Michael KreponResponding to North Korea’s Nuclear Test

Predictably, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has declared, “North Korea’s test shows the continuing failure of arms control.” The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has 183 signatories and 164 ratifications. It sets a global norm against testing nuclear devices that defines violators as outlaws. Only one country has violated this Treaty since 1998. The Organization created to prepare for the Treaty’s entry into force has established an international monitoring network consisting on 282 certified stations employing various technologies, situated in 80 countries, including all permanent members of the UN Security Council. If this constitutes failure by the Journal’s editorial standards, then success requires perfection.

Alas, perfection eludes human beings and the treaties they negotiate. The CTBT’s greatest failing is its entry-into-force provision, which requires the deposit of an instrument of ratification by North Korea, among others. Two other states have yet to sign, let alone ratify the CTBT: India and Pakistan. The United States, China, Israel, Egypt and Iran have signed the Treaty, but not deposited instruments of ratification. All of this must happen before entry into force, unless participating states choose an end-around. No end-arounds seem attainable with this many outliers.

As a result, the Treaty is in limbo, where it’s been for twenty years. The CTBT’s Organization (or “Preparatory Commission”), “provisional” Technical Secretariat, and International Monitoring System created to prepare for entry into force are now functioning well, but limbo is not an equilibrium state. The longer the CTBT remains stuck there, the more its IMS is likely to atrophy. Champions of the Treaty will continue to pay their dues and maintain their monitoring stations; others will, over time, short-change international institutions that provide essential global services.

Because the CTBT is not perfect, it needs to be strengthened. All it takes is a single state to carry out testing to send shock waves regionally, while weakening the nuclear taboo and the Non-proliferation Treaty. This test, North Korea’s fourth, calls for actions that buttress the CTBT, the nuclear taboo, and the NPT. One symbolic, practical and positive step that can be taken is to make the Treaty’s IMS and its implementing bodies permanent rather than “provisional” and “preparatory.”

The IMS is up and running. It can detect very low-yield nuclear detonations. By making this system permanent, states will be conveying powerful messages – that they retain strong allegiance to the Treaty, that they do not intend to test nuclear devices, and that they take their NPT obligations seriously. This last message is especially timely when four of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT are engaged in costly strategic modernization programs. Without a re-commitment to arms control – in the form of a concrete step, not just to the IMS, but to the Treaty itself – the divide between the nuclear haves and have-nots will grow at an accelerated rate, hollowing out the NPT.

I broached this idea four years ago. Why do so again now? Because making the Treaty’s IMS and its support system permanent rather that “preparatory” and “provisional” is one of a number of suitable rejoinders to North Korea’s latest test, and because 20 years of preparation is long enough. The Treaty’s detection network is no substitute for U.S. national technical means; both are stronger when working in parallel, especially when the data used to reach conclusions from NTM cannot be placed in the public domain. This isn’t an issue when North Korea tests with yields of perhaps six kilotons or more; it can very well be an issue if a state tests at sub-kiloton yields.

How can the IMS be made permanent? How can this step be taken while still respecting the U.S. Senate’s Constitutional right to consent to treaty ratification? Is this step worth taking, given the strong domestic opposition it will surely evoke among Republicans on Capitol Hill? Would other Treaty signatories stand in the way of this concrete step? All good questions that will be addressed in future posts.


  1. ybutt (History)

    Siegfried Hecker has some useful advice for how to respond to NK:


    Host’s question: “Everyone, as Wendy Sherman has pointed out, is calling for resolute action … What difference does that make for a rogue state like North Korea?”


    Quite frankly, I think none – because we’ve been through this at least since 2003, or so, when North Korea pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and the attempts, not only by the United States, but by the international community, has been in essence to threaten North Korea, to sanction North Korea, to isolate North Korea, and it simply hasn’t worked. I think we failed to engage North Korea appropriately when we had opportunities in these last twelve or thirteen years – whatever engagement was there didn’t work. The bottom line is, over this time, from 2003, when they most likely built their first primitive device, which they tested in 2006, until today, they have gone from building a device in 2003, testing one that didn’t work so well in 2006, to just now, where they have the fourth test – a successful test – and in the meantime, at the same time, they have scaled up their ability to make more bombs. And so, where we used to have the problem of having this country that could perhaps build a simple nuclear device, today they appear to have a nuclear arsenal. That’s a great concern and to me that means that we have to do something different than was done over the last twelve years.

    • ybutt (History)
    • Ara Barsamian (History)

      It is wishful thinking and a waste of time and effort to believe that that DPRK will ever give up its nuclear arsenal.

      The “Western” politicians and ruling elites have also misunderstood what drives tyrants, whether Stalin, Mao, Hitler, or little Kim. They also acquiesced in the enslavement of millions in gulags, and genocide, and were never held accountable, and they are as guilty as these tyrants for the misery they brought on mankind.

      CTBT and similar non-proliferation efforts have been driven by the nuclear club to prevent the “have nots” from having credible means, i.e. nukes, to prevent regime change ( a la Lybia).or certain defeat ( a la Pakistan)

      For the DPRK situation, there are some possible remedies, none of them palatable to the “Western” hand-wringing politicians:

      1) Ignore DPRK completely – this should drive the regime crazy, and eventually their craving for recognition would push them into being more flexible regarding slowing their “arsenal” build-up

      2) Step on China’s “balls” to manage their client more forcefully. Western politicians have no stomach for this, as shown over the “messages sending “wars re Spratlys

      3) Have Japan go nuclear; this would get everybody’s attention, China, DPRK, and …the US

      4) Have the West work a “deal” with Putin and Xi to use the “surplus: ICBM’s do a surprise strike on DPRK nuclear facilities and weapons storage depots, using conventional ordnance

      Everything else is just wishful thinking…

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    What type of hat is Kim Three wearing in the video of the NK submarine test?

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      GQ magazine just bad mouthed the hat, but the description in the article did not line up with the hat in the photograph!

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    WASHINGTON – The outcry that followed the Chinese military’s 2007 destruction of a weather satellite and the immediate creation of thousands of pieces of space junk has helped dissuade China from conducting similar debris-generating tests, a U.S. State Department official said – See more at: http://spacenews.com/u-s-official-china-turned-to-debris-free-asat-tests-following-2007-outcry/#sthash.sMlRMpf4.dpuf

  4. Bradley Laing (History)


    “Ben Carson warned debate viewers about EMPs — a threat that only exists in action movies”