The Cold War finally thawed in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a generation that lived under the constant threat of Mutual Assured Destruction heaved a communal sigh of relief and burned its copies of Protect And Survive. Today’s nuclear family sees old enemies the US and Russia meeting disarmament goals through the New START treaty, creating more of a level playing field for all nuclear states to negotiate equally. China has strengthened its nuclear security cooperation with the West, and even Iran’s new regime has demonstrated it is prepared to discuss bringing its nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards.
But not all nuclear states are signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), with outliers believing it to be a ‘them and us’ policy which discriminates against countries that developed nuclear weapons more recently. It is also generally understood that North Korea is looking to weaponise its plutonium into a deliverable warhead.
Dr Jenny Nielsen is a research analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme specialising in the NPT review process and nuclear disarmament. She project-manages regional workshops on North Korea sanctions implementation, and manages the EU Non-proliferation Consortium activities that IISS carries out as part of the Consortium. Here Nielsen answers the big questions about the global nuclear arsenal and the international relations factors that could influence the future balance of nuclear power.
Berenice Baker – What states have nuclear weapons?
Dr Jenny Nielsen – You’ve got the five nuclear weapons states as recognised by the NPT: China, France, Russia, UK and US. Then three non-NPT nuclear weapons states: India, Israel and Pakistan.
BB – Can you foresee any additions to or shifts between the groups?
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JN – North Korea is recognised as a quasi-nuclear weapon state because they’ve enough plutonium for up to eight nuclear warheads, but there’s been no proof that they have been able to successfully weaponise this as a deliverable weapon. They’ve carried out the three test explosions, the most recent being in February 2013, confirmed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBT) through seismic activity and radionuclide detection. North Korea previously conducted two tests in 2006 and 2009, and even though Pyongyang in 2005 said it was going to abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programmes, it continues testing.
Israel does not even declare itself a nuclear state – its position is to remain ambiguous, unlike India and Pakistan which consider their tests as a real achievement of scientific prowess. Israel remains in that opaque state because it finds it regionally convenient, and it’s a policy that’s worked for them. Some argue that if it were to step outside that ambiguity, it would potentially escalate into a regional arms race.
India, Israel and Pakistan can’t move towards joining the NPT because it states that a nuclear weapon state by definition exploded a device prior to 1967, so the NPT would have to be amended to include them. India complains that the NPT is discriminatory because it’s a ‘have and have not’ treaty. In every NPT meeting there calls by all member states for the three states to dismantle their weapons and accede to the treaty as non nuclear weapons states, but there’s no movement there.
BB – A key focus of last years’ IISS strategic survey was the continuing expansion of Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear capabilities, with Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile looking set to overtake the UK’s. What are the implications for the region?
JN – There have always been concerns about command and control issues in certain states, and security of these arsenals. These two states will attend the nuclear security summit in The Hague in March 2014 which will address the civilian side but not the arsenals. But given the links in some of these countries between the civilian and the military, it might be relevant.
BB – China has strengthened its nuclear security cooperation with the West, and last week the US asked China to help bring North Korea back into disarmament talks. Does China hold enough sway to bring it into line?
JK – In the previous six-party talks China did act as intermediaries and were able to bring North Korea (DPRK) to the table. However, China is North Korea’s key ally in the region, and more importantly its biggest trade partner and source of arms, fuel and food. North Korea is increasingly reliant on China, especially given the UK sanctions on trade with North Korea. But it has been argued that after the third test in February by the DPRK, there was a change of posture by Beijing towards Pyongyang.
The DPRK is a buffer zone between China and South Korea, and it’s a friendly neighbour to China and it perhaps limits US forces stationed in the region and prevents US dominance there, which perhaps China would not want.
BB – North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability presents an ongoing challenge to regional security and nuclear tests continue unabated. How real is the risk it poses to its neighbours?
JK – Defying international norms and (UN) resolutions is always going to be a risk to international and regional security, and missile tests and nuclear testing is an even more grave violation because it defies the current moratorium on nuclear testing that exists. The CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) has entered into force in a moratorium sense, and North Korea’s defying that. That causes instability and concern.
It it might cause the neighbouring countries Japan and South Korea to rethink and perhaps wonder if the extended nuclear deterrents provided by their allies is enough if North Korea were to successfully weaponise their nuclear material.
BB – The New START treaty between the US and Russia is achieving its goalposts towards nuclear reduction targets. Other than a thawing of relations between the nations, is this meaningful, given both powers will still possess enough weapons to start or end a nuclear war?
JK – New START hasn’t really succeeded in warming relations between the US and Russia. Russia has concerns about the missile deterrent the US is deploying in Europe and they are interpreting it as an offensive measure. But reducing mutual holdings of these nuclear weapons to the lowest levels since the 1950s is no small achievement.
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The verification, data exchange, inspection and notification regime created by New START is an important step towards creating mutual confidence between these two states, boosting strategic stability and, some would argue, drastically reducing the potential for a nuclear exchange.
The bilateral arms reduction agreement is definitely a positive and meaningful step as unless these arsenals come down to a level comparable to that of other states, you can’t move towards a multilateral further arms reduction, and eventually towards zero.
BB – Negotiations are underway this week between Iran and six world powers to hammer out a way for Iran to use peaceful nuclear technology in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions. Is this an end to Iran’s nuclear programme?
JK – Iran’s nuclear programme negotiations are certainly not the final stretch to a compromise on their activities. At this stage it’s just trying to clarify and any questions that are still left between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the West about its non-compliance with IAEA safeguards. I think they’re just trying to get to a stage where they can clarify those questions that remain to feel comfortable that Iran is back into compliance with IAEA safety safeguards.
There are positive signals coming out of this in Vienna, but it’s a long process and I think we should follow this closely. I don’t think it’s going to be solved in six months – it’s a long process of mutual confidence building and transparency, but obviously Tehran wants the lifting of more sanctions.
BB – Is there any movement towards multilateral disarmament?
JK – There’s a growing momentum for multilateral nuclear diplomacy within the UN General Assembly First Committee where they discuss international security and disarmament. This effort by a number of states aims to push forward a humanitarian agenda for nuclear disarmament.
The non nuclear weapons states are not very impressed with the speed of progress towards disarmament, so they’re trying to reframe the discussion to highlight the humanitarian consequences of detonation, whether it’s intentional or accidental, and put pressure on the nuclear weapons states because.
An international conference took place in Mexico last week which 146 states attended, but none of the five recognised NPT nuclear weapons states (P5) attended because they’re concerned this is the start of a nuclear weapons ban, and delegitimizing of nuclear weapons. Another similar conference was held in Oslo last March and the P5 boycotted that one too, and there’s another one going to be held in Vienna later this year and we’ll see if the P5 attend that one.