Tuesday, December 9, 2008

So-called "Nuclear Powers" Aren’t

The Korea Times reports today that the recently released annual report by U.S. Joint Forces Command, “Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force,” lists North Korea as a “nuclear power.” Perversely, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which shapes the environment for joint operations significantly by limiting the number of nuclear arsenals globally, is not mentioned in the document.

The section entitled “The Contextual World” begins its discussion of “The Pacific and Indian Oceans” as follows:
“The rim of the great Asian continent is already home to five nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Russia. Furthermore, there are three threshold nuclear states, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, which have the capacity to become nuclear powers quickly.”
Such colorful writing may enliven the read, but it dangerously distorts the picture of Asian and global security presented in the report. While North Korea, appears to have tested a nuclear explosive device and maintains a conventional military of unusual size, it has by no means earned the status of “power” somehow analogous to Russia, China, and India.

Nuclear weapons may confer political status, but this is as much a dysfunction of contemporary global politics as it is a reflection of some real utility of nuclear weapons in meeting the needs of states. Nuclear weapons are exceedingly dangerous to U.S. and global security and North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is clearly destabilizing to the region. But nuclear weapons do not transform North Korea’s role in the world; they are a symptom and contributing cause of North Korea’s national tragedy.

Kim Jong Il styles himself an alchemist, hoping nuclear weapons will transform his comparative advantage in ignoring global norms and violating international law into security and foreign investment. It is unclear that he has achieved security or even broken even economically. He has impoverished his people and alienated them from the world community. A small nuclear arsenal may provide him a fig leaf of deterrence sufficient for human rights atrocities and petty criminality, but it has not transformed him into a globally relevant leader.

The U.S. Government should make this clear by consistently and assertively rejecting Kim’s mystical belief that nuclear weapons make him powerful; this includes consistently rejecting the use of the term “nuclear power” to describe any state.

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