[The Acton Forum] The proliferation of North Korea’s WMD and its implications on international security

International security is threatened by various challenges in today’s globalised world. These so-called security challenges are conventionally regarded as top priority issues demanding immediate attention. It is, however, doutbful that all the existing security issues deserve the same degree of international attention and effort. Not all is of equal gravity, in other words. Some challenges pose far more serious and severe threats to the global community than others do. Some security issues are labelled as such, but in fact they seldom pose any existential threats. Thus, it is necessary to identify the most important security challenges facing the international community and to examine what can be done to alleviate them.

This short essay argues that the proliferation of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is one of the most important security challenges, jeopardising the survival of states and people in our time. It represents a common security concern not only to countries in Northeast Asia but also to the entire international society. This security challenge therefore requires immediate and extraordinary measures based on global cooperation among governments, often represented by the United Nations (UN). In this regard, the UN should continue to be the major player in tackling the proliferation of North Korean WMD arsenal and related technology. In order to convince its member states of the significance, urgency and devastating consequences of this challenge, the UN must resecuritise the issue by adopting a new resolution focusing specifically on the proliferation of North Korea’s WMD, missiles and related technology. The new resolution, as argued in this essay, will attract stronger international attention to the ‘proliferation’ part of the North Korean problem and would ultimately bring into existence a reliable and durable international means of preventing the DPRK’s WMD proliferation.

This essay begins by defining the definition of international security, while focusing on the referent object of security, or the question “what entity should be secured”. It then analyses two dimensions of threat – severity and difficulty – that need to be considered to determine the degree of importance of a security issue. Based on that analysis, the essay asserts that North Korea’s WMD proliferation is one of the most grave international security problems. It also attempts to review the fundamental reason why this issue has been so often ignored and poorly addressed by the international society. The essay concludes by proposing a policy recommendation that would help to alleviate the issue.

International security is about protecting the state and the individual from the threats of armed attack and other forms of political violence committed by states and non-state actors in the international arena. It is a dual concept that embraces both state security and human security. First, state security is the traditional conception of security that defines the state as the referent object of security. Those who support the state-centric understanding of security define international security as the survival of sovereign states in the international arena. From this perspective, security is therefore about protecting a state’s regime, territory, population and sovereignty from other states’ armed attack. On the other hand, human security is a non-traditional understanding of security that defines the individual as the referent object. Advocates of human security argue that security is the emancipation of people from the threat of political violence. In this sense, international security is understood as the protection of people around the world, regardless of their nationality, against any form of political violence committed by states and non-state actors. Conceptualising international security therefore requires both state security and human security concepts because it takes both the state and the individual as the primary referent objects of security.

The degree of importance of a security issue can be determined by its level of severity and difficulty. First, the gravity of a security issue obviously depends on how serious it is. A particular security issue deserves more caution and attention if it puts more people at risk than others do. In other words, an issue should be deemed to be more serious than others if it causes or is likely to cause a greater number of casualties. The level of seriousness of an issue can also be determined by the number of countries jeopardised by its threat. Furthermore, the gravity of an issue is dependent on the level of threats posed by the issue. It is important to determine whether the issue merely hinders normal operating activities of a government or threatens the very survival of a state. Second, the importance of a security challenge depends on how difficult it is to manage. Some security issues can be significantly more difficult to cope with and thus require far more resources, effort and time to be resolved. For example, the threat of terrorism may conceivably be more difficult to alleviate than the threat posed by an interstate conflict because, in general, terrorism involves a huge number of unidentifiable non-state actors who are free from any norms and regulations. Likewise, addressing a pandemic would require far more resources from states and international organisations than managing an interstate territorial dispute does.

In this regard, the North Korean proliferation problem deserves to be regarded as one of the most important threats to international security. Without a doubt, this security challenge is already serious enough to be a matter of deep international concern and is becoming increasingly more difficult to cope with. The DPRK is widely reported to hold a large number of chemical weapons, including nerve agent sarin, mustard and phosgene. The country is also believed to have a biological weapons capability. Furthermore, North Korea has been an active supplier of missiles and related technology to countries in Middle East and South Asia, particularly Iran, Syria and Burma. The biggest problem, however, is its nuclear weapons. North Korea has a long record of engaging in illicit nuclear trade and is believed to have recently engaged in the construction of an undeclared nuclear reactor in Syria. In 2000, Pyongyang illicitly sold its uranium hexafluoride to Libya, and it also attempted to sell WMD-related materials to Syria and Burma in 2012. In 2013, North Korea proclaimed that it has successfully conducted its third underground nuclear test, and now the country is believed to possess at least six nuclear bombs. Pyongyang is likely to acquire four to eight more as it has plentiful weapons-grade material, namely uranium. The problem, however, is not merely about whether this rogue state would acquire more nuclear warheads. The real concern is the proliferation of its nuclear bombs and related materials to other states and non-state actors.

