The nuclear-weapons prospect

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

North Korea's nuclear-weapon test on 25 May 2009 has produced strong condemnation across a range of states and world leaders, though (so far at least) little action. In part, this is because the circumstances of Pyongyang's decision to conduct the test were unusual even for this particularly unpredictable state. It was accompanied by other missile-tests, disputed claims over the status of the ceasefire in the Korean war (1950-53), threats against South Korea should it join international counter-proliferation initiatives, and vocal antagonism to the long-established six-party talks.   Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

North Korea's initiative and harsh rhetoric may be part of a bid for international attention as a lever to gain more economic aid; or of a political-transition struggle where harder-line elements aspire to internal power. The difficulty of reading the Kim Jong-il regime's intentions makes it even harder for the Barack Obama administration and its allies in Europe and east Asia to formulate an effective response. But the test also highlights the issue of nuclear proliferation - and notwithstanding the understandable unease over a "maverick" state's calculations, there are grounds for optimism in the larger picture.

The danger

Pyongyang's test raises or reconfirms three serious concerns. The first is that if North Korea goes on to resist every pressure and develop a nuclear arsenal, pro-nuclear factions in Japan and South Korea may press hard for the same in response.  This would be worrying enough for the Chinese, who regard their regional nuclear monopoly as necessary for their security; the regional tensions could then rise much higher if Taiwan (which researched many of the relevant technologies in the 1970s) took the nuclear-weapons route.

The second is that if Iran appears to make further progress in its own nuclear activities, a comparable regional rivalry could develop in the middle east.  The presidential election on 12 June 2009 may be crucial in this regard; if a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration continues in power, significant elements of the leadership in Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will call for programmes of nuclear-weapons research.

The third concern links both the above factors. This is North Korea's now undoubted capacity to spread nuclear-weapons technologies and knowledge, if it should so choose. The focus here could well be on countries in the middle east, supplementing Pyongyang's existing missile-export activities.

The context

The era of nuclear proliferation started in the mid-1940s when the Soviet Union - conscious of the Manhattan Project that was nearing completion in the United States - began to plan a nuclear programme. The first Soviet test followed in 1949. A crucial year for the process was 1946, when the McMahon Energy Act passed the United States congress; this denied the US's wartime allies any further access by to its nuclear technology, even though Britain had been integral to the project. In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

That decision alone helped set Britain on the path to developing its own nuclear weapons, a drive fuelled by the British political elite's belief that it was at the helm of one of three superpowers. Britain became a nuclear power by the mid-1950s; France, with its own imperial status and pretensions to grandeur, followed in 1960. Then came China in 1964 and Israel in the late 1960s.

The early 1970s saw nuclear ambitions spread to south Asia. India tested a so-called "peaceful" device in 1974 without declaring any intention to build an arsenal of weapons: the capability was apparently enough. But this very act provoked a demand among the Pakistani elite - still smarting from its clear military defeat by India in the East Pakistan/Bangladesh war of 1971 - to gain a nuclear capability at all costs. The strategic concern was both to compensate for India's huge conventional forces and to prevent an Indian nuclear monopoly in the region.

Both countries tested nuclear weapons in May 1998, and each retains a significant nuclear arsenal; India probably has around ninety weapons and Pakistan rather fewer (estimates vary, and there are indications that Pakistan - which has built additional reactors for producing plutonium - is adding to its stockpile). In one sense, however, India and Pakistan can be seen as a "closed couple", in the sense that their nuclear rivalry has (with the possible exception of Iran) little impact on the nuclear ambitions of neighbouring countries.

It is worth remembering too that some efforts to curb nuclear-proliferation have been successful. Argentina and Brazil seemed locked in a race to develop nuclear weapons in the early 1980s, with many analysts believing that they would achieve this within a decade (and that Chile was likely in that case to follow); but, helped partly by the move from military to civil rule, they agreed in 1990 to abandon the nuclear path. In the early 1990s, with the fall of the apartheid system imminent, the minority white government in South Africa dismantled its six nuclear weapons. The end of the cold war also led Russia to withdraw the nuclear weapons deployed by the Soviet system in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The trend

The bleaker projections raised by North Korea's test need to be seen in this broader context. Indeed, it is the very fear of renewed proliferation and dangerous competition that have inspired even such establishment figures as Henry Kissinger and George Schultz to call for progress towards a nuclear-free world. The next five-year review of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), in 2010, will provide a major focus for this argument.

Any movement in this direction will have to overcome the "do as I say, not as I do" attitude of the main existing nuclear powers, which signed the treaty but have always been tardy in complying with its Article 6 - which requires them to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. But again, some progress has been made and there is the prospect of more. The extensive cold-war arsenals (amounting to well over 60,000 nuclear weapons) have been greatly reduced; President Obama seems genuine in wanting to engage with Russia in negotiating further cuts (amounting to perhaps a half) from the current levels of around 5,000 on each side; and the United States could finally ratify the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT).

None of this amounts to a definite downwards trend to minimum forces, let alone a clear commitment to create a nuclear-free world anytime soon.   Meanwhile, a number of countries - Britain, France and China - are all modernising their nuclear arsenals, albeit at levels below their cold-war peaks.

The hope

But further countervailing forces to proliferation are beginning to operate, most prominently the worldwide economic crisis. Britain is the country to watch here. Whatever the outcome of the current political turmoil in the country and of the next general election (which must be held by early June 2010), persisting financial constraints will make inevitable a major defence review.

The forces' demands continue. The British army is desperate for new investment; the navy wants two new super-carriers; the nuclear lobby is seeking to replace the existing Trident nuclear force with another fleet of ballistic-missile submarines. But something will have to give.

The carriers will almost certainly be cancelled, to be replaced by much smaller, cheaper and more versatile ships; and there are strong arguments too to delay Trident replacement or even cancel the hugely expensive submarines. This would involve opting for a much smaller system, possibly based on cruise-missiles carried on existing attack-submarines.

The discussion of this possibility was until recently confined to the political margins (see "Two steps to zero", 17 July 2008). The ground is shifting, however; even former statesmen (including members of the Conservative Party) are talking about the need to abolish nuclear weapons or preserve only a minimum nuclear force (i.e. one far below current levels).

In global terms the situation is poised, with the 2010-12 period looking crucial. If, in that time, the United States and Russia negotiate major and verifiable cuts in their arsenals; and if at least one middle-ranking power reduces its stock to a handful of weapons - then the international climate would change, and nuclear weapons start to lose their attraction.

What always needs to be remembered is that twenty and even more countries could have developed nuclear weapons at any time since the late 1960s, but all have chosen not to do so. Non-nuclear status is actually the global norm, not the exception; it is the nuclear states that are the exception.

That at least provides some room for hope. It is just possible that the North Korean test becomes one more factor that pushes these "mavericks" to rethink their nuclear postures.