Nuclear Testing, International Law and North Korea

A nuclear test can be defined as a nuclear explosion detonated for either military or peaceful purposes. The history of nuclear testing began on 16 July 1945 at a desert test site in New Mexico, when the United States exploded its first atomic bomb. This initial test was the culmination of years of scientific research under the banner of the so-called the “Manhattan Project”.

A few months later, on 6 August 1945 a US B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing around 80,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, causing the deaths of 40,000 more. In the months following the attack, roughly 100,000 more people died slow, horrendous deaths as a result of radiation poisoning. The dropping of the bombs remains the only nuclear attack in history.

Efforts to Control Nuclear Power

Around the mid-1950s, in the midst of the arms race of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union started conducting high-yield thermonuclear weapon testing in the atmosphere. In 1959, radioactive deposits were found in wheat and milk in the northern United States. As scientists and the public gradually became aware of the dangers of radioactive fallout, they began to raise their voices against nuclear testing, leading to the Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (PTBT) signed in 1963. Representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the PTBT, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater, or in the atmosphere.

In 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was adopted. The NPT is a worldwide treaty that bans all members except the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, and the United States from having nuclear weapons and commits those five states to eventually eliminating their atomic arsenals. The 187 states that subscribe to the NPT include every significant nation state with the exception of India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea.

The latest international law development in efforts to ban nuclear testing took place in 1996 with the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT established a de-facto international norm on nuclear testing, banning all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. To date 159 states have signed and ratified the CTBT, including the three nuclear weapon states, France, the United Kingdom and Russia. Another 24 states have signed but not ratified it, including the United States.

The CTBT treaty shall enter into force 180 days after the 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty have ratified it. These “Annex 2 states” are states that participated in the CTBT’s negotiations between 1994 and 1996 and possessed nuclear power reactors or research reactors at that time. As of March 2013, eight Annex 2 states have not ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States have signed but not ratified the treaty; and India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed it. In 1998 India said it would only sign the treaty if the United States presented a schedule for eliminating its nuclear stockpile, a condition the United States rejected.

Threats to Non-Proliferation

In the last few years, uranium enrichment, plutonium separation, and other possible nuclear weapons-related activities have been discovered in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Moreover, it appears that North Korea and Iran both obtained enrichment technology from Pakistan, which suggests dangers to the NPT regime from nonparties that are not bound by the treaty’s prohibition against assisting non-nuclear-weapon states in acquiring nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the United States has not complied with some of its own NPT-created obligations. The United States Senate has consistently rejected ratification of the CTBT, which reflects its tendency to downgrade treaties and regimes and to upgrade unilateral efforts, such as the pre-emptive use of force against Iraq, to enforce compliance with nonproliferation. Furthermore, the US has undertaken efforts to create new types of nuclear weapons that might well require new testing. Thus, while pushing other countries to reject the acquisition of nuclear weapons for their defense, the United States seems to be relying ever more heavily on nuclear weapons for its own defense.

North Korea

In the last few weeks, Security Council resolutions have condemned North Korea’s December rocket launch and have tightened the existing punitive sanctions against that country.  North Korea’s first nuclear test took place in October 2006 and a second test took place in May 2009. North Korea has threatened nuclear strikes on the US, formally declared war on the South, and pledged to reopen a nuclear reactor in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. The latest warning from North Korea was directed to foreign embassies in Pyongyang stating that it cannot guarantee their safety from the threat of conflict after 10 April, and has advised them to consider pulling their staff out of the capital.

Most experts opine that North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear attack. Officials in Washington have dismissed North Korea’s most serious threat of a nuclear strike against the US, as bluster by its leader, Kim Jong-un. The Pentagon assessment is that North Korea has not yet mastered the technology needed to accurately fire a nuclear-armed missile. However, even if the actual risk of a nuclear attack from North Korea is inexistent, the situation at hand poses certain important questions regarding nuclear proliferation:

-Is the US justified in expecting Pakistan, North Korea and India to abide by the Non Proliferation regime while ignoring Israel and China’s continued nuclear capabilities?

-Given that the United States has conducted 1,030 nuclear tests — more than all other nations combined — and continues refusing to destroy its nuclear stockpile,  is it fair to prohibit testing in other countries? Does this double standard perceived by other nations constitute a threat to the NPT regime?

-Is it fair to permit many of North Korea’s neighbors and the United States to test and possess missiles and develop other advanced military hardware but to prohibit North Korea from doing the same?

-Is the international community effective in preventing nuclear proliferation?


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