Why is it so hard to stop nuclear proliferation? Explainer video


Explainer Video





North Korea has been using its embassy in Berlin to procure parts for its missile program. As Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency told a German broadcaster at the beginning of February:

‘Wir mussten feststellen, dass von dort aus Beschaffungsaktivitäten gelaufen sind.’

In 1952, Norman MacLaren’s 8-minute short film won an Academy Award. It depicts two neighbours coveting the same flower which has popped up in their shared garden. The film is a perfect metaphor for nuclear proliferation—and illustrates why it’s so difficult to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Before 1945, the world was far from a peaceful place. However, the introduction of nuclear weapons completely changed the way that countries interacted with one another.

The world had never seen anything like the devastation caused by the introduction of nuclear weapons. As die Berliner Zeitung noted on the 8th of August, 1945:

‘Es handelt sich bei der Atombombe um die Nutzbarmachung der elementaren Kräfte, die das Universum beherrschen. Dieselben Kräfte, aus denen die Sonne ihre Stärke zieht, werden jetzt gegen diejenigen losgelassen, die den Krieg im Fernen Osten entfesselt haben’

There are many reasons that a country seeks nuclear weapons, but since Hiroshima, no-one has actually built a bomb in order to use it to attack. Instead, the bomb is used as a deterrent: a way to stop other countries from attacking them. It also changes the nation’s standing on the global stage, giving them prestige and leverage in negotiations.

Initially, only the US had nuclear weapons. They were soon joined by the USSR in 1949. At this point, the superpowers realised that it would maintain the balance of power if they were the only countries with nuclear weapons, and decided to adopt a non-proliferation policy: stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

This was considered hypocritical, and gaining a nuclear warhead became necessary to challenge the superpowers.

As Historian Shane Maddock notes:

‘The superpowers created a system of nuclear apartheid whereby the European states had access to nuclear weapons via Cold War alliance systems, while newly decolonised nations had to abstain from nuclear weapons or risk the ire of Washington and Moscow.’

The US and USSR envisaged a nightmare scenario, whereby any other more nations going nuclear would precipitate a chain reaction. In the end, only 8 countries are known to have developed nuclear weapons.

MAP: The UK, FRANCE, CHINA, INDIA, PAKISTAN, AND NORTH KOREA. ISRAEL has an estimated 80-200 nuclear weapons, which it will neither confirm nor deny. Apartheid SOUTH AFRICA had nuclear weapons, but they gave them up. More on that later.

Fear of a nuclear West Germany featured prominently on this list until the mid-1960s, as concern that feelings of German inferiority would be like another Versailles Treaty if they forced Germany to renounce developing nuclear weaponry. The fear of the ‘German finger on the nuclear trigger’ was constant for the US and the USSR administration.

Despite the international norm of non-proliferation, several countries did go down the path of nuclear weapons. If they weren’t strategic US allies, they had to use stealth to develop the programme in secret.

If caught, these countries face international condemnation and humiliating sanctions. For example, In the case of Pakistan, the US attempted to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions by denying aid and deploying diplomatic incentives. But the Pakistani government, under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and then Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, remained resolute. Motivated by security concerns over its hostile neighbour, India, the government presented developing a nuclear weapon as a matter of national sovereignty.

Herein lies the problem—once a country has decided that a nuclear weapon is necessary to ensure the survival of the regime, there is almost nothing an external entity can do to stop it. As Bhutto famously said:

‘If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.’

In addition to being an internal decision that’s difficult to detect, since the 1970s, there has been enough information in the public sphere that an average university student can build a bomb, as John Aristotle Phillips discovered in 1976, earning himself the nickname ‘A-Bomb Kid.’

Meanwhile, proliferation rings have emerged—covert markets run by non-state actors. The most famous example is the A. Q. Khan network, led by a Pakistani engineer, that allegedly made offers to Libya, Iraq, and possibly Syria. It resulted in the acquisition of an entire plant for converting uranium from West Germany by 1980, and played an important role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Proliferation rings undermine the whole system of nuclear non-proliferation. You can’t rely on non-state actors to be deterred, or rewarded. Non-state actors are much harder to detect, have fewer inhibitions, and are more and more numerous.

According to German spy chief Maaßen, in the case of the North Korean Embassy in Berlin, the technology was

‘über andere Märkte erworben wurden, oder Schattenkäufer sie eben in Deutschland erworben haben.’

He also said the matter often involved so-called dual-use goods, which can be used for both civil and military purposes. Simply put, it’s hard to tell whether nuclear technology will be used for civilian or military purposes.

Nowadays, once a country has decided to go down the nuclear path, it’s very difficult to stop it. Not only because it has decided that if it’s essential to the survival of the regime, then no external pressure can stop it, but also because the technology is out there and impossible to contain.

Let’s look at North Korea. The aggressive language it uses is always responded to with—more aggression and confrontation. I probably don’t have to remind you of Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ remarks.

But if you were faced with that kind of aggression—the most powerful nation in the world, capable of destroying the planet several times over, threatened you with ‘fire and fury’—would you want to abandon the one thing that seems to give you any leverage?

Especially after seeing what happened when Iraq was simply accused of building nuclear weapons, or Libya after it denuclearised: total regime destruction.

Perhaps more attention should be paid to the only country that has given nuclear weapons: South Africa. During Apartheid, South Africa secretly developed a small number of nuclear warheads. Like North Korea now, it was also treated like a ‘rogue state’. The end of apartheid, and the lifting of the apartheid sanctions, meant that the South African leadership felt that it did not need a nuclear weapon anymore, and joining the international norm by giving them up was very attractive.

I reached out to Morgan Potts, a North Korean scholar and former production editor for The British Association For Korean Studies academic journal, to ask for his thoughts. He recommended an article he wrote, in which his number one piece of advice for what to do was:

“1. Stop worrying about a nuclear North

The DPRK isn’t interested in getting rid of its nuclear capacity; the west has tried sanctions, the threat of military force, and (unfulfilled) promises of alternative energy assistance for 20 years with no significant effect. […]

It’s time to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and shift the focus from deterrence politics to human security. If anything, diplomatic efforts should go towards encouraging North Korea to sign up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and submit to regular IAEA inspections rather than stubbornly insisting that disarmament is a hard prerequisite for engagement.”

So perhaps a little less ‘fire and fury’ and a little more diplomacy might be the only thing that could roll-back the North Korean bomb?

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