The Ethical Dilemma of Nuclear Weapons
APLN-Korea Times Essay Contest

The Ethical Dilemma of Nuclear Weapons

2021 APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest, APLN Award

The Ethical Dilemma of Nuclear Weapons: Hegemony, Security Dilemma and continued Stalemate

by Miriam Astrid RIEBACK

On the 28th of September North Korea fired a missile which landed in the sea on the peninsula’s east coast. Following the launch, North Korea’s neighbouring countries Japan and South Korea and the United States condemned the missile launch. South Korea’s President Mun Jae-in expressed the importance of stabilising the peninsula and found the launch regretful. Hours before the launch, North Korea’s ambassador to the United States had urged that the hostile policies against North Korea lead by the United States must end and claimed that the country has the right to self-defence and to test their own weapons.

Since its first test in 1984, North Korea has performed some 150+ tests of strategic missiles and six nuclear tests. Though the UN and individual countries – US – has imposed heavy sanctions on the country in an attempt to persuade a denuclearisation process, sanctions have been largely unsuccessful. Still, North Korea’s position is clear: there is a double standard about which countries may and may not build a defence of nuclear weapons. This double standard claim, which North Korea specifically pointed to the US having, is not new. When the Non-proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995 the purpose of the treaty was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and 191 countries have ratified the treaty. However, the treaty has not been without controversy: Israel, Pakistan, India and South Sudan never ratified the treaty and North Korea pulled out in 2003 after decades of refusing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). North Korea’s statement regarding double standards has been voiced by Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Pakistan, the latter of which possesses nuclear weapons. Iran has been trying to develop its own nuclear program and has on multiple occasions called out the US-lead sanctions as ‘biased’ because Israel has never been officially condemned by neither the US, other Western countries nor the international community as a whole for its development of nuclear weapons.

As a result, the question concerning nuclear weapons has become ethically and morally disputed: who is to decide which countries may or may not have nuclear weapons? Is it fair that those who in fact do possess nuclear weapons also get to decide who may and may not develop them? After the Second World War’s end the devastating potential of nuclear weapons ought to have deterred any nation from developing it further and/or using it again, but that is, of course, not the case. Instead, the US and the Soviet Union engaged in a four decades long build-up, what scholars call ‘balance of power’, in which neither country would or could attack the other because the results might literally destroy the world. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell, many states and non-state actors were (naively one might argue now) hoping that an international effort toward denuclearisation would come about. While some states did dismantle their nuclear programs, including Ukraine, South Africa, Belarus and Kazakhstan, it would seem that for the superpowers of the world denuclearisation is still not an issue. The hegemonic world order lends itself to disputable ethical dilemmas in which some countries are in theory and practice superior to others. Although the United States has alluded to the security dilemma in its defence, and as its explanation for having nuclear weapons, the issue remains that North Korea’s statement cannot, should not, be bypassed.

Unfortunately, the continued stalemate between North Korea and the US as well as North and South Korea implies that consistent diplomatic relations are still beyond reach. In spite of it all, North Korea’s Leader Kim Jong-un, on the 30th of September 2021, alleged that he wants to establish a direct line of communication between himself and the Seoul Government. The Blue House has responded in a delicate manner that they are “in the process of analysing the situation and Leader Kim’s suggestion”. Kim also hinted at Mun’s desire to draft an official end-of-war declaration but this has not yet been elaborated on further. It would be an understatement to say that expectations are as low as ever both among South Koreans and the international community; this is not the first and likely not the last promise by either party of reconciliation. Whether Mun will agree to Kim’s invitation remains to be seen and for Mun his response is indeed a political gamble at this point. Establishing talks after a missile test would presumably anger both young and older generations of South Koreans, who understandably are fed up with all the ballyhoo with little substantial outcome and without any lasting or permanent changes. On the other hand, Kim’s unpredictability does prompt the South Korean Government to yield, that is, on the off-chance that Kim withdrawals his offer and it could be months before another opportunity arises.

The international concern for nuclear weapons is without a doubt justified. Nevertheless, it is undeniably also true that there are two (in some cases even three) sets of rules, and depending on where in the ranking a state sits on compared to its neighbours along with other peers enforces the claim that some states are superior to others. While many scholars, journalists, international leaders etc. would agree that North Korea is unreliable and in the worst-case scenario dangerous, treating North Korea as a petulant child hardly solves the issue. If the subject of nuclear weapons is to move forward and there is to be a serious undertaking of denuclearisation globally, perhaps it is time to look inward and self-reflect? Because in all honesty, as much as none of us likes to admit our wrongdoings, none of us likes a hypocrite either.


Image: APLN/iStock, Yura Dobro.

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