Disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation have distinct meanings, as well as policy implications.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas

The policy options for addressing North Korea’s nuclear challenge provide good examples of the differences between the fields of disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation. While the three terms are often used interchangeably by non-experts, they have distinct meanings and policy implications.

‘Nuclear disarmament’ is usually used in the global context of the quest for abolishing nuclear weapons, as called for in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This week the phrase is much in the air at the United Nations, where 113 nations are meeting in an attempt to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons. With the nuclear-armed states and most of their formal allies boycotting the forum, the impact will remain up in the air. 

The nuclear powers do, of course, favour disarmament by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Even North Korea professes this goal, to be carried out when the United States also gives up nuclear weapons. Keeping up such sophistry is apparently why the DPRK last October voted in favour of convening negotiations on a nuclear ban treaty, although it absented itself from a December follow-up vote in the General Assembly and from this week’s negotiations themselves.

Regarding the DPRK, the disarmament goal is usually expressed as ‘denuclearisation’. This term avoids judgment as to whether North Korea actually is nuclear-armed. Despite its five nuclear tests to date, concerned states are reluctant to officially conclude that North Korea possesses deliverable nuclear weapons, because doing so would be unnecessarily empowering. They cannot know for sure anyway.

With each nuclear test and pronouncement, prospects for voluntary disarmament by North Korea become increasingly dim. Up until a few years ago, North Korea expressed willingness, in principle, to trade its nuclear-weapons programme for sufficiently lucrative economic and political benefits. No longer. In 2012 North Korea changed its constitution to proclaim itself a ‘nuclear state’. It refuses to return to the denuclearisation goal of the Six Party Talks that remain China’s preferred diplomatic mechanism even though they have been in abeyance since 2007.

North Koreans now say they will only engage in arms control talks that would also bind the United States. As distinct from disarmament, ‘arms control’ implies limits on nuclear weapons, not their abolition. Bilateral nuclear negotiations between Washington and Moscow have always focused on arms control. The 2015 nuclear accord with Iran was also akin to arms control in that it restricted fissile material production capabilities rather than requiring zero uranium enrichment.

A freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile testing would be an arms control measure. Critics of the freeze policy option oppose it precisely because it de-prioritizes the goal of disarming the DPRK. If North Korea entered any talks on a freeze, it could be counted on to proclaim denuclearisation dead and its status as nuclear-armed affirmed. Its negotiating partners would disagree, of course. There is no contradiction in simultaneously holding to both arms control and disarmament goals. Stop, then roll-back, would be the mantra. 

‘Non-proliferation’ (with or without the hyphen) has long been the favoured term for policies addressing North Korea’s nuclear programme. The term means stopping the spread of nuclear weapons technology. The synonym ‘counter-proliferation’ is also used. It generally means the same thing, but with a more kinetic connotation. (I explored the nuances in a 2008 article.) It can also refer to steps to counter proliferation that has already occurred, as is now evident in the North Korean case. Prevention has failed, although not preventing use. The goal of reversal is much harder. While states may be willing to forgo future options in exchange for current benefits, they are far more reluctant to give up gains already made. 

‘Prevention’ has another meaning in the North Korean context. When US officials talk of ‘all options being on the table’, it is a euphemism for possible military action. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made that clear when he spoke with reporters in Seoul on 17 March. Many press reports characterised this as him saying ‘pre-emptive force’ was an option for dealing with North Korea.

Military action is only pre-emptive, however, in the case of countering an imminent attack. As former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea Robert Gallucci explained in a 23 March commentary, military strikes to prevent missile test launches are ‘preventive’, not ‘pre-emptive’ measures. They are not generally condoned by international law. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a preventive action, albeit falsely premised on preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein did not have. It was an unwise war of choice, not of necessity. 

If solid intelligence were to indicate that North Korea was preparing to attack South Korea, Japan or the US with a nuclear-armed missiles, the circumstances would dictate a pre-emptive military strike to preclude the launch. Disabling missiles in other circumstances might be warranted so as to prevent North Korea from fully developing a capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. Given the devastating war that would ensue, however, preventive military strikes must not be undertaken without agreement of the allies who would be attacked by North Korea in retaliation.

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