Responding to North Korea’s Nuclear Test

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Predictably, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has declared, “North Korea’s test shows the continuing failure of arms control.” The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has 183 signatories and 164 ratifications. It sets a global norm against testing nuclear devices that defines violators as outlaws. Only one country has violated this Treaty since 1998. The Organization created to prepare for the Treaty’s entry into force has established an international monitoring network consisting on 282 certified stations employing various technologies, situated in 80 countries, including all permanent members of the UN Security Council. If this constitutes failure by the Journal’s editorial standards, then success requires perfection.

Alas, perfection eludes human beings and the treaties they negotiate. The CTBT’s greatest failing is its entry-into-force provision, which requires the deposit of an instrument of ratification by North Korea, among others. Two other states have yet to sign, let alone ratify the CTBT: India and Pakistan. The United States, China, Israel, Egypt and Iran have signed the Treaty, but not deposited instruments of ratification. All of this must happen before entry into force, unless participating states choose an end-around. No end-arounds seem attainable with this many outliers.

As a result, the Treaty is in limbo, where it’s been for twenty years. The CTBT’s Organization (or “Preparatory Commission”), “provisional” Technical Secretariat, and International Monitoring System created to prepare for entry into force are now functioning well, but limbo is not an equilibrium state. The longer the CTBT remains stuck there, the more its IMS is likely to atrophy. Champions of the Treaty will continue to pay their dues and maintain their monitoring stations; others will, over time, short-change international institutions that provide essential global services.

Because the CTBT is not perfect, it needs to be strengthened. All it takes is a single state to carry out testing to send shock waves regionally, while weakening the nuclear taboo and the Non-proliferation Treaty. This test, North Korea’s fourth, calls for actions that buttress the CTBT, the nuclear taboo, and the NPT. One symbolic, practical and positive step that can be taken is to make the Treaty’s IMS and its implementing bodies permanent rather than “provisional” and “preparatory.”

The IMS is up and running. It can detect very low-yield nuclear detonations. By making this system permanent, states will be conveying powerful messages – that they retain strong allegiance to the Treaty, that they do not intend to test nuclear devices, and that they take their NPT obligations seriously. This last message is especially timely when four of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT are engaged in costly strategic modernization programs. Without a re-commitment to arms control – in the form of a concrete step, not just to the IMS, but to the Treaty itself – the divide between the nuclear haves and have-nots will grow at an accelerated rate, hollowing out the NPT.

I broached this idea four years ago. Why do so again now? Because making the Treaty’s IMS and its support system permanent rather that “preparatory” and “provisional” is one of a number of suitable rejoinders to North Korea’s latest test, and because 20 years of preparation is long enough. The Treaty’s detection network is no substitute for U.S. national technical means; both are stronger when working in parallel, especially when the data used to reach conclusions from NTM cannot be placed in the public domain. This isn’t an issue when North Korea tests with yields of perhaps six kilotons or more; it can very well be an issue if a state tests at sub-kiloton yields.

How can the IMS be made permanent? How can this step be taken while still respecting the U.S. Senate’s Constitutional right to consent to treaty ratification? Is this step worth taking, given the strong domestic opposition it will surely evoke among Republicans on Capitol Hill? Would other Treaty signatories stand in the way of this concrete step? All good questions that will be addressed in future posts.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 7, 2016.

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