform their nonproliferation and disarmament responsibilities beyond exercising their rights as nuclear states.

Non-nuclear states recognize nuclear states under two preconditions. First is a promise of a passive security guarantee: that the nuclear countries will not threaten the non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons or use the arsenals against them. Second is a promise of an active security guarantee that nuclear states will offer a nuclear umbrella to non-nuclear states under nuclear attack.

In late February, Russia invaded Ukraine. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed by Ukraine in 1994 so that its sovereignty and security would be assured in return for handing over all nuclear weapons to Russia. But Russia betrayed the memorandum. Russian President Vladimir Putin made numerous threats that he would not hesitate to start a nuclear attack on the West if they support Ukraine militarily. With its illegal actions, Russia abandoned its responsibility as a recognized nuclear state under the NPT and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia raised a fundamental question about the legitimacy of a recognized nuclear state.

At the NPT review conference, demands are increasingly made that the nuclear states’ passive and active security guarantees should be institutionalized, but a joint agreement on such a clause is unlikely to be adopted due to opposition from Russia and China. For recognized nuclear states to maintain the legitimacy of their nuclear weapons possession, they must fulfill the duty of nuclear disarmament under the NPT regime. Over the past three decades, Russia and the United States have dismantled 80 percent of their nuclear weapons, but that progress has stopped since 2017.

China has only enjoyed its prestige as a nuclear state and made no effort at nuclear disarmament. Benefiting from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia, China openly augmented its intermediate-range nuclear missiles to disable the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Although Washington proposed trilateral nuclear reduction talks to Moscow and Beijing in 2018, Beijing has ignored the request of the NPT members that it must start nuclear reduction.

Frustrated by the stalled progress of nuclear disarmament of the recognized nuclear states, non-allied countries led an initiative to propose the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). After it was signed by 86 countries and ratified by 66 of them, the new treaty became an international agreement adopted by the UN last year. At the NPT review conference, the TPNW movement is active, but the nuclear states and their allies are rejecting it en masse. In the future, the NPT will face many challenges due to the uncomfortable cohabitation with the TPNW.

Another key issue at the NPT review conference is North Korea’s threat to conduct its seventh nuclear test and continue missile provocations. The international community is pressuring the North to stop all provocations and denuclearize its weapons in a complete, verifiable and irreversible way to respect UN Security Council resolutions.

But Russia and China are demanding a resolution through dialogue and vetoing any additional UN sanctions on North Korea. The international community is urging North Korea, India and Pakistan to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty so that they will stop nuclear tests permanently.

In South Korea, many people think the country should independently arm itself with nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile threats. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration must demand the United States establish a system of stronger extended nuclear deference by stressing that South Korea will remain nuclear arms free despite growing public demands to develop nuclear weapons. At the NPT review conference, Seoul must reinforce its solidarity with the international community so that it will support South Korea’s nuclear-free policy and security policy.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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