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Korean Peninsula Nuclear Crisis: Ways of Stabilizing under Modern Conditions

26.12.2014 18:05

Anastasia Barannikova

While that the issue of the so-called North Korean nuclear threat has recently given way to a discussion on human rights in the DPRK and world's attention is focused on developments in Ukraine now, there is still a permanent nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

This crisis dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953), when USA was seriously considering using the atomic weapon against North Korea. President Harry S. Truman announced during a press conference in 1950 that he was preparing to authorize the use of atomic weapons in order to achieve peace in Korea.

Early, in 1945, Truman authorized the use of two atomic bombs to end the war with Japan. As a result, not only a great number of Japanese but also 40,000 Koreans, who were drafted to work in the Japanese factories in the two cities, died. In September and October of 1951 B-29s were flying over North Korean territory, simulating nuclear bombings.

The plans of nuclear weapons usage against DPRK were not implemented but they pushed the North to starting its own nuclear program for self-defense. Atomic Energy Research Institute was established in December 1952 and later the development of nuclear infrastructure began. DPRK nuclear ambitions were facilitated by the fact that USA had not stopped nuclear planning even after the end of Korean War.

Operation Plan 8-53 created by USA military in August of 1953, called for use of "large numbers of atomic weapons" against China, Manchuria and DPRK in the case of hostilities renewal.

In January of 1958 USA violated the Armistice Agreement and brought 280 -mm atomic cannons and Honest John nuclear -capable missiles into South Korea. The number of USA nuclear warheads - artillery shells, short-range missiles, gravity bombs and other weapons - deployed in South Korea and Okinawa reached 2,600 by 1967.

Those were conditions under which DPRK nuclear program was developed. In late 1960s North Korea expanded its educational and research institutions to support a nuclear program for both civilian and military applications. In 1985 North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Since 1993 USA started Team Spirit military exercises against DPRK. The crisis escalated and DPRK announced its intention to withdraw from NPT. Finally Agreed Framework was signed in 1994. Under this Agreement provisions USA (together with ROK and Japan) agreed to construct two light water power reactors, and to provide 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil per year for DPRK in exchange of freezing its nuclear programs. USA failed to comply with its obligations, and North Korea resumed its nuclear program. In 2002 Pentagon completed a new Nuclear Posture Review policy where DPRK was named as one of seven nations to be attacked with nuclear weapons. A year later DPRK withdraws from NPT.

In 2005 North Korea declared that it "manufactured nukes" as "deterrent for self-defense". Then 3 nuclear explosion tests followed from 2006 to 2013. At the same time DPRK conducted several medium-and long-range missile test firings. Now it's not a secret that DPRK can now produce nuclear warheads that can be mounted on ballistic missiles. The works on warheads miniaturization still go on as well as improving means of their delivery (KN-08 long-range missile). DPRK nuclear program is largely favored by the fact that the country possesses stocks of uranium. In 1947-1950 Soviet Union conducted a series of geological researches in DPRK. It was discovered that North Korea had up to 26 million tons of uranium ore; 4 million tons are suitable for industrial development.

ROK first began seriously considering development of its own nuclear weapons program in the early 1970s. The first stage of its nuclear weapons plan provided creation of plutonium nuclear warhead and South Korea began to think about plutonium recycling. So-called long-term nuclear plan provided studies on nuclear fuel fabrication and reprocessing. At the same time negotiations were held with France on purchasing SNF (spent nuclear fuel) reprocessing plant. South Korean scientists have come close to developing nuclear weapons in 1974, but strong pressure of USA forced the country to abandon its nuclear weapons program and end negotiations with France. South Korea ratified Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1975 in exchange for security guarantees, including protection under US nuclear umbrella. Nevertheless, ROK covertly continued developing technologies of SNF reprocessing and uranium enrichment and performed experiments resulted in enrichment of 200 milligrams of uranium to near-weapons grade (up to 77 %). These activities were disclosed by IAEA in 2004, and Additional Protocol to The Agreement between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the IAEA for the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the Safeguards Agreement) entered into force for ROK in 2004. This protocol expanded IAEA safeguards regime to cover all aspects of nuclear activity of ROK.

Present

Currently DPRK pays serious attention to the development of its nuclear industry in the framework of so-called "Byungjin" (parallel development) policy adopted last year. This policy implies economic construction and development of nuclear forces. Development of nuclear industry is seen as necessary both for defense and economy of the country. According to the officially proclaimed songun policy nuclear deterrence forces, which are granted serious role in providing national security, were given a priority status. DPRK conducted the third underground test of a nuclear device, the country's status as a nuclear power was legally established by the Constitution, and decree "On further strengthening the status of a country in possession of nuclear weapons for the purposes of self-defense" was approved by DPRK Supreme People's Assembly. It indicates that nuclear forces have become an integral part of DPRK ideology, and the country will continue to develop this strategic component of its armed forces, carrying out necessary tests and developments. These measures are necessary for the production of more accurate and small-sized versions of nuclear weapons and means of their delivery, as well as for "supporting nuclear forces in permanent readiness".

