Unacceptable threats: North Korea’s missile test exacerbates nuclear weapons risk


Update 3 November 2022 : North Korea’s ballistic missile tests on November 3rd are the latest in more than 40 weapons tests, including short, medium and long-range missiles and artillery barrages close to South Korea since the beginning of 2022. Pyongyang alsoannounced on 9 September a new law making its nuclear-armed status “irreversible”, prohibiting talks on denuclearization, and, most worryingly, allowing for pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.

These irresponsible, dangerous actions further exacerbate the risk of nuclear weapons use, particularly when seen in the context of the nuclear threats being issued during the Ukraine invasion.

North Korea has said its most recent tests and artillery barrages are a response to large-scale joint US and South Korean military exercises including nuclear capable ships and aircraft which have increased tensions in the region. South Korea also expects North Korea to carry out its first nuclear test since 2017 in the near future that analysts predict would be to test a miniaturised warhead design to put on its missiles. And North Korea’s actions are not happening in a vacuum.

With Russia’s explicit threats to use nuclear weapons in connection with its invasion of Ukraine, and responses from the US and NATO implying retaliation, the idea of nuclear weapons use is becoming normalized, and the decades-long nuclear taboo is being dangerously eroded. In these circumstances, every additional threat, missile test, military provocation, or declaration of the importance or necessity of nuclear weapons, adds to the risk of catastrophe. This risk spiral is driven by narrow and short-sighted conceptions of national security, where the possession and brandishing of nuclear weapons is seen as the only way of defending against foreign aggression.

The national security rhetoric North Korea uses to justify its new law and its missile tests is identical to that used by Russia, the US, and the other nuclear-armed states. Just like these other states, North Korea repeatedly claims to support nuclear disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons, while simultaneously asserting that security threats require it to rely on nuclear weapons, and that nuclear disarmament cannot be considered until the security situation is resolved.

But in acting in this way, nuclear-armed states are holding the rest of the world hostage. The wide-ranging and catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons mean that regardless of who owns them, nuclear weapons threaten the security - and the very existence - of all states, and all people.

This is why a large and growing number of countries have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons(TPNW): they recognise that total elimination of nuclear weapons is a global security imperative, and the responsibility of all states, not just those with nuclear weapons. As the risks of use of nuclear weapons grow, driven by threats, inflammatory rhetoric and the increasing prominence of nuclear weapons in security policies and doctrines, the international community’s response must be to stigmatize and delegitimize nuclear weapons and to build a robust global norm against them. The TPNW offers the most practical way forward for this.