Why North Korea Cannot Have Nuclear Weapons, But Japan And South Korea Should
Anders Corr , CONTRIBUTOR
On April 28, North Korea launched a new missile test that furthers its nuclear weapons program. When opposing this activity the U.S. has been called hypocritical. The U.S. has nuclear weapons, goes the argument, so why should the U.S. deny nuclear weapons to North Korea (or Iran for that matter), which are sovereign states and therefore have the right to self-defense? Or, how could anyone argue that Japan and South Korea should have nuclear weapons, but North Korea should not?
The reason for the distinction, which some might see as hypocrisy, is rarely discussed by diplomats publicly. But I believe the distinction underlies our strong opposition to North Korean nuclear weapons — North Korea is an autocracy that violates human rights and international law and therefore cannot be trusted with this most destructive of weapons. Were Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or Ukraine to obtain nuclear weapons for their defense against China and Russia, which I think they should do, they would not experience sanctions or violent threats as do North Korea and Iran. They might get a slap on the diplomatic wrist, and nothing more. This is not hypocrisy, but rather based on the core values exhibited by contemporary democracies, and their legitimate authority stemming from 17th-century philosophies of democratic sovereignty.
Let us compare the extreme cases — North Korea versus the U.S., U.K, and France. The latter three countries are mature democracies that have shown strong support for core international values like democracy, human rights, environmental sustainability and international law. They are not perfect, to which U.S. waterboarding at Guantánamo prison, rollbacks of the Environmental Protection Agency, and mining of Nicaragua’s harbor in the 1980s attest. But they are generally much better on human rights, international law, and environmental sustainability than is North Korea.
Because of this adherence to core values, global public opinion trusts these countries to have nuclear weapons, and to use them in a defensive manner that allows them to further these values globally, knowing that their nuclear capability deters retaliation. Countries with core values but without a nuclear deterrent, such as South Korea or Japan, have to be more circumspect in their advocacy of values when addressing aggressive countries like Russia, China, and North Korea. This is one reason why China and Russia are against Japan and South Korea obtaining nuclear weapons.
While Japan and South Korea’s sovereignty resides in their citizens, democratic deliberation and rights and responsibilities as established by law, North Korea’s sovereignty inheres in just one man — he is neither mature, nor does he support democracy, human rights, international law, and environmental sustainability. It is therefore far more dangerous for nuclear weapons to be in the hands of Kim Jong Un than in the hands of a democracy. His lack of respect for these core values makes him more liable to use those weapons in a way that grossly violates them. While the U.N. recognizes Kim Jong Un’s North Korea as “sovereign”, it is a sovereignty that has proved capricious and led to the violation of human rights. It is therefore a questionable sort of sovereignty that in my view deserves less consideration, if any, when compared to the mature and stable democratic sovereignty that is found in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
North Korea’s sovereignty is closer to that envisioned by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, which is an autocratic sovereignty only justified by an anarchic state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” But that Hobbesian state of nature no longer exists in most countries, and so can no longer be used to justify autocratic rule. Indeed, the closest thing to Hobbes’ brutish state of nature is now the autocratic rule in North Korea itself.
The democratic world has long left Hobbes’ brutish state of nature behind. Democratic states are now based on a democratic notion of sovereignty envisioned by philosopher John Locke in the 17th century. Democratic sovereignty is only granted through the consent of the governed. There must be a representative body like a legislature. Democratic sovereignty must be wielded for the benefit of the governed. This is an approach to sovereignty that privileges democracy and human rights (rule of the people, for the people) over autocracies that violate human rights (rule of one person, to the detriment of others).
In North Korea’s lesser autocratic sovereignty, by this argument, should inhere fewer sovereign rights. Nuclear weapons are one of those sovereign rights that should not be granted to autocratic leaders, or to immature or unstable democracies, for that matter. North Korea is an extreme case and therefore useful to make the argument that autocracies should not have nuclear weapons. It puts into question whether other, less extreme cases of autocracy should have nuclear weapons. I would say not. Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran are all lacking in qualities of democracy, human rights, environmental sustainability, and international law. Therefore they should not be trusted with nuclear weapons, which can do major damage to these core values.
Perhaps this is one reason China and Russia seem to support, or at the very least countenance, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. If North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons, neither should the other autocracies. China and Russia likely know that if North Korea’s nuclear weapons development ended, it would put the focus of global public opinion back onto their own violations of democratic rights, human rights, environmental sustainability, and international law. Their own possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world’s environment and human economy would be questioned. And, China and Russia do not need nuclear weapons. As long as autocracies make slow but steady progress on core goals like democracy, human rights, environmental sustainability, and international law, they have nothing to fear from democracies. Quite the contrary. They will be welcomed with open arms into the international community of responsible states.
Please follow me on Twitter @anderscorr, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.