China, North Korea & Nuclear Weapons

Ben Goldman

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons

This essay was originally submitted to the Korea Times-APLN Essay Contest 2021.

Nuclear weapons, uncontrolled, could lead to devastation, the end of nations, and potentially, the end of all human civilisation. The prerequisite to successfully reducing this threat is a treaty that works.

We have seen a rapid expansion of nuclear capabilities in the Asian-Pacific region; most disconcertingly, China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have committed to modernising their nuclear capabilities, and show no fear of hiding it. Beijing’s expansion of its nuclear proficiency with the construction of a suspected 200 plus missile silos (Warrick, 2021); and the intention to better arm additional “land- and sea-based missiles that are in the process of being fielded” (Kristensen and Korda, 2020) has proved concerning for its neighbour states and the U.S. The DPRK has also touted its successful test of a thermonuclear device in 2017, seen failed talks with the Trump administration and has re-ignited a nuclear reactor that is believed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons (Murphy and Smith, 2021). It is clear that despite the efforts of so many, and hopes that have been ignited with new treaties and old, something is not working.

So, what good have past treaties achieved to quell our fears, move that doomsday clock back, and ultimately halt the further development of nuclear arms and the reduction of said arms in all nine nuclear-armed states, wherewith which five reside in the Asia-Pacific. Not much.

Despite its initial success, after more than 50 years of being in effect, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has reached its limits. It is unlikely to achieve nuclear disarmament and will likely, gradually lose its relevance (Abe, 2020). The DPRK’s withdrawal from NPT in 2003, Pakistan and India being non-signatories, and the fact that the treaty allows certain states to maintain their arms, show evidence of this, as well as China’s recent moves to update its nuclear arsenal mean that the upcoming NPT Review Conference, postponed to sometime in 2022, is set to hold an air of scepticism (Lucic and Onderco, 2021).

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is seen as offering new hope; unlike the NPT, which allows certain states to hold onto their arms, it pursues a total ban on nuclear weapons (Trezza, 2021). This, in theory, sounds like a heroic goal that all can strive towards; however, this has further aligned the five original signatories of the NPT and non-NPT nuclear-weapon states with opposing the new treaty (Ibid.). Claims of this treaty being the penultimate solution to the ongoing war on the possession of nuclear arms fall short in this regard. The TPNW is also incredibly exclusive, not allowing nuclear umbrella states to join the treaty, despite the fact that they may have denounced nuclear weapons, leaving only 86 signatories, doing no favour to the people of the Asia-Pacific. (Ibid.)

China seems to be constantly seeking acknowledgement that its success and strength are not to be questioned, “fearing that any weakness would embolden Western countries to destabilise China and threaten its regime’s security” (Zhao, 2021). Despite China’s “no first use” policy, the nation seems keen to set president with its rapid advancements of nuclear capabilities, doing away with any sentiment that a reduction in its arms can be used in negotiation. Instead, opting for a larger arsenal to try and force rivals to respect China and “exercise more self-restraint when dealing with Beijing”. ((Hu Xijin, 2016) Zhao, 2021). There is no doubt that this development is not only an attempt to achieve political equality but also a matter of security to the nation, particularly as more of China’s human rights issues, rule of law and expansionist mindset are being pulled into question. No treaty that allows certain nations to hold onto nuclear power, or is exclusionary, will work when states such as China are still playing their own game of catch up based on insecurities. In addition, “building more nuclear weapons and beefing up American forces in Asia is not the answer” and “could lead to nuclear war.” (Isaacs, 2021).

Many comparisons can be drawn with the DPRK from China; a quest for respect, political equality, or just straight defiance. With Kim Jong-un making increasingly rambunctious threats towards the United States, with such quotes as, we will turn Washington into a “sea of fire”, it is clear that there is no slowing them down. Much like China thought, it does largely come down to national security and the survival of North Korea’s regime (Klingner, 2019), with the state stating that its nuclear arsenal acts as a deterrent to any nation looking to commit to an act of war. Compared to China, the DPRK’s instability has sparked much more of a reaction from its neighbours. We have seen Japan commit to rebuilding its military as a reaction to the nuclear threat, suggesting that East Asia may start to see some significant steps backwards regarding conflict resolution. So when it comes to a treaty that could work for all, forgoing the previously mentioned issues that encumber the NPT and TPNW, what options do we have.  

“The Strategic Concept for Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP) is a campaign that suggests using proven agreements as a basis for general and complete disarmament” (SCRAP, 2019). Building upon the best practices of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), however, extended to all nuclear power states. Establishing restrictions and setting up agreements multilaterally, with UN oversight, much like the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq that utilised UN inspectors (Ibid.), can ensure a balanced, multilateral approach to complete global disarmament, quelling China and the DPRK’s security concerns.

SCRAP focuses on a rapid and holistic approach built on humanitarian disarmament initiatives, utilising a verifiable percentage-based process for reduction over a set time. With “most of the technical work [already laid out through previous] agreements. Implementation could be swift.” (SCRAP, 2019); seeing a reduction of “75 per cent of all [stocks] in two years” (Ibid.), and another 75 per cent in the next two years, and so on until all weapons are gone (Ibid.). Whilst sounding ambitious, the threat of conflict in the Asia-Pacific continues to become a more likely outcome, with its remaining nuclear powers showing no sign of curbing their ambitions for nuclear dominance. SCRAP seeks to overcome any perception of being overly ambitious “by showing the proposal is possible and based on existing, tried and successful frameworks.” (Ibid.)

To conclude, the expansion of nuclear capabilities in the Asian-Pacific region, predominantly within China and the DPRK, has caused growing concern amongst their neighbours and the United States. However, much of China and the DPRK’s justification comes from that of security, deterrence, and the attempt to gain some form of respect or reach political equality with other nuclearized powers. The concern is partially justified though, in part due to the confrontational nature of Beijing when wishing to display its states rapid advancements, and particularly so with the DPRK and their pugnacious threats. Furthermore, as much of the world spectates as these evolutions take place, we have seen no means to bring this expansion of nuclear arms to a halt, or even slow it down. The NPT is now outdated, despite the great change it had brought about in the past; and the TPNW exclusionary requirements make little change to nations that are already in possession of nuclear weaponry. SCRAP offers a solution, founded upon proven agreements as a basis for general and complete disarmament. Furthermore, it offers a none exclusionary approach pushing for a balanced global reduction in arms, quelling the fears that have caused China and the DPRK to further expand their arsenal, an imbalance of power.

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Ben Goldman

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons