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Why N. Korea Pursues the Status of Nuclear-Weapon State


Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ YONHAP News 

North Korea fired missiles on eight different occasions this year alone. It fired cruise missiles on January 22, right after U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and on March 21, and ballistic missiles on March 25. The North tested cruise missiles on September 11 and 12, train-launched short-range ballistic missiles on September 15, the Hwasong-8 supersonic missile on September 28 and a new type of surface-to-air missile on September 30. And on October 19, it launched a short range missile believed to be a submarine launched missile. 

It seems North Korea has been spurring weapons development since it announced a five-year defense plan at the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party in January this year, in an apparent move to gain recognition as a nuclear-weapon state. Here is Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, with more. 

North Korea has made significant progress in nuclear capabilities. Amid the stalled denuclearization talks, North Korea seeks to pressure the U.S. and strengthen its military power by expanding its nuclear capabilities further, although the international community will not recognize the country as a nuclear state. In fact, the North suspended all nuclear-related activities during the period between the Panmunjom Declaration in April 2018 and the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in February 2019. But since the collapse of the Hanoi summit, Pyongyang has continued to expand its nuclear arsenal, not crossing the red line.

North Korea has long prepared to obtain the status of a nuclear-weapon state. In 2005, North Korea officially declared possession of nuclear weapons. In 2012, right after Kim Jong-un took power, the North stipulated in the preamble of its Constitution that the country is a nuclear-weapon state. On April 1, 2013, the plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party adopted a law on consolidating the position of a nuclear-weapon state for self-defense. North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests and pushed ahead with more than 100 missile tests thus far. 

North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and fired the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in November the same year. After that, leader Kim Jong-un declared completion of state nuclear force. North Korea regards itself as a nuclear state, and it took an ambiguous attitude about complete denuclearization at previous nuclear negotiations. 

North Korea is far inferior to the U.S., as far as conventional military forces are concerned. Without nuclear weapons, its military power is far inferior to the U.S.  Also, the Kim Jong-un regime has promoted nuclear weapons development among the public as its major achievement. For these reasons, it is difficult for the North to choose complete denuclearization for now. By constantly stressing the status of a nuclear state, North Korea tries to strengthen internal unity and express its intention to possess nuclear weapons for a long time. 

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT entered into force on March 5, 1970, with the purpose of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-weapon states under this treaty are defined as those that completed their nuclear test before January 1, 1967. The treaty recognizes five nuclear-weapon states, namely, the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China. The NPT prohibits non-nuclear states from developing nuclear weapons and bans nuclear-weapon states from transferring nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states. Except the five countries, all nations are non-nuclear states. But three countries—India, Pakistan and Israel—are an exception. They are not signatories to the NPT, and they are classified as “virtual nuclear-weapon states.” 

Not all countries with nuclear capabilities can become nuclear-weapon states. In the context of international politics, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are officially recognized as nuclear-weapon states. India, Pakistan and Israel also possess nuclear weapons but are called “nuclear capable countries.” While the international community tacitly knows that those three countries and North Korea do possess nuclear weapons, it does not acknowledge them as nuclear-weapon states. 

North Korea joined the NPT in December 1985. It announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty in 1993, taking issue with the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency. After North Korea and the U.S. signed the Geneva Agreed Framework in 1994, it said it would return to the NPT. 

Following the collapse of the agreement, however, North Korea again announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. Afterwards, it declared possession of nuclear weapons. 

While India, Pakistan and Israel developed nuclear weapons before the NPT system took firm root, North Korea developed atomic weapons after it acceded to the NPT. Members of the NPT are allowed to withdraw from the treaty under certain conditions. So, North Korea’s withdrawal itself is not a problem. But the reason for its exit is not justifiable. Also, North Korea pressed ahead with nuclear activities that the NPT bans. That’s why the international community imposes sanctions on the North. The international acknowledgement of a country that destroys the NPT and possesses nuclear weapons illegally may lead to a “nuclear domino effect,” in which other countries like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan may attempt to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Therefore, there is no chance that North Korea will gain the status of a nuclear state. 

With the international community unlikely to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state, Pyongyang is urging South Korea to drop its double standards and hostile policy against the North. 

While maintaining its promised moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, North Korea will still continue with nuclear activities, calling them its right to self-defense. The activities may include the development of tactical nuclear weapons and cruise missile launches, which are not subject to sanctions. While avoiding the sanctions, North Korea is expected to enhance its nuclear capabilities for stronger defense and pressure the U.S.  North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and military authorities have already pledged to bolster the country’s military capabilities. North Korea will likely to continue to fire short-rage projectiles and increase the production of nuclear material, while refraining from nuclear and ICBM tests. It will also claim that it is a nuclear-weapon state until it gains something at nuclear negotiations, although it is impossible for the country to be recognized as a nuclear state in light of international politics.

North Korea seeks to overcome economic difficulties and tighten internal solidarity domestically, while trying to gain the status of a nuclear-weapon state internationally. The international community is concerned that the North may resort to armed provocations like missile launches in the process. 

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