North Korea Isn't the Only Rogue Nuclear State

Nuclear weapons are about to be made illegal worldwide, but good luck hearing about it at home

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un celebrating after an intercontinental ballistic missile is blasted off from an undisclosed site on July 4th. Credit: Yonhap News/Newscom

As if the last few years weren't bad enough, we now have a real nuclear crisis.

North Korea's loony regime of Kim Jong-un conducted a successful missile launch test – landing about 60 miles south of the Russian city of Vladivostok, according to some reports – marking a frightening nuclear escalation that has heightened tensions across the planet.

That this first serious confrontation in ages is happening now is ironic, given that a little-reported showdown about the use of nuclear power will soon take place in the U.N.

A draft of a U.N. treaty to ban all nuclear weapons is about to be voted on. It has the support of 132 nations and is very likely to pass, at which point the United States will soon once again be in technical violation of a major international agreement, as it long has been with regard to the International Treaty banning land mines.

While practically the ban may not accomplish much, it matters a little when we violate treaties, at least intellectually speaking. North Korea's violation of similar international agreements is at the crux of the international consensus against allowing the country to have a nuclear program in the first place.

This is what Steve Snyder, the senior fellow on U.S.-North Korea relations for the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote last year about why North Korea must never be allowed to have nukes:

"The United States cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state for normative reasons; North Korea had signed onto the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state and then abandoned the treaty in order to pursue nuclear capabilities. Tolerating North Korea's nuclear status would be equivalent to setting a precedent for other NPT signatories to violate the treaty."

The problem with this argument is that from the point of view of many non-nuclear countries, the United States itself, along with other nuclear club countries (particularly Russia), has been in continuing violation of the original nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as drafted in 1968.

The treaty has been mostly very successful. Since 1970, when it went into effect, only four more countries – Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – are known to have developed nuclear weapons, and only one, North Korea, was at any time a signatory.

Israel, India and Pakistan were three of just four U.N. member states to originally refuse to sign the treaty. North Korea, meanwhile, pulled out of the treaty in 2003, almost exactly a year after it was put in the crosshairs by George W. Bush in the infamous "Axis of Evil" speech. It had long been suspected of pursuing a secret development program.

One of the reasons the NPT was long seen as successful is that over the decades, it did inspire the main actors – particularly the United States and Russia – to move toward disarmament. Through a variety of programs, nuclear stockpiles have been drastically diminished, down to about 14,900 warheads worldwide, or two-thirds less than their high point in the mid-Eighties.

Russia and the United States didn't just reduce their stockpiles out of goodwill. They did so in part because moving toward global disarmament was a major component of the original bargain of the non-proliferation treaty.

The original treaty is quite clear. Article VI reads as follows (emphasis mine):

"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

The "nuclear club" countries, however, have lately reneged on their end of the "let's move toward disarmament" plan. The most recent news in the U.S., of course, is that both of our major political parties have supported a massive, trillion-dollar "modernization" program that would significantly enhance rather than reduce existing stockpiles.

This slowing of the disarmament movement began during Barack Obama's last term, coinciding with the collapse of relations between the U.S. and Russia. Particularly since 2011, when the U.S. and Russia concluded the "New START" treaty on the reduction of each others' arsenals, dialogue has almost completely ended on the subject.

Whatever you want to point to as the reason – the much-condemned Russian adventurism in Ukraine, or maybe the 2012 passage of the Magnitsky Act sanctioning Russia for human rights abuses, a law that outraged Putin and inspired a vicious ban on American adoption of Russian children – communication between Russia and the United States had long ago dropped to almost nil. This was before last summer's election, the DNC hack or the rise of Trump.

As a result, the two countries who maintain about 90 percent of the world's warheads have stopped talking about nuclear reduction, and the rest of the world – which was promised disarmament – has noticed, leading to protest moves like this new treaty ban.

"The ban movement is an expression of frustration on the part of the non-nuclear countries," says Steve Andreasen, a security consultant for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

A former director for defense policy and arms control at the Security Council in the Clinton years, Andreasen says the collapse in relations between the U.S. and Russia has stalled the move toward disarmament that was at the heart of the original non-proliferation treaty.

"You can't talk about non-proliferation without talking about the U.S.-Russia relationship, and the U.S.-Russia relationship has been in decline since New START," he says.

A lack of dialogue on the nuclear front between Russia and America is an extremely negative development, given that our two countries have nearly blown up the planet by accident multiple times, in underreported incidents.

The most serious of these was probably 1983, when a Soviet satellite mistakenly detected the launch of five American minuteman missiles headed toward Russia. Only the high-stress judgment of a 44-year-old Soviet lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov prevented a massive counter-launch and the probable deaths of millions.

"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov said years later, explaining his determination that the signal was faulty. "When people go to war, they don't do it with five missiles."

It got worse. Years later, in 1995, now-Democratic Russia's occasionally sober president Boris Yeltsin actually had the nuclear football open after the Russians mistook a Swedish scientific rocket for an incoming Trident missile. Yeltsin had six minutes to make a decision. It ended up being one of the few right calls he made during those years.

A few years later, then-Secretary of the Russian Security Council Alexander Lebed said in public that Russia had flat-out lost 100 "suitcase" nuclear devices. I later had the opportunity to ask Lebed about this in person, and the now-late general's one-word answer – buivaet, or "it happens" – still occasionally keeps me awake at night.

Stories like these were tolerable as long as there was some kind of plan to amp down the existential threat posed to all of us by these WMDs, the only ones not yet banned by international treaty. But this decade has seen the opposite happen, leading to all sorts of issues.

The calculus for small countries like North Korea is not hard to understand. On the one hand, they see the nuclear powers not moving toward disarmament as planned. On the other, they see countries like the United States routinely sweeping into countries like Libya and Iraq – who either abandoned or never started nuke defense programs – to pursue "regime change" policies.

As such, many smaller countries may feel like developing nukes is the only way to ensure their sovereignty. This pushes us into situations like this mess with North Korea.

Complicating the problem in North Korea is that the United States has long taken the position that it will not sit down at the negotiating table with the North Koreans until they pledge to disarm. But the situation is so severe now that the only way to get something done might be to dial down the macho, drop the preconditions and agree to sit at the table with the man John McCain calls the "crazy fat kid," Kim Jong-un. The chances of that sort of move coming out of this White House don't seem high.

"Sitting down at the table, dropping the preconditions – that takes a measure of courage that goes beyond tweeting," says Andreasen.

Moreover, Trump is not likely candidate to make any sort of move to put nuclear disarmament back on track. On more than one occasion he's talked about using nuclear weapons approvingly, like it's a realistic option. In the giant catalogue of evidence that he's nuts, his views on nukes are on page one of the first chapter – the very craziest thing about him.

"It is an absolute last stance," he said once, before adding, "I use the word unpredictable. You want to be unpredictable."

Nut-jobs like Kim Jong-un, and Trump for that matter, are the exact reason why 132 countries are right, and the only truly safe number of nuclear weapons is zero. Surely only dumber leaders await us in the future, and we should do our best to leave them with as small an arsenal as possible.