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North Korea and the ban treaty: two sides of the same coin

19 July 2017
John B. Brake

John B. Brake

John B. Brake graduated from the University of Virginia’s Politics Honors Program in the spring of 2017, after his junior year. His honors project, “Prestige and Proliferation Preferences,” won...


Only three days separated North Korea’s July 4 test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile from the United Nations vote by 122 countries to adopt a treaty banning the production, possession, and use of nuclear weapons. The heightened risk of global nuclear war thus coincided with an unprecedented, albeit symbolic, step toward global nuclear disarmament. The significance of this coincidence transcends both the Korea crisis and the ban treaty. It points to a fundamental rift in international politics today, between states that see nuclear weapons as encapsulating strength, modernity, and great power status; and states that see them as encapsulating brute force, backwardness, and pariah status. This is the enduring duality of proliferation politics.

On one hand, many states—including, most recently, North Korea—have aspired to join the “nuclear club” to gain prestige and recognition. Less understood is the opposite path to prestige, in which many states, including supporters of the ban treaty, have chosen to remain in the “non-nuclear club"—despite possessing the technical capabilities and security incentives to go nuclear—because they want to be seen as model, responsible members of the international community. In short, policies of both “nuclear acquisition” and “nuclear restraint” can derive from the same overarching desire for prestige. North Korea and the ban treaty are two sides of the same coin.

In order to understand the duality of proliferation politics today, it is helpful to examine it in historical perspective. A key example comes from the early Cold War, when France and West Germany undertook opposite nuclear policies in response to similar, simultaneous changes to their security environments. France sought prestige in a policy of nuclear acquisition, while West Germany sought it in a policy of nuclear restraint. Reexamining this relatively familiar history provides a point of departure for approaching the challenges posed by North Korean proliferation and the ban supporters’ political posturing.

France and nuclear acquisition. In the aftermath of World War II, France was anxious to regain its role as a Great Power and to ensure it would never again be overrun by its enemies. A number of French leaders saw nuclear weapons as the answer to these anxieties, but it was Charles de Gaulle who took decisive steps to establish a fully independent arsenal, increasing the nuclear weapons program’s budget nine-fold from 1959 to 1965 and ordering the first nuclear test in 1960. By 1974, the French arsenal included three nuclear-armed submarines, with three more under construction; 18 single-warhead intermediate range ballistic missiles; and 54 nuclear-capable bombers.

Nonetheless, nuclear weapons remained a security liability for France at this early stage, sapping its economy, diverting funds away from its strapped conventional forces, and inviting a preemptive nuclear first strike from the Soviet Union in the event of a crisis. A retired French military planner speculated as late as 1967 that the nation lacked a reliable second-strike capability. In Washington, this assessment led to open fears that the French arsenal actually undermined the logic of deterrence.

Based on these factors, it was clear to Judith H. Young of the Browne & Shaw Research Corporation, a Pentagon contractor, that “the French commitment to a nuclear force has derived at least as much from consideration of nonmilitary and political benefits as from the identification of firm military requirements.” The strong association of nuclear acquisition with international prestige was evident in France’s first Five-Year Plan, devised in 1951 “to ensure that in 10 years’ time France will still be an important country.”

Once in power, de Gaulle famously claimed to seek France’s “independence, security, and greatness.” He saw in nuclear weapons a way to achieve these goals simultaneously, explaining that, “If France’s defenses were long allowed to remain outside of the national framework or to become an integral part of, or mingled with, something else, then it would not be possible for us to maintain a State. In any period of history, the government’s raison d’être is to defend the independence and the integrity of the territory…Especially in France, all our regimes have been based on their ability to do so.” The prestige of nuclear weapons made France an equal of the other Great Powers and symbolized its enduring grandeur.

