“Now is a very crucial time for the IAEA, Korea and the entire world. North Korea has just returned to a verification process. I wish it would lead to North Korea's return to the NPT and complete scrapping of its nuclear weapons program.”This is an important step toward reigning in the North Korean breakout from the NPT. Some observers have contested the legal force of North Korea’s asserted departure from the NPT on January 10, 2003.
The argument that North Korea’s withdrawal is illegal because it was asserted to have immediate effect is weak. Complex negotiations following the DPRK’s original assertion of its intention to withdraw from the NPT around March 9-11, 1993 (Wit, Poneman, Gallucci, Going Critical, page 25-6) led to interesting disagreement as to whether a state party to the NPT could “suspend” its withdrawal after the three month waiting period specified in Article X of the NPT had run out or, in the alternative, its withdrawal clock was reset if it chose to remain in the Treaty after having announced its intent to withdraw. This disagreement cleverly widened room for diplomacy and sparked discussions about how procedural measures might raise the bar against further NPT defections, but it did not fundamentally change North Korea’s right to withdraw. It only mattered so long as everyone – including the North Koreans – agreed that North Korea remained a state party to the NPT.
Law is important, but legalistic debate cannot reclaim the four-and-a-half years that the North has spent outside the NPT any more than IAEA inspectors can travel back in time to verify compliance during that period. But an unambiguous North Korean return to the NPT would be good for three reasons. First, it would multilateralize North Korea’s commitment to verified nuclear disarmament – even if entered into cynically, this global commitment to all NPT members would demonstrate that even a state that seems to spoil for an adjective (like “rogue” or “outlaw”) must acknowledge the relationship between verified and legally binding nonproliferation and contemporary sovereignty. Second, it would emphasize the resilience of the Treaty. Today, North Korea stands outside the NPT as a model to other states that might choose nuclear weapons proliferation over the rule of law, although no other states have yet followed suit. The DPRK’s return to the NPT would signal that breakout is not sustainable. Third, returning North Korea to the NPT would move this nearly universal Treaty even closer to universality – emphasizing that the historical and strategic circumstances that have left only three other states outside the Treaty should not be immune to creative efforts to bring them into meaningful and effective levels of partnership with NPT states parties for nonproliferation.