What do we know?
On 6 January 2016 North Korean official state media reported that it had carried out a successful test of a thermonuclear weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb. This announcement followed a statement by the CTBTO that it had detected an “unusual seismic event” at the site of North Korea’s most recent nuclear test in 2013. The CTBTO has monitoring stations positioned around the world to detect underground seismic activity consistent with the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
While details of the test have yet to be confirmed by independent experts, North Korea claims that the device tested was a miniaturized hydrogen bomb. If true, this would be the fourth test of a nuclear weapon by North Korea since 1996 and its first of a hydrogen bomb, which exerts a significantly more powerful yield than an atomic bomb of the type used by the United States over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
According to a statement released early on 6 January from the CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo, “If confirmed as a nuclear test, this act constitutes a breach of the universally accepted norm against nuclear testing; a norm that has been respected by 183 countries since 1996. It is also a grave threat to international peace and security.”
What is North Korea’s nuclear weapons capacity?
While North Korea is known to have an active nuclear weapons programme, specific details are hard to come by. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which publishes yearly reports on the status of the world’s nuclear arsenal, North Korea could have enough fissile material to construct up to 8 nuclear weapons. This is based on assessments of the enrichment capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear reactor.
North Korea has previously tested nuclear weapons on three occasions, most recently in February 2013. It is considered that those tests were of “basic” nuclear devices, too large and unwieldy to be attached to a missile or dropped from a plane.
While independent verification is still to come, if North Korea’s claim that it has constructed a hydrogen bomb small enough to fit on a delivery system proves to be true, it would represent a dangerous advancement in its nuclear weapons capacity, both in terms of explosive yield and the ability to carry out an attack.
Are nuclear weapons and their testing prohibited?
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), signed by 183 states, bans nuclear tests, but, nearly twenty years on, it has yet to be entered into force due to the non-ratification by eight states, including several nuclear weapon states. Nevertheless, the testing of nuclear weapons is considered to be a violation of a widely-respected norm.
However, the possession of nuclear weapons and the threat of their use are not currently banned under international law, making them the only weapons of mass destruction not yet explicitly prohibited by international convention. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prohibits its states parties who did not have nuclear weapons upon signing the treaty from acquiring nuclear weapons, while obligating those that did to disarm.
How would a ban treaty relate to rogue states like North Korea?
A ban on nuclear weapons will establish an international norm against the possession of nuclear weapons, which will help to reduce the perceived value of such weapons. It will draw the line between those states that believe nuclear weapons are unacceptable and illegitimate, and those states that believe nuclear weapons are legitimate and able to provide security.
The arguments used by North Korea to defend its nuclear weapons program and tests are echoes of the reasoning used, and thereby legitimized, by the nuclear weapon states. North Korea announced that it was “proudly joining the advanced ranks of nuclear weapon states” equipped with “the most powerful nuclear deterrent” as a means of self-defense against the “ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the US-led forces”. In 2015, French President François Hollande claimed that France’s nuclear weapons allows it to “preserve our freedom of action and decision in all circumstances, ruling out any threat of blackmail … Our nuclear forces must be capable of inflicting absolutely unacceptable damage to the adversary’s centres of power: its political, economic and military nerve centres.”
If nuclear weapons continue to be portrayed as a legitimate and a useful mean to provide security, non-nuclear weapon states might aim to develop such weapons themselves.
A ban on nuclear weapons would create a global norm against nuclear weapons, which would not only put pressure on both nuclear-armed and non-nuclear weapon states to reject nuclear weapons permanently, but it would also set the stage for future progress in states like North Korea should its domestic political situation change.