Joshua PollackNorth Korea, the CTBT, and (maybe?) the end of the nuclear-testing era

Ears pricked up across the nonproliferation world last week when North Korea’s representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva stated that Pyongyang “will join international disarmament efforts for a total ban on nuclear tests.”

Does this development mean that North Korea may be prepared to join the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty?

The ambassador’s remarks, offered in connection with the upcoming closure of the underground test site at Punggye-ri, were not exactly new. They echoed a much-discussed April 20 resolution of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party that decided to “discontinue” both nuclear testing and flight-testing of ICBMs. To quote the awkward official translation,

the discontinuance of the nuclear test is an important process for the worldwide disarmament, and the DPRK will join the international desire and efforts for the total halt to the nuclear test.

This is an important announcement in its own right, since it’s an essential precursor to concluding the era of nuclear testing that began in New Mexico on the morning of July 16, 1945. Besides North Korea, no other state has tested a nuclear device since 1998.

The declaration also may sound like a hint of openness to joining the CTBT, but caution is warranted. The news report communicating the Party resolution was unmistakably, pointedly modeled on an earlier document: the Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China of July 29, 1996. The Chinese government statement declared a moratorium on nuclear testing, just like the recent North Korean resolution. But it also announced China’s commitment to concluding the CTBT and bringing it into force. The absence of any parallel commitment in the North Korean document resounds loudly.

Why the CTBT question matters

Whether North Korea joins the CTBT matters in part because of the Treaty’s unusually stringent conditions for entry into force, which remain unsatisfied more than two decades after the negotiation of the Treaty. Of the long list of “Annex 2” states that must join to fulfill its terms, three (India, North Korea, and Pakistan) have not yet signed, and another five (China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States) have signed but not yet ratified.

(Here’s the current list of CTBT signatures and ratifications. For those of you with access to academic journals, Jenifer Mackby described the origins of the baroque entry-into-force provision in the Nonproliferation Review.)

The CTBT Organization to be established under the Treaty already functions in the guise of a “Preparatory Commission,” overseeing a global network of monitoring stations. This International Monitoring System has independently detected all six nuclear tests declared by the North Koreans.

But especially now that the North Koreans say they won’t be testing anymore, entry-into-force matters. Until that milestone is reached, the CTBTO will lack the authority to conduct on-site inspections to verify the absence of a suspected nuclear test. This is the sort of independent verification that won’t be taking place later this week at Punggye-ri, where foreign journalists have been invited to observe a “ceremony for dismantling the nuclear test ground.” That’s all well and good, but until the CTBT enters into force, North Korea will be under no obligation to have anyone back to investigate if the ground should shake a seventh time.

What’s more, it’s simply unclear how long the global test moratorium will hold without entry-into-force.

North Korea’s sensitivities

Why didn’t the North Koreans take the opportunity of the April 20 Party resolution to endorse the CTBT? The most likely reason appears to be their reluctance to join treaties with just the sort of intrusive verification measures described above. North Korea has joined a short list of treaties, mostly in the 1980s, usually without much fanfare. These include the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which forbids the use of chemical or biological weapons; and the Biological Weapons Convention, which forbids the production and possession of biological weapons. But with the exception of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which North Korea joined on December 12, 1985, none of these treaties requires a state to open its territory to outsiders.

The DPRK joined the NPT half-heartedly, apparently as a condition of a nuclear reactor supply agreement with the USSR. As described in David Fischer’s brief history, the North Koreans long resisted following through on their NPT obligations to declare their nuclear facilities and conclude a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. When they finally complied, in 1992, the IAEA quickly became suspicious of what it saw. In 1993, the Agency invoked its authority under the safeguards agreement to conduct a “special inspection” at two undeclared sites. The North Koreans balked, threatening to exit the NPT. (They eventually did so a decade later.)

Past was prologue; in 2008, North Korea refused an American demand for untrammeled access to its territory, ending the Bush Administration’s efforts at consummating “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

In the meantime, North Korea has made no move to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which opened for signature in January 1993. CWC parties can invoke “challenge inspections,” to be carried out at any time or place on the territory of another party. Perhaps fearing that this provision might be abused, no state has invoked it since the treaty entered into force in 1997. (For those with access, see Tatsuya Abe’s article on the non-use of CWC challenge inspections in the Nonproliferation Review.) Nonetheless, North Korea now stands almost alone as an abstainer from the CWC. Among UN member states, only Egypt, North Korea, and the new nation of South Sudan still have yet to sign. Israel has signed but not ratified.

North Korea has been known to open particular sites to foreigners at the times and circumstances of its own choosing. But if concerns about inspectors running amok have indeed caused Pyongyang to look askance at the CTBT, then it’s possible that the CTBTO didn’t entirely do itself a favor by proposing an ad hoc inspection to verify the closure of Punggye-ri. So far, it’s not clear whether they’ve received any reply.

You won’t know if you don’t ask

Since the DPRK Vice Foreign Minister’s May 16 press statement, U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, never on a particularly firm footing, is looking wobbly. (These were the remarks that questioned the value of holding a summit as long as the White House insists on unilateral, up-front, “Libya-style” disarmament—blunt comments, but fully consistent with the Party’s April 20 resolution.) Even so, the “ceremony” at Punggye-ri remains on track. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; the test moratorium was declared unilaterally and unconditionally, and not as part of any diplomatic quid pro quo—at least not overtly.

If serious negotiations with Washington do take place, it would only make sense for the United States to seek North Korea’s accession to the CTBT, for the reasons described above. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is very unlikely to do so. Republicans just don’t believe in the CTBT. (See Mac Destler’s 2001 case study on the ratification debacle.) It will be left to other interested parties such as China, and ultimately also the CTBTO itself, to make the case to Pyongyang that accession to the Treaty will enhance the credibility of its moratorium, and that the on-site inspection provision will not be subject to abuse when the Treaty finally enters into force. Sooner, one hopes, rather than later.