The dirty little truth behind North Korea’s push to develop a nuclear capability to deter any potential US action against it is simple and complicated at the same time. Here’s the simple version: North Korea is not doing anything—not one thing—that the United States hasn’t done a thousand times over.
The slightly more complicated truth is this: Much, if not all, of what North Korea is going is driven not by a crazy leader, but by us—the United States. Kim Jong-un may be crazy. It’s impossible to know if the picture we get from US media is accurate or is just another example of the demonization of an “enemy” of the US. But what the North Korean leader is doing with his nuclear program is entirely rational once you enter the irrational world constructed around the policies of Mutually Assured Destruction and Nuclear Deterrence. This is the world we live in.
Twenty years ago, North Korea was one of three nations labeled the “axis of evil” by the president of the United States. Shortly thereafter that president pre-emptively (which means unprovoked and unthreatened) invaded Iraq, deposed its leader, and reduced the country to ruin, stripping away any semblance of social order, political stability, or economic or other security.
All the while, the US continued its practice of carrying out regular, aggressive, provocative “war games” aimed at intimidating North Korea. What would you do if you were the leader of North Korea?
You might ask if there was anything in the world you could do to protect yourself against the US now that the usual constraints against first attack no longer applied to the superpower that singled you out as a target. If you did ask, there was only one answer: fight fire with fire. If nuclear weapons are the ultimate currency of power, you better get yourself a few.
Everything else unfolds from that, right up until today, when the US and North Korea are engaging in perilous posturing and threats of existential catastrophe.
Here’s another slice of the dirty little secret pie. Both the US and North Korea live in a world that attempts to control nuclear weapons through instruments adopted by the United Nations. One of those instruments is the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Both nations signed the NPT. Both nations are, technically, in violation of certain articles in the NPT. One significant difference is that North Korea formally withdrew from the NPT in order to pursue its nuclear ambitions. The US, engaged in a trillion dollar modernization campaign, including building a brand new nuclear weapon production facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, continues to pretend it is in compliance with a Treaty that required it, fifty years ago, to pursue in good faith negotiations leading to complete disarmament at an early date. Yes, those exact words are in Article 6 of the Nonproliferation Treaty.
That Treaty language came to the forefront in 1996, when the International Court of Justice at The Hague (also known as the World Court) issued an advisory opinion on the Use or Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons. The court found nuclear weapon states, including the US, had a positive obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament as outlined in the NPT. The court stopped just short of ruling all nuclear weapons illegal because, it said, it might be conceivable that a nation would be justified in resorting to this ultimate weapon if its very existence as a state were at stake.
It is very, very difficult to imagine this loophole applying to the United States. But might it apply to North Korea, a tiny nation besieged by a nuclear-armed superpower? Maybe not, but if an argument were to be made, it would be much easier to make it persuasively in North Korea’s favor than in favor of the United States of America.
All of that might be interesting, but it doesn’t explicitly suggest a resolution to the current crisis. That’s not because a path toward resolution doesn’t exist—it does. Though throughout the most recent crises I have not read one article or analysis that contemplates an effective path to resolution.
That’s because in the United States we take for granted the double standard—some nations can have nuclear weapons and others cannot.
As long as we embrace that double standard, we will not resolve our nuclear differences with North Korea or with Iran. The only path toward a true resolution is one that offers equal security assurances to all parties—and that would require all parties to also accept an equivalent level of vulnerability.
On July 7 of this year, one hundred twenty-two nations of the world (not including the US or North Korea) voted at the United Nations to adopt a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In September, most if not all of those nations will sign the Treaty, and when it receives ratification by 50 of those nations, it will enter into force. That will do two things.
One—it will put the US and North Korea on the same side of the nuclear weapons question. We will both be international outlaws, along with seven other countries that possess nuclear weapons, five European countries that host NATO nuclear weapons on their soil, and any other nations that permit nuclear weapons to be based on their soil or in their ports.
Two, and this is more pertinent—it will lay out the path toward a final resolution of the US/North Korea standoff and, in fact, all the issues surrounding nuclear proliferation. Because the Treaty and its implementing protocols will establish the process for the abolition of all nuclear weapons—ours and theirs and everyone else’s, and that is the only way it will work. We will only relieve ourselves of the nuclear threats posed by other countries when we all give up our nuclear weapons.
This is probably not a proposal you have read from experts or analysts or diplomats. To make it is to contemplate giving up the power base we have come to rely on. Without nukes to make us a superpower, we will have to be super in other ways in order to enjoy the exaggerated status we have grown accustomed to. We will have to develop relationships of mutuality with other nations. That kind of talk is not acceptable in a nation that thinks it is admired by the world just because it is exceptional when in reality much of the world relates to us through fear rather than admiration.
But it is the only rational proposal, the only one that can actually get us what we want. We have to stop threatening North Korea, and the only way we can do that is to embark, with them, on the road to nuclear abolition. They can stop being afraid of our nuclear weapons at the same time we can stop being afraid of theirs—when neither of us has them any more.
This may sound pie-in-the-sky, but it is the future, unless we destroy ourselves first. There is no third option. Over the next decades—the sooner the better—the moral and legal force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will change the landscape of our world. Eventually the US and Russia will be driven to the negotiating table under a court order that they reduce their stockpiles to 500, at which point other nations will be brought to the table and protocols for verifiable, omnilateral nuclear disarmament will be negotiated, adopted and implemented.
The question US citizens should ask of their government is simple: why prolong the age of nuclear peril when we can move forward now, from a position of power, toward a world of nonnuclear security? Why don’t we sign the Treaty, along with our NATO allies and umbrella nations, and increase the pressure on other weapons states, including North Korea, to sign? And then why don’t we begin the process of building down our nuclear stockpiles the way military and diplomatic experts have been advocating for a decade now?
It will only happen if we insist on honesty—the United States of America must acknowledge our complicity in the latest crisis, and we have to move toward a solution that is mutually acceptable. If we continue to insist that we can impose a solution, even under the guise of diplomacy, we will fail.
So citizens, we have a choice. We can stand on the sidelines, pretending we don’t see or can’t do anything, and we will live, along with our children and grandchildren, under a darkening nuclear cloud. Or we can take responsibility for our future and demand the government act in our best interests to provide for a secure, nuclear free future.