North Korea and Trident: challenging the nuclear non-proliferation regime

As representatives of 189 governments meet to discuss strengthening the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Kim Jong-un and David Cameron have provided stark reminders of the continuing dangers that nuclear weapons pose to human security. Rebecca Johnson reports from Geneva

The top of a submarine breaking the water's surface Trident-armed submarine: "the best insurance
policy you can have". Image: Scottish CND
In North Korea, military exercises by the United States and South Korea provoked Kim Jong-un to rattle his poverty-stricken country’s nuclear sabres and threaten nuclear attacks.  Shown playing with guns surrounded by uniformed officers, the young despot announced that plutonium production capabilies would be restarted and uranium enrichment accelerated to increase North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as soon as possible. As two US B-2 stealth bombers were flown over South Korea, he threatened to unleash nuclear weapons and war on South Korea and the United States.  While most analysts raised doubts about North Korea’s actual capabilities, and wise heads called for all sides to calm their rhetoric and resume the Six Party Talks on regional security and denuclearisation,  Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron seized avidly on the Korean crisis to back up his own ideologically driven nuclear agenda.

Like then Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine strutting in a flak jacket in the 1980s and George Bush in combat fatigues on an aircraft carrier beneath that infamous “Mission Accomplished banner” in the early days of the Iraq war, Cameron surrounded himself with navy personnel at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland. Making the inaccurate claim that North Korean missiles directly threaten the UK, Cameron hailed Trident as “the best insurance policy you can have”.  The choice of the nuclear base was designed to influence Scottish voters in advance of the independence vote, evoking national security and the Trident-related jobs on the Clyde.  As analysts dismissed his exaggerated claims, Cameron’s misfired ploy left him looking ridiculous.  Irrespective of their views on the question of independence for Scotland, Scottish opposition to Trident has been consistently high for many years, demonstrated at the ballot box as well as in opinion polls.  While support for independence is currently showing at around 33%, over 80 percent of Scots voters continue to oppose Trident replacement and advocate that Scotland should become nuclear free.

Listening to David Cameron and Kim Jong-un, it was hard not to be struck by the similarities.  Both were engaging in “nuclear deterrence” posturing, mostly for domestic political purposes.  Both posed with their respective militaries.  Both are weak leaders who are desperate to prove to the elites they depend on that they are big, strong leaders who like big long missiles.  Choosing to play the nuclear card at this time, they have different perspectives, but both seem to think that nuclear weapons enhance their status domestically and internationally. They are wrong.  Kim attracts little more than contempt in view of North Korea’s poverty and repression, and Cameron appears similarly deluded.  In a recent article on NATO in the International Herald Tribune, a US official was quoted saying of the UK: “They can’t afford Trident, and they need to confront the choice: either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner.”

According to Global Zero, a campaign group initiated by US former military officers to advocate reducing all nuclear arsenals to zero, in 2011, North Korea spent $700 million on nuclear weapons, while the UK spent $5.5 billion. To convince parliament they were getting a bargain, Labour had slashed the public cost of Trident replacement, representing it as “only” £20 billion. This figure barely covers the submarine construction costs, and had reportedly already factored in the likelihood of building three rather than four new boats. When warheads, missiles, weapons storage and deployment costs are factored in, a more realistic pricetage for the next generation of Trident is widely recognised to be in excess of £100 billion. As North Koreans starve in the dark and the Coalition government cuts vital health, education and services, thereby squeezing the poorest and most vulnerable parts of British society, the obsession of these two leaders with nuclear weapons amounts to grand theft and larceny. They are stealing from our human security needs on the premise of a miscalculated and grossly inflated “insurance” theory that couldn’t pay out if things went wrong because most of us would be dead.