The danger posed by North Korea’s proliferation activities is real because of two clear reasons. First, the spread of North Korean nuclear weapons-related materials and technology would increase the number of nuclear weapons states. Despite the global nuclear non-proliferation trends, some states have persistently pursued nuclear weapons in order to enhance their security. These countries with strong nuclear ambitions are willing to purchase nuclear materials and technology if they can, and the regime in Pyongyang is ready to use illicit nuclear trade to sell its weapons and technology to those countries. This is not a groundless fear. North Korea is diplomatically and economically isolated from the rest of the world and its economy is in grave condition. And the nuclear obsession of the ruling elites in Pyongyang is increasingly intensifying. Considering these circumstances, illicit nuclear trade is an attractive alternative for the Kim Jong-un regime to make money for its nuclear weapons program.

If countries with nuclear ambitions acquire nuclear bombs through the illicit trade with North Korea, it would certainly trigger a serious nuclear arms race. This is what a nuclear domino effect is about. In the anarchic international system, the emergence of new nuclear weapons states is always perceived by other non-nuclear-weapons states as a great danger and inevitably leads them to consider seriously acquiring nuclear weapons. Consequently, more countries would pursue nuclear capabilities for their national security, causing the dangerous decline, or even collapse, of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. If this happens, many nuclear threshold countries – those countries that have sufficient nuclear capacity but have chosen not to go nuclear – would possibly withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and start to develop nuclear weapons for their own security. Eventually, the world would encounter with the emergence of other potential nuclear flashpoints.

Secondly, North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-state actors would greatly amplify the threat of nuclear terrorism. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT and expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from the country. According to the 2014 IAEA Report, the organisation has not been able to monitor North Korea’s nuclear program and to safeguard its nuclear materials since 2009. The report stresses the DPRK’s non-compliance with the NPT Safeguards Agreement and claims that “the agency has not been able to implement any safeguards measures in North Korea”. This means that at present there is no institutional strategy to deter North Korea from transferring its nuclear-related materials and technology to unidentifiable non-state actors, namely global terrorist organisations.

Terrorists aim to cause mass destruction and casualties in order to achieve their political objectives. It is therefore obvious that they are eager to possess devastating WMDs and intend to use them to harm the general public. This has already been well demonstrated by the 9/11 terrorist attack and the 2002 Bali Bombings. Despite its longstanding reputation for irrational behaviour, North Korea is a rational actor in the international system and would therefore be unlikely to use its WMD arsenal to commit a pre-emptive attack on its adversaries, simply because the regime in Pyongyang knows that such irrational use of WMDs will cut its own throat. There is, however. an immense possibility of the DPRK selling its WMD arsenal and WMD-related technology to terrorists, who are willing to pay for what they want desperately. Especially, North Korea’s biological, chemical and nuclear weapons could fall in the hands of global terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, as the country has close links with the governments supporting those terrorist groups.

And there is the ‘difficulty’ part of this security challenge. The spread of North Korea’s WMD and missiles is a threat that is tremendously difficult to cope with. As mentioned earlier, the DPRK is not a member of the NPT and is therefore not restricted by nuclear safeguards and arms control. It is almost certain that Pyongyang would not return to the NPT as the regime has no intention to abandon its nuclear ambitions as well as WMD and missile programs. Indeed, Kim Jong-un and the Workers’ Party of Korea firmly believe that they cannot survive without nuclear capabilities. In addition, North Korea is highly unlikely to allow the IAEA to verify its nuclear program as the country wants further development of nuclear weapons. For this reason, it is extremely difficult to prevent unauthorised transfer of the DPRK’s weapons-related materials and technology to other states and non-state actors. Besides, there are too many unidentifiable terrorist and transnational criminal organisations around the world. This makes the problem even harder to tackle.

So, what can be done to alleviate this security challenge? The proliferation of North Korea’s WMD cannot be managed by merely urging Pyongyang not to sell its weapons to third parties. Moreover, the threat posed by the issue cannot be alleviated by limited cooperation among several countries on a regional basis. It is a global problem and therefore requires strong international cooperation. In this respect, the UN, as a powerful securitising actor, can play a significant role in alleviating the threat. By issuing a new UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) that specifically addresses the proliferation of North Korea’s WMD, missiles and related technology, the UN would be able to convince its member states of the seriousness and urgency of this security challenge.