As for ROK, nowadays the country has well-developed nuclear industry and ranks fifth globally in nuclear power generation. It currently operates 23 nuclear reactors that generate 26 percent of its electricity and plans to build 11 more by 2024. Economic, industrial, scientific and technological potential of ROK allows carrying out the development of nuclear weapons in a short time. ROK has major reprocessing plant operating, moreover, their civilian power reactors can be optimized to produce fuel or weapons grade plutonium in large amounts. Apart from access to fissile materials, ROK has nuclear weapons delivery systems and even a location to test potential weapons. The issue of developing and deploying nuclear weapons was raised repeatedly by South Korean separate political and military leaders since the very beginning of the country's nuclear program.

Nevertheless to start developing nuclear weapons would be a serious challenge for ROK. In the early 1970s ROK signed so-called "123 agreement" with USA on nuclear cooperation. This agreement constrains raw material supply and prohibits uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. As a result South Korea has had an open fuel cycle. In order to obtain its own nuclear weapons, ROK will be forced to reconsider or break its agreement with US and withdraw from the NPT. Every country trying to do it faces negative reaction of international community, especially US and EU. Given the fact that ROK economy is heavily dependent on exports and imports, economic losses from sanctions and pressure of international community would be much higher than the cost of nuclear weapons, or even reunification. Moreover, ROK's nuclear weapons program would provoke a real nuclear arms race in the region, encouraging non-nuclear states to possessing their own nuclear potential.

Problem

Currently the situation emerging in the world resembles the one that had preceded the Caribbean crisis: events affecting relations between Russia and US and the whole "Western" world, serious disagreements among UNSC members, failure of UN to perform its main functions and continuing arms race in the Asia Pacific Region. Nuclear states are no longer satisfied with "usual" nuclear weapons, they seek to acquire nuclear triad.

China and India are close to deploying nuclear triads in addition to Russia and USA already possessing three components nuclear forces. The possession of nuclear weapons virtually has become synonymous with security for many countries.

Such circumstances would not make DPRK abandon its nuclear weapons, and would make ROK to even more often attempt to renegotiate existing agreements restricting its nuclear activities. Earlier, DPRK government put denuclearization of Korean Peninsula as a prerequisite for abandoning nukes. Now this prerequisite is denuclearization of the whole world. Otherwise North Korea would preserve its nuclear potential even if peaceful reunification on the Korean Peninsula occurred (by the way, it proves that North nuclear potential is not aimed at South). Unified Korea would inherit North Korean nuclear weapons.

Given methods that are used by major powers in conducting their policies and defending their interests, voluntary denuclearization becomes unacceptable condition. Hardly there will be country-member of the nuclear club, ready to abandon such "prestigious" weapons as nuclear. On the contrary, as the tensions in regions of the world grow, the number of nuclear powers should be expected to increase. On one hand, the possession of nuclear weapons makes the state more responsible. Nuclear weapon is preventive; it can be demonstrated but cannot be really used. On the other hand, one can not discount the human factor, which is more dangerous than any weapon, as it can trigger global catastrophe. As nuclear potentials are controlled by humans, full denuclearization would be preferable. Instead of developing nuclear weapons countries could reorient their scientific and technical potential to improving peaceful atom and cooperate to ensure the safety of this type of energy.

Conclusion

Current situation in the world in general and on the Korean Peninsula in particular is a new reality to be reckoned with. It's impossible to reverse this reality but it's possible and necessary to work on prevention of its turning into catastrophe. To prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons and emergence of new nuclear states new mechanisms are needed to restrain and control all nuclear countries without exception (first of all those having the biggest potentials). These mechanisms should guarantee non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and non-use of nuclear weapons against them under the pretext of suspicion in the development of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and other "crimes". In order to reduce the need for nuclear weapons, it is necessary to make efforts to end arms race, as nuclear weapons are often seen as the most economical means of protection and deterrence against countries with superiority in conventional weapons.

With specific regard to the Korean Peninsula, the only way is to control development of nuclear program of DPRK and prevent initiation of such program in ROK. All actions fueling tensions in the region should be stopped ? for instance, USA military large-scale exercises involving nuclear bombers, aircraft carriers and rehearsing a scenario of invasion of North Korea. It will reduce tensions and possibility of human factor triggering.