On North Korea and the Non-Proliferation Treaty

By Zachary Lucas

Tensions have escalated recently between North Korea and the United States (US). In July, North Korea claimed it had access to intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of reaching the west coast of the US. Amid the resulting political exchange, Trump promised a response of “fire and fury” if North Korea initiated a nuclear attack upon US territory.

The world becomes understandably nervous whenever any tension occurs between countries who hold nuclear weapons. The real question is, with current international law, how has the world found itself in this situation in 2017?

The Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) aims to prevent the development of nuclear technology related to nuclear weapons. The NPT pursues the eventual disarmament of nuclear weapons, and offers incentives via a mutual effort to share nuclear technology for the purposes of peaceful use – specifically, power generation.

The Treaty opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The treaty initially was conceived with a timeline of 25 years, but in 1995 this timeline was extended indefinitely. Currently, 191 countries adhere to the NPT (1).

It was a landmark piece of legislation, developed by nation states in agreement that nuclear war would be mutually destructive. However, has it been effective? To answer this, we must examine the three pillars the NPT is built upon.

The first pillar is that of non-proliferation, specifically the prevention of nuclear weaponry technology spreading beyond those countries that already possessed it. ‘Nuclear states’ are defined as states which had already built and tested nuclear weapons prior to January 1967. These states are the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France. This stipulation has arguably been one of the more problematic issues of the NPT, but more on that later.

Under Article I of the NPT, nuclear states commit to not sharing any weaponry technology, and under Article II non-nuclear states agree not to receive or pursue any (2). Since the introduction of the NPT, nuclear weapons proliferation has remained limited to a maximum of five countries beyond the Security Council. India and Pakistan are countries known to possess nuclear weapons, who are also non-signatories to the treaty. India in particular has argued that the inclusion of “nuclear states” affirms exclusive access to nuclear weapons by those states.

Israel is also a non-signatory to the treaty, though it is unconfirmed if the country has acquired nuclear weaponry. South Sudan, the only other non-signatory, was founded after the NPT’s inception, and has simply never joined the treaty (3).

North Korea initially acceded to the NPT in 1985 but withdrew in 2003. Provision for a country’s withdrawal from the NPT is included in Article X, which details that a state exercising its right to withdraw “…shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties in the treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance” (2). The continued testing of nuclear missiles and aggressive vocal threats from North Korea is the reason why this country, over the others, remains the primary candidate for concern.

The second pillar described by the NPT is that of disarmament. The NPT has successfully prevented further armament beyond the nuclear states and the ambiguous four beyond it. However, the biggest issue with disarmament has been convincing the current nuclear-states for their eventual need to disarm. India’s concerns about making the ‘exclusivity’ associated with the NPT have already been outlined. In 2007, then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair famously stated that the NPT “makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons” (4), a gross misinterpretation of the term “nuclear state”. Article IV of the NPT, whilst somewhat ambiguously insisting on “negotiations in good faith”, also explicitly highlights that this negotiation is towards a “complete disarmament” (2), therefore applying also to the nuclear states.

The third pillar in the NPT details the combined effort towards sharing nuclear technology for power generation. In a world headed rapidly towards climate change exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, nuclear power is becoming an increasingly viable power source. The political baggage associated with it aside, in 2013 11% of the world’s power was generated by nuclear power (5). The issue, of course, is that nuclear technology development for the purposes of power generation can be mutually relevant to that required for nuclear weaponry (6).

The NPT has been successful in many ways. South Africa halted specific programs before joining the NPT, and weaponry development has ceased in Latin America altogether (10). The number of nuclear warheads worldwide has dropped rapidly since the 1980s (11). Why has the NPT not worked with regards to North Korea? North Korea made a totally legal withdrawal from the treaty as outlined in the NPT. Alternatively, had the withdrawal stipulation not been included in the NPT, there may have been less signatories, thus decreasing the effectiveness of the treaty. The NPT sits at a legal Catch-22 that unfortunately does not account for rogue states like North Korea. Here’s hoping the rational logic used to conceive the NPT will continue to maintain peace in the future.

Zachary Lucas majors in Communications/Media and Management at the University of Western Australia. He remains one of the twelve people to have never watched Game of Thrones, and greatly regrets the memes he is missing out on as a result.


(1) United Nations for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Available from: <https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/>

(2) United Nations, Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 2015. Available from: <http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2015/pdf/text%20of%20the%20treaty.pdf>

(3) United Nations for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Status of the Treaty, 2017. Available from: <http://disarmament.un.org/treaties/t/npt>

(4) UK Parliament Website, “Submission from Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy” from Global Security: Non-Proliferation – Foreign Affairs Committee, 2009, subsection 24. Available from <https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmfaff/222/222we43.htm>

(5) Nuclear Energy Institute, World Statistics: Nuclear Energy Around the World, 2017. Available from: <https://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/World-Statistics>

(6) Nuclear Info, Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, 2017. Available from: <http://nuclearinfo.net/Nuclearpower/WebHomeNuclearWeaponsProliferation>

(7) BBC News, Non-Proliferation treaty explained, 2004. Available from: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/2645379.stm>

(8) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nuclear Arsenals of the World, 2017. Available from: <http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-notebook-multimedia>

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