What if North Korea were the only nuclear weapon state?

By Pavel Podvig | May 27, 2009

North Korea’s nuclear test will almost certainly fuel skepticism about the nuclear disarmament agenda. If no country has nuclear weapons, skeptics will ask, then how can “nuclear renegades” such as North Korea be deterred or dissuaded from getting a nuclear weapon and how can they be disarmed if they get one? For most opponents of nuclear abolition this argument ends the debate. It also gives pause to many abolition supporters who argue that nuclear powers would be prudent to hang on to their nuclear arsenals unless a new international regime can be built to deal with situations such as this one–a la the sentiment expressed by William Perry, Brent Scowcroft, and Charles Ferguson in an op-ed they published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. But the development in North Korea shows that nuclear weapons aren’t much help and, in fact, make the situation more difficult to handle.

A world with North Korea as the only nuclear power would be a rather uncomfortable place, but the world in which it is the ninth nuclear weapons state is even more uncomfortable.”

Imagine, in a thought experiment, that no country other than North Korea has nuclear weapons today. How would this change the practical policy choices and actions available to those involved? I would suggest the answer is surprisingly little, if at all. To begin with, existing nuclear weapon states’ arsenals (and the U.S. arsenal in particular) have already failed in what many believe is one of their primary missions–dissuading countries such as North Korea from building a nuclear weapon. The key premise of the “dissuasion” theory is that if the United States maintains its large nuclear arsenal and extensive nuclear infrastructure, no country will try matching it. Yet, it never worked that way, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that it didn’t work that way with North Korea.

Could nuclear weapons help deal with a nuclear North Korea? At first, they may appear to–after all, the threat of nuclear retaliation seems to be a persuasive argument against a nuclear attack. But retaliation doesn’t have to be nuclear. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in North Korea would be under the illusion that they can launch a nuclear strike and survive, regardless of whether the response is nuclear or not. This isn’t just a consequence of U.S. conventional superiority–in a nuclear-weapon-free world one could expect that a North Korean nuclear attack would unite a broad coalition of countries (including China and Russia), ensuring that any military response would be swift and overwhelming. Prevailing wisdom still says that nuclear deterrence would work better than the conventional alternative, but regarding North Korea, it appears that both would work equally well–or equally poorly, for that matter.

The accepted wisdom also seems to suggest that the lack of a U.S. nuclear umbrella would lead countries in the region to build their own nuclear arsenals, triggering the much-feared proliferation chain reaction. But would, say, a nuclear Japan be any better in deterring North Korea than a nuclear United States? Of course, not. A Japanese nuclear arsenal would be just as helpless as the U.S. arsenal has been.

A world with North Korea as the only nuclear power would be a rather uncomfortable place, but the world in which it is the ninth nuclear weapons state is even more uncomfortable. In fact, this thought experiment suggests that nuclear weapons add nothing to existing nuclear weapons states’ or the international community’s abilities to prevent future North Koreas or to effectively confront them. For all practical purposes, we’re already living in a nuclear-zero world. Managing international security in this world is indeed a serious challenge, but it isn’t impossible. And getting rid of nuclear weapons would make this challenge easier, not harder.

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