While Cameron’s justifications for Trident replacement are unconvincing, North Korea is applying textbook deterrence theory, with actions and rhetoric that serve to highlight the flaws and dangers of nuclear deterrence in practice.  First you have to convince real or imagined adversaries that you have the capability to make and deliver a nuclear bomb. North Korea has done its best with this, carrying out various missile flight tests and three underground nuclear explosions in the past seven years.  Then you have to convince others that if they act in ways you don’t like you might bomb something they would not want to lose (Seoul, Tokyo, Guam, perhaps even Los Angeles or San Francisco, though North Korea probably lacks that range).  In case your target audience thinks that no rational leader would be mad enough to risk regime suicide by committing a war crime of such horrendous consequences, you have to persuade everyone that you are sufficiently unstable, crazy or immoral to do something as dangerous, irresponsible and inhumane as to detonate a nuclear weapon.  But of course, for deterrence to “work”, nuclear threats mustn’t actually be carried out. 

Over the years the core justification for perpetuating nuclear weapons (at vast national expense) is that possession is supposed to guarantee that they won’t be used by anyone. In the alternative view of Julian Lewis MP, the Westminster parliament’s staunchest proponent of Trident replacement, we use nuclear weapons every day, since “their use lies in the prevention of the use of similar weapons against this country and our interests”.  A similar point has been made by Daniel Ellsberg, the senior military analyst who revealed US delusions in Vietnam by exposing the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg noted how nuclear weapons are frequently “used in the exact sense in which a gun is used when it is pointed at someone’s head in a confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.  To get one’s way without having to pull the trigger is a major reason for acquiring the gun and, often, for brandishing it.” 

But if the coercive objective is not achieved by just brandishing the weapon, and if you’ve miscalculated the situation, what then? Firing a gun could land you with a murder charge. Firing a nuclear weapon would be a catastrophic crime against humanity.

Among military and political advocates, deterrence is the basis of nuclear weapons’ legitimacy. So while trying to convey a credible threat by signalling that you have the capability and intention to launch a nuclear attack, you mustn’t make your enemies so nervous that they conclude it is necessary to fire on you first to prevent or pre-empt the attack you are warning them about. This is a very fine line.  Both sides have to hear each other, understand and communicate effectively in this strategic “dialogue between the blind and the deaf”, as General Lee Butler called nuclear deterrence.

Neither Kim nor Cameron probably desires or intends to incinerate cities full of living breathing people.  But they are arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction under the faulty logic that others will be sensible enough not to call their nuclear bluff. The biggest danger, as happened on several occasions during the Cold War, is that something goes wrong – through miscalculation, accident or fear; that a weapon wielded for domestic political purposes ends up getting detonated, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences.  As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted as the crisis escalated: “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counteractions, and fuel fear and instability.”

When NPT governments and civil society start their two week meeting in Geneva on 22 April, four issues are likely to be paramount: in addition to the North Korean nuclear crisis, the meeting is expected to address the failure to convene a promised conference in 2012 for all states in the Middle East to discuss how to remove nuclear weapons and all other WMD from this insecure region, as agreed by the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which are increasingly being raised by non-nuclear-weapon states, and continuing concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. 

The diplomats will also discuss issues relating to nuclear energy, safety and security. Though the reckless pressure for nuclear power plants to be built all over the world has diminished in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, countries like Iran, China, France and Russia continue to promote, build and sell nuclear fuel and power plants “for peaceful purposes”, citing climate concerns as well as the NPT’s Article IV which provided a “right” to nuclear energy for those that joined the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states. Others, including Britain, the United States and some developing states will probably beat the nuclear energy drum as well, although nuclear new-builds are not proceeding as planned, and constructing new nuclear power stations would cost far more (and deliver far less) than being claimed.

The NPT has been a useful and valuable treaty for over 40 years, but its weaknesses make it more important than ever to create modern, more effective agreements, tools and approaches to fulfil the NPT’s core security objective: a world without the spread and threats from nuclear weapons. At two different ends of the nuclear proliferation spectrum, these threats are epitomised by both the UK’s plans to modernise Trident and North Korea’s determination to produce and deploy nuclear-armed missiles for deterrence.  As the NPT meeting proceeds over the next two weeks, I will report on how states and civil society address these linked security challenges.

This is the first in a series of articles by Rebecca Johnson reporting from the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, April 22nd -May 3rd.