March 2013
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Mark Fitzpatrick, head of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the IISS, speaks out about North Korea’s unrestrained policies
Shyam Bhatia

March 2013


New nuclear threats from an old liar

  In an interview with asianaffairs' Shyam Bhatia, a leading US expert has warned that North Korea's reckless policies could trigger a future war. Mark Fitzpatrick, who heads the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London, also described North Korea as an 'international criminal' and the only country that has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty after violating its provisions.

Asian Affairs: How seriously should the international community view North Korea's expanding nuclear arsenal and its plan to conduct more nuclear tests?

Mark Fitzpatrick: North Korea is an old liar in many respects, the only country to have signed the NPT (Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty) with the intention, we now realize, of violating it. It's the only country that withdrew from the NPT after violating it. It's the only country to be conducting nuclear tests after 1998 and it's the country that may well spark the next major war. North Korea's possession and expansion of nuclear weapons could make that war into a nuclear war. I think it's very serious, it's one of the most serious hotspots in the world, if not the most.

AA: A former US President once described North Korea as part of an axis of evil. Is that still the view from Washington?
MF: Well nobody uses the term axis of evil any more, but North Korea is viewed with great distaste in Washington, as indeed in most Western capitals. It encompasses all the attributes of an autocratic government, denies basic human rights to its population, is content to see its people starve while it produces long range missiles, attacks its neighbour and refuses to play by the rules of international norms.

AA: Why is Pyongyang's nuclear programme described as illegal, even though it is no longer part of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty?
MF: North Korea violated the NPT for many years by developing nuclear weapons while it was a member of the NPT and obliged to adhere to the NPT and allow inspections and so forth. So during the whole period of time when it was an undisputed member of the NPT, it was in violation of international law. The country's withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 was in circumstances that many think were highly irregular if not illegal in themselves. Be that as it may, I think the key point here is that it was the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons while it was a member of the NPT that puts North Korea as an international criminal.

AA: Why is Washington so concerned about North Korea's development of nuclear weapons when it looked the other way while Pakistan developed its nuclear arsenal? Isn't this an issue of inconsistency?
MF: All countries have priorities in their foreign policy implementation. In the case of North Korea there is no other overriding priority that would overshadow the concern about nuclear weapons development. There is no neighbouring country that America's chief rival had invaded and for which North Korea was the conduit for ousting them. You get the point? I mean Afghanistan and Pakistan were different circumstances.

AA: North Korea would argue that it was not the first to introduce nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and the US decision to unilaterally amend the Korean Armistice Agreement resulted in the deployment of US nuclear missiles on the peninsula. Do you agree?
MF: No, I don't agree. I'm not familiar with the claim that the United States unilaterally changed the Armistice Agreement. It's true that the United States introduced nuclear weapons in the southern part of the peninsula, it's also true that they withdrew them by 1991 totally and North Korea introduced its nuclear weapons after the United States had withdrawn the weapons from the peninsula.

AA: Could one characterize the North Korean nuclear weapons programme as purely a by-product of failed attempts to reach and maintain understandings between Pyongyang and Washington, whether it's the US abrogation of part of the Armistice Agreement, the failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework Pact, the cancellation of US food aid etc?
MF: No, I think looking at the history of North Korea's nuclear programme, it's pretty clear that from the very beginning, when first they were importing nuclear technology from the Soviet Union, they had in mind a nuclear weapons programme. It had nothing to do with recent disputes with the United States over food aid, the Agreed Framework — it goes far back in history. The former Soviet archives are now available for study by researchers and you can find in those archives reports from Soviet diplomats in Pyongyang describing conversations in which Kim Il Sung was asking about nuclear weapons development. Similarly, the Chinese scholars can point to historical evidence of North Korea wanting to know how China got its nuclear weapons and asking for advice in this regard. This historical evidence is well reported in a recent book by Jonathan Pollack called No Exit. Other Soviet and Chinese scholars have produced their own material on this.

AA: This is almost as though North Korea sees itself as a world power.
MF: They don't have ambitions to project power around the world. From their point of view they see themselves as embattled by hostile forces, by the world's superpower, and they have talked themselves into believing that they were the aggrieved party in the Korean war, that it wasn't them that started the war as other historians would say, but South Korea and the United States — that South Korea employed biological weapons and all manner of outrageous means of attacking them, total nonsense, but this is what they have come to believe. They believe that the United States is out to attack them and nuclear weapons are their means of ensuring their survival. Complete nonsense, but from their perspective I think that's how we have to understand their development of nuclear weapons.

AA: Where did North Korea obtain its nuclear know how from?
MF: They started it from the Soviet Union, which had no intention of supplying them with nuclear weapons technology, but the small reactor and chemical separation technologies — a small chemical laboratory the Soviets provided — gave North Korea a basic start in how to irradiate uranium, produce fissile material and how to separate fissile material. They applied the resources of the nation to this exercise. It's not new technology, it's very old technology and they put a lot of effort into developing it, largely by themselves with this initial assistance.

AA: How seriously do you take the claim that some uranium technology was obtained from Pakistan in exchange for giving the Nodong missile to Islamabad?
MF: Oh, there's absolutely no doubt about the Nodong missile for enrichment exchange that Pakistan and North Korea conducted in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

AA: Now that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state, what dangers are there that it could export its know-how to other countries?
MF: North Korean officials have threatened on at least two recorded occasions to transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to other states or even to terrorist groups. They've said so explicitly and North Korea has transferred nuclear weapons related material to Libya through the A Q Khan network and to Syria by assisting Syria in the construction of a plutonium producing reactor that Israel bombed in 2007. North Korea may also have supplied nuclear weapons related technology to Myanmar, although that case is not yet proven.

AA: Who are North Korea's nuclear weapons aimed at and why?
MF: Well, they're certainly aimed at Japan and South Korea. North Korea also appears to want to aim them at the United States, otherwise they wouldn't be developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. So why? Those states that it regards as adversaries and that it thinks might attack it, so having nuclear weapons aimed at them is North Korea's sense of nuclear deterrence.

AA: No one seems to be prepared to do anything about this situation, everyone dances around this well documented crisis.
MF: Well, action has been considered on at least one documented occasion, if not more, to take action pre-emptively to destroy nuclear facilities — by the US — in 1993/1994 during that nuclear crisis. Pentagon officials prepared plans, that's what defence planners do, and there was a discussion in Washington and it was quickly decided against because it would have provoked a second Korean war and a full-scale attack on the capital of South Korea with casualties of up to a million people. This was too risky, South Korea desperately did not want this to happen, South Korea is an ally. That's why North Korea was not attacked and one might compare to Iran where there's not a similar hostage capital over which Iran holds in check. Israel might be compared to South Korea but in this case Israel wants the United States to attack Iran.