With rare exceptions, such as the Cuban missile crisis or the worldwide nuclear alert during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the international community grasped the gravity of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and worse, the disastrous consequences of using them. And so they became a weapon of deterrence and a source of fear of mythological proportions, while conventional weapons kept on killing millions of people.
The ongoing impasse with North Korea over its development of nuclear military capability typifies the deepest fear of nuclear proliferation. A rogue state — whose decision-making processes are a mystery to most and which has the most appalling record on human rights at home and is led by extremely questionable and violent leaders — is gradually acquiring nuclear weapons with delivery systems that can hit targets thousands of miles away.
This nightmare has not appeared overnight, but is the result of colossal failure of the post-World War II collective security mechanism of the UN to nip the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the bud. Already in 1968 there was international recognition that nuclear proliferation makes for a less secure world with potentially disastrous consequences. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) stated explicitly that its intention was “… to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”
But nearly 50 years and 191 countries’ signatures later, nuclear weapons are far from being eradicated. To be sure, those possessing nuclear weapons still belong to a very exclusive club of a mere nine countries that between them possess 16,300 nuclear weapons, more than 90 percent of which are in the hands of Russia and the US.
Nevertheless, the big international powers have never acted in the spirit of the NPT and consequently there has emerged a three-tier system when it comes to the development and possession of nuclear weapons. The first tier comprises the US, Russia, China, France and the UK who, due to their power and their history, are self-proclaimed legitimate possessors of nuclear weapons. In the second tier are those, including India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, who have managed to acquire these deadly weapons despite signing the NPT or by avoiding it all together, and there is little that can be done to reverse this. And finally, there are those, among them Iran and Libya, who aspired to develop such a capability, while the international community, with great justification and effort, was trying to prevent them from doing so.
North Korea’s persistence in developing a military nuclear capability in complete defiance of the international community exposes the sheer weakness of the latter. It is a nation that defies even its main patron, China, and provokes its neighbors with nuclear tests and missile launching adventures. But the weakness of the international community lies not only in its inability to assert its authority or to resolve this major international crisis, but also in its failure to reach a consensus and produce a coherent policy toward a major source of danger.
The inability of the US, China and Russia to put aside their differences, as profound as they are, and to join (diplomatic) forces in averting escalation and potential war in the region, is staggering. North Korea is exploiting these cracks in international collective security mechanisms to pursue its own plans.
It does not help when there is an inexperienced US administration that is thin-skinned and easily provoked. Dealing with an international crisis, such as the current North Korean one, can be likened to walking through a minefield. Trump and his crew seem determined to step on each and every mine. Trump continues to threaten military action, his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has suggested that North Korea is “begging for war,” and US Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned of a “massive military response” if the US or its allies were to feel threatened by the regime in Pyongyang. Is there a feasible military option? Most US generals suggest that the answer to this question is no. Even the threat of unilateral sanctions that would prevent “all trade with any country doing business with North Korea,” as Trump has suggested, is not feasible and would not necessarily do the trick. For one thing, China happens to be the largest trading partner of the US; for another, an executive order by the president would not suffice to bring about such a move, as it would require an Act of Congress.
North Korea’s aggression cannot go unchecked, but military and economic saber-rattling on their own will not work. The solution is quiet, traditional, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
North Korea’s constant aggravation and aggression in the region cannot go unchecked. It spells a real danger for the region and also sends the wrong signals to other countries with similar nuclear ambitions. However, the way forward cannot be via military deterrence or sanctions only. These components should be accompanied by inclusive diplomatic efforts, especially with China, that would take into account everyone’s vital interests, including North Korea’s. It would be a mistake to confuse the revulsion we feel toward the way Kim Jong Un and his henchmen treat their people, with the need to bring this dangerous saga to a peaceful end. Behind-closed-doors diplomacy that accepts the complexity of the situation is more likely to yield positive results than belligerent language.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.