West Germany and nuclear restraint. West German nuclear policies diverged from those of France during this period, despite both countries facing similarly acute security threats. In particular, West German leaders worried about the credibility of US extended deterrence. In 1956, the leaked Radford Plan (proposed by Admiral Arthur Radford, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) called for the gradual withdrawal of most US battalions from Europe and an increased reliance on nuclear weapons to defeat a Soviet invasion. When the Soviets developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that threatened the United States, US allies in Europe began to doubt that Washington would risk Soviet retaliation by using nuclear weapons to defend them.

Despite these anxieties, and in contrast to de Gaulle, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his government never pursued a truly independent, indigenous nuclear deterrent. Instead, West Germany sought greater control over US tactical nuclear weapons within the NATO framework, and briefly explored a joint program with France. When these efforts failed, the public and the military remained strongly opposed to a nuclear weapons program.

So did senior members of the government. During a radio lecture on foreign policy with the Hessian Broadcast Company in 1960, West German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss expressed support for “a practicable political and technical formula conducive to preventing any spread of the production of nuclear weapons.” He also claimed that the West German government “has never been in favor of the group of nations possessing atomic weapons being expanded…” Remarkably, Strauss had admitted only a few months earlier that “those countries which do not belong to the nuclear club are practically defenseless as long as the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is not at their disposal.”

Nuclear restraint was an integral part of the government’s strategy to bolster the international prestige of the “New Germany.” The shadow of the Third Reich hung over political decision-making, especially related to rearmament and military affairs. World War II conditioned Adenauer—and a generation of his countrymen—to attach prestige to the nuclear policies that most differentiated West Germany from Hitler’s regime. By the early 1960s, evolving norms already identified nonproliferation as a central tenet of responsible membership in the international community.

North Korea and the nuclear ban treaty. While the governments of France and West Germany differed in how they interpreted prestige vis-à-vis nuclear weapons, both sought to calibrate their nuclear policies to achieve prestige. This yields an important insight: While nuclear weapons are military tools, they are also potent political symbols—and it is this symbolic potency, rather than military utility, that often drives proliferation politics. This contradicts the received wisdom that states seek nuclear weapons to deter rivals and mitigate security threats. In many cases, prestige considerations better explain states’ behavior than security factors do. This is true today with North Korea and the nuclear ban treaty.

The North Korean regime continues to ruin its economy in pursuit of weapons that alienate it from the international community and antagonize its enemies without ensuring its survival. The duality of proliferation politics explains why the regime incurs these apparently irrational economic and security costs: It wants recognition as a major power. The regime believes that the possession of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is a symbol of its status. This is why Pyongyang regularly couches its illegal activities in terms of “fairness”: Since the United States has nuclear weapons, North Korea should be able to have them too.

This dynamic suggests that diplomacy with Pyongyang may be more promising than often thought. As one former US diplomat put it, “high-level negotiations seem to be what Pyongyang has been after for years.” The regime would be especially amenable to a “freeze-for-freeze” deal, halting its illegal arms programs and submitting to invasive inspections in return for nominal US drawbacks on the Korean Peninsula to ensure “equity.” Negotiations along these lines would hinge on mitigating Pyongyang’s insecurity—not of military threats, but of status.

As for the nuclear ban treaty, the duality of proliferation politics explains why so many members of the international community were enthusiastic about negotiations that ignored obvious security challenges and will fail to eliminate a single nuclear weapon. This treaty was not about international security; it was an exercise in collective status-seeking. The 122 supporting states jumped at the opportunity to reaffirm their bona fides as responsible international citizens, increasing their status in that regard relative to the United States and the other nuclear weapons states.

While Washington will never support the treaty, it should at least muffle its criticisms. The United States should work to seem friendlier to the spirit of the movement than Russia and China, boosting its reputation and soft power as the primary guarantor of the liberal international order, which is built in large part upon the norms that assigned prestige to this treaty. The reputational costs for Washington in stridently opposing the ban are high, as are the broader risks to international norms. Now is not the time to undermine those norms. After all, if North Korea is to be incorporated into the international system, it should be a system in which nonproliferation norms are as robust as possible.