THE KOREA TIMES
APLN member Kim Won-soo argues that the nuclear states must set aside their differences and work together to come up with a collective plan to keep non-nuclear states from developing their own nuclear deterrents. Read the original article here.
Over the last five decades, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has served as the bedrock for keeping the world safe from a nuclear doomsday. Now it stands on the brink of a breakdown.
The 10th NPT Review Conference is finally in session after being postponed by two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The long delay might have been a blessing in disguise, as it bought more time for a compromise outcome to be worked out. Unfortunately, however, the prospects of such an outcome appear dangerously low.
The NPT has long managed to keep the number of nuclear states at the single-digit level through a combination of incentives and disincentives. It is premised on the belief that “less is safer,” in terms of both the number of nuclear states (horizontal) and the quantity of nuclear weapons (vertical). The quid-pro-quo bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots was struck to limit both horizontal and vertical proliferation simultaneously.
The most frequently used disincentives are international condemnation and sanctions against non-nuclear states attempting to go nuclear. The track record of these disincentives is mixed at best. While they successfully stopped some nuclear aspirants, they failed in a greater number of cases.
One of the most effective incentives has been security assurances, popularly known as a “nuclear umbrella,” which is typically given by one or more of the five nuclear states recognized by the NPT.
The “Nuke Five” coincide with the “Perm Five” of the Security Council of the United Nations, namely the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. A nuclear state can provide nuclear protection to a non-nuclear state by extending its nuclear umbrella.
The nuclear umbrella has been vital to keeping potential break-out countries ― U.S. allies in Europe and Asia in particular ― from obtaining nuclear weapons. Yet recent developments have begun to undermine the credibility of the nuclear umbrella in three ways:
(1). The “Nuke Five” are going back on their commitment to limit vertical proliferation as their mutual relationships are increasingly punctuated by competition and confrontation. Most of them have embarked on a path of proliferation under the pretext of arsenal modernization, reigniting a nuclear arms race.
(2). The Russian invasion of Ukraine brings to the fore the specter of a nuclear winter. For the first time, the largest nuclear state not only invaded a neighboring country, but also made a threat of nuclear retaliation against any intervening countries. It reminds the world how spontaneously a nuclear confrontation could arise out of misunderstanding or misjudgment of intentions among the nuclear states.
(3). As a corollary to the two aforementioned developments, the seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of the umbrella states, stirring up a double fear of abandonment and entrapment. Some umbrella states share the fear that the U.S. may likely refuse to trade Berlin for New York or Seoul for Los Angeles. Reversely, the possibility of a nuclear confrontation among the “Nuke Five” erupting out of miscalculations considerably elevates the fear of getting dragged into an unwanted war.
These seeds of doubt among the umbrella states are particularly worrisome for the very survival of the NPT. Defection from any umbrella state is most certain to spell the beginning of the end of the NPT regime.
A recent poll conducted in South Korea sheds light on this growing risk. According to the poll, an overwhelming majority of South Koreans (70 percent) support their country developing nuclear weapons even though they believe the U.S. nuclear umbrella remains credible.
In comparison to earlier polls, the support for going nuclear has grown, reflecting the changing threat perceptions of South Koreans in recent years. Now, a growing number of South Koreans take seriously not just threats from North Korea, but threats from their larger, nuclear neighbors as well.
The “Nuke Five” must pay heed to this danger here and now. Not much time is left to salvage the NPT. Without the NPT, the specter of a nuclear winter will freely wreak havoc.
The nuclear states must set aside their differences and work together to come up with a collective plan to keep non-nuclear states, especially the umbrella states, from developing their own nuclear deterrents. That plan must start with their collective and credible pledges to stop the nuclear arms race and restart a nuclear arms reduction dialogue in an earnest manner.
Then they must demonstrate their collective will not to condone any defection, including from their respective allies and friends under any circumstances. Instead, a credible package of incentives and disincentives must be laid out in clear terms in advance and applied to all defections without double standards.
The “Nuke Five” must wake up now. They must get their acts together. They must steer the world away from the path of collective suicide. Failure is not an option for themselves nor for humanity. The judgment of history will be upon them.