North Korea’s recent nuclear advances: what are the implications for European security?

North Korea’s recent nuclear advances: what are the implications for European security?

On the 10th of October 2020, North Korea unveiled what appeared to be its biggest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile, during a military parade organised in Pyongyang. This new ICBM, although currently untested, reflects North Korean nuclear advancements and revives the global debate surrounding North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. For the European Union, North Korean nuclear capabilities represent a strong risk for its security. As North Korean ICBMs are becoming more loaded and capable of spanning big distances, they could easily reach the European continent. Furthermore, North Korean nuclear transfers might occur with other rogue states or with terrorist groups, thus threatening European security as all, especially at its external borders.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions date back to the Korean War in the 1950’s, but only came to the attention of the international community in 1992, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) foundits nuclear activities were more extensive than declared. After North Korea withdrew from the IAEA in 1994, the United States started fresh negotiations with the country, in order to avoid its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This dialogue led to the Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear activities and give access to IAEA inspectors in exchange for aid. However, this agreement broke down in 2002 and  North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the NPT in January 2003, and later the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and is believed to maintain an offensive biological weapons program. 

As such, and in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea continues its nuclear enrichment and long-range missile development efforts. On the nuclear level, it is known that DPRK possesses enough plutonium to produce at least six nuclear weapons, and possibly up to sixty. Kim Jong-un has even claimed in 2017 that its country has managed to develop a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb. Tested in December the same year, the energy released by the test left few doubts about the accuracy of it being an actual H bomb. During the last decade, North Korea conducted at least six nuclear weapons tests: In November 2017, North Korea successfully tested the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 – ICBMs that are able to deliver a nuclear payload anywhere in the United States. Consequently, the new ICBM unveiled in October only confirms the strengthening of the country’s nuclear deterrence capabilities, as it appeared to be much larger than North Korea’s biggest, previously disclosed long-range missile, the Hwasong-15. 

A weakened global non-proliferation regime

This situation is sparking new worries within the international community, which has always tried to keep North Korean nuclear advancements under control. As international talks are stalled at the moment, the recent diplomatic negotiations between North and South Korea gave some hope about the future nuclear behaviour of the DPRK. Indeed, in early 2018, North and South Korea began a diplomatic rapprochement and signed a joint statement aiming at working towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. At the same time, an important change also occurred in U.S. policy toward North Korea, as President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met in Singapore in June 2018 and released a joint statement pledging “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Nevertheless, after another summit that ended without any deal or announcement in February 2019, North Korea resumed its short-range ballistic missile tests in May, triggering a renewed period of worrying within the international community.

The aggressive posture adopted by Kim Jong-un against the West has exacerbated the threat from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. On a more global scale, in August 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its harshest sanctions on the country, in order to reduce some of the most important sources of revenue for the regime. All these sanctions were always highly supported by the European Union, who has been a strong supporter of the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime for decades. Regarding the DPRK, the EU has implemented the restrictive measures imposed through resolutions of the UN Security Council since 2006, and has reinforced them through its own measures, targeting the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile-related programmes. As a consequence, the EU has made non-proliferation one of the key goals of its Korean Peninsula policy, due to the fear that DPRK nuclear capabilities and technologies might be used by countries such as Iran or might fall in the hands of terrorist groups. Nowadays, and given the recent North Korean ICBM show, this risk is still a potential security threat for the EU, which thus put in question its actual diplomatic and political strategy with the Korean Peninsula.

The need of a renewed European strategy towards the DPRK

For the last two decades, EU’s policy towards North Korea has been based on a strategy known as “Critical Engagement” consisting of the use of both incentives and sanctions. In theory, the main goals of this “Critical engagement” policy was to support a lasting reduction of tension on the Korean peninsula and in the region, to uphold the international non-proliferation regime and to improve the situation of human rights in the DPRK. However, according to many experts, this strategy is now completely outdated and ineffective, as it failed on two crucial levels. Firstly, despite its engagement, the EU has not succeeded in either reducing tensions in the Korean peninsula, strengthening the non-proliferation regime or improving the human rights situation. Secondly, by implementing active pressure policies since 2013-2014, the leverage of the EU and its member states has been considerably reduced as regards diplomatic influence, as it conducted Brussels to dramatically decrease its political engagement with North Korea, leaving only some informal dialogue channels and individual engagement initiatives by specific member states. As a consequence, this strategy has not promoted a comprehensive European plan for the Korean peninsula in general and North Korea in particular, and proved to be highly dependent on political circumstances, thereby further weakening Europe’s role in East-Asian security affairs.

With today’s heated context, this failed strategy is prompting security concerns for Europe; North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile crisis is the most serious proliferation crisis the EU currently faces on the world stage. As the North Korean Republic is enhancing its nuclear capabilities, it increases the risk of proliferation of missiles and dissemination of technologies, putting Europe at risk if such capabilities were ever to be present in certain theatres of operations close to its borders. Indeed, if the EU failed at reaching a deal ending the North Korean nuclear programme, it would strongly undermine the legitimacy of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and demonstrate that the NPT cannot prevent signatory countries from becoming nuclear powers. It would thus set a dangerous precedent for other rogue countries to follow. Moreover, it would also threaten the stability of the region, increasing the risk of an escalation of tensions and the outburst of a conflict; a conflict that could endanger hundreds of thousands of citizens of EU member states in the region

As a consequence, it is up to the EU to take a high-level initiative rather than a “wait and see” approach. If the EU doesn’t step up, others will. China has already come up with a new draft UNSC resolution calling for lifting of major sanctions and reviving the Six Party Talks that do not include the EU—with Russia happily tagging along. It could then lead to the creation of a new Sino-Russian initiative to broker denuclearization, without the participation of neither the EU nor the international community…

Consequently, the risks are high for the EU: if North Korean long-range missiles can reach most of the continental US, then Europe could also be a target. And if North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are about to spread throughout other rogue countries, more closer to the European Union, then it is urgent for the Union to take part in international talks again, in order to set up a new constraining global nuclear framework. Hence the need for Europe to renew its approach towards the DPRK and to adopt a more serious and sustained “engagement”, while strengthening its sanctions, before North Korea becomes the global geopolitical hotspot once again.

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