In 2004, the UN adopted the UNSCR 1540, which stresses the significance of WMD proliferation and urges UN members to take “effective measures to prevent the transfer of WMD and their delivery systems to non-state actors”. Since then, the institution has constantly reaffirmed the obligations in resolution 1540 in other UNSCRs on North Korean WMD and missile activities. The UNSCR 1540, however, has not contributed much to alleviating the threat of North Korean proliferation because it has not been universally implemented by UN members. No country has ever complied with all of resolution 1540’s obligations. As a result, the UN, with all its resolutions on the DPRK, has failed to articulate the North Korean proliferation threat as an existential threat to international security and to convince UN member states of the complexity, gravity, and urgency of the issue.

The Copenhagen School argues that an issue is not perceived as a security challenge unless it is successfully articulated as an existential threat to a designated referent object of security. According to the School, a securitising actor should use strong Speech Act to securitise a particular issue and convince relevant audiences of the gravity of the issue. This so-called securitisation process aims to move an issue beyond the realm of normal politics into the realm of security where the securitising actor can have the right to adopt extraordinary measures to effectively address the issue. These emergency measures are normally not achievable through the rules and procedures of everyday politics. A successful securitisation would therefore lead to the adoption and implementation of emergency measures beyond normal politics, and this is achievable when the securitising actor’s speech act is strong and effective enough to persuade the audiences that the very survival of a designated referent object is threatened by the issue.

In this respect, the UN, and its resolution 1540, proved to be ineffective in three ways: it failed in presenting the issue as an existential threat; in prioritising the issue over other global security issues; and in moving the issue into the realm of security where extraordinary measures – for this case, full compliance with the obligations in resolution 1540 – are successfully applied. And there are two clear reasons for its failures: first, the UNSCR 1540 is not persuasive and not effective enough to articulate the issue as an existential threat, and second, the UN has not been a strong securitising actor whose speech act is not strong enough to induce UN members to fully comply with the obligations under resolution 1540.

In order to resolve the North Korean proliferation threat, the UN therefore should adopt a new resolution that is based on the UNSCR 1540 but focuses specifically on the spread of North Korea’s WMD, missiles and related technology to states and non-state actors. The resolution should contain more persuasive language of security that would help to articulate the issue as the most serious and urgent threat to international security. Otherwise, it may die immediately upon its adoption or may be ignored. Of course, the mere adoption of such a resolution would not fully resolve the problem. The effectiveness of such a broad measure depends upon its implementation, not upon its mere adoption. The UN, therefore, should use its function as the largest international forum where the new UNSCR can be quoted frequently and can constantly be reaffirmed as central to international security cooperation. Once the North Korean proliferation issue is successfully securitised through this process, the new resolution would be universally implemented by all UN members and would certainly contribute to preventing the DPRK from engaging in illicit transfer of WMD to third parties.

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Without a doubt, the proliferation of North Korean WMD, missile and related technology is a devastating and enormous threat to international security. In terms of severity, this security challenge would bolster the global terrorist threat and would also erode the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In terms of difficulty, the threat is extremely difficult to cope with as it involves a huge number of states and unidentifiable non-state actors. Despite its seriousness and urgency, this security challenge however has not been regarded as one of the most important threat to the international community because it has not been properly securitised in the first place. As a result, the threat of North Korean proliferation activities has been perceived as less serious and less urgent than it actually is. And this has led to the UNSCR 1540 being poorly implemented by UN members.

Although the UNSCR 1540 has failed in alleviating the threat, the UN still has the potential to effectively address the issue. As a strong securitising actor, the institution can contribute to mitigating the threat by adopting a new resolution, which specifically addresses the proliferation of the DPRK’s WMD, missile and related technology to third parties. In order to present the issue as the most devastating security threat facing the world, the new resolution should use more persuasive and stronger language of security. And for its universal implementation, the UN must use its function as a forum to increase the international awareness of the seriousness of North Korean proliferation challenges.

Some would criticise this policy recommendation, arguing that securitising an ‘already securitised’ issue is unnecessary. They may argue that more sophisticated and technical policy measures are needed to address this security challenge. The problem of North Korean proliferation is, indeed, already widely deemed as a security issue. However, it is also true that the issue has not been yet properly securitised and that its threat is therefore regarded as ‘potential’, not as ‘existential’. Unless the issue is considered in the first place as an existential threat to international security, no further policy measure would be helpful.