Why a complete ban on nuclear weapons is important, as is the NPT Review Conference in 2020

In his latest of a series of ‘Open Democracy’ articles on the Korean crisis, Paul Rogers (12 October) predicted that there could well be a nuclear war between the US and North Korea by November 2019. President Trump, by stating that North Korea will not be allowed to threaten the United States directly and making this a core element of his presidency, has ‘boxed himself into a corner’ and therefore has to ‘win this one’. Trump is a danger now but this ‘perilous situation’ will become worse by 2020 when the US’ ‘modernization’ programme of the B61-12 bomb makes it ready for deployment.

B61 thermonuclear weapons were designed as ‘free-falling’ from aircraft, which now include stealth bombers. Current B61 versions include ‘variable yield’ warheads – that is, their intended yield upon detonation can be adjusted before launching. ‘Low yields’ such 1Kt or less (the Hiroshima bomb had a yield of about 16Kt) would be used ‘tactically’ in ‘battlefield’ operations to deter invading forces armed with conventional weapons. Higher yields would be used ‘strategically’ – that is to wipe out cities or civil or military installations (including bases, ports and power plants). The current B61-11 bomb was devised as a deep penetrating (tens of meters) ‘bunker buster’: it has a variable yield but a maximum of 170Kt which would enable it to destroy bunkers even if the main target was missed by a Km or so. ‘Tactically’, this would be rather crude as detonation after penetration would throw up vast amounts of highly radioactive fallout which would complicate any follow-up by American ground forces. About 100 or so B61-11 bombs are currently deployed with stealth bombers, mostly in Europe (against Russia).

The B61-12 version is at an advanced stage of development with an intended deployment date of 2020. Its adjustable minimum yield is very low (0.3Kt) but its effect would be enhanced by a sat-nav-sensitive ‘tail-kit’ guidance system accurate to within probably 30 meters (judging by non-classified video-shots) so that low-yielding nuclear detonations can destroy the bunker without releasing large doses of radiation. In order to keep within the requirements of the nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the US claims that the B61-12 is not a ‘new’ nuclear bomb but ‘simply’ a life-extension of an existing version (B61-11 to B61-12): this is disingenuous and patently false.[1]

In order to face the perceived North Korean threats, the B61-12 deployment date may – under Presidential pressure – be brought forward to 2019, a year before the next Presidential Election is due. By then, Trump may be facing a major popularity problem due to factors such as the erosion of Obama-care for the poorest, increasing concern about climate change (disruption) and several (but not all) Republican Congressmen’s (sic) concern over Russian involvement in the 2016 Election, as well as the perceived general chaos in the White House over appointments to high office such as the CIA. It is even possible that he will be facing impeachment if the Democrats win the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018 (not a foregone conclusion). In this scenario, a beleaguered Trump might use the Korean stand-off to restore his macho ‘Making America Great Again’ pitch.


History has been cruel to the Korean people – a relatively homogeneous ethnic grouping related to Tibetans and Southern Han Chinese and with many centuries of independent cultural literacy. From 1910 to 1945 they were colonized by Japan, and treated as such – thereby becoming a natural ally of China whose Manchurian territories were also occupied by Japan (whose notorious Army ‘Unit 731’ experimented with chemical and biological weapons on human victims).

Mount Baekdu and the Tumen and Yalu rivers make a natural border: Koreans south of this border – whether in the North or South Korean societies – are ethnically indistinguishable. Seventy years of separation have, however, introduced epigenetic distinctions – the average South Korean adult is about two inches taller than the average North Korean and lives ten years longer (up to 79.3 years). The per capita GDP is 20 times greater in South Korea (population 51 million, land surface area 100,000 Km2). Yet North Korea (population 25 million, land surface area 120,000 Km2) has more natural resources, particularly in anthracite, hydroelectricity and iron (which it trades with China): it also has reserves of uranium – as yet largely untapped.[2]

The total combined land area is similar to the UK and the climate is temperate with, however, more typhoons and monsoons and quite intense winters in the north. North Korea has no civil nuclear power plants, and whereas South Korea has four (potentially vulnerable) nuclear complexes it has very limited hydro so has to import fossil fuels. When South Korea developed its ship-building industry in the 1960’s and started making cars and semiconductors, its economy took off – protected at first by high tariffs.[3] The staple diet is rice in both countries but North Koreans have adopted the potato. The Yellow Sea to the west is rich in fish, and the coastal plain up to the mountain range provides the agricultural area, while the foothills have now lost much of their native forest.

Although both North and South Korea are recognized by the UN, they are on a permanent war-footing with each other: the Korean War (1950 to 1953) ended in stalemate and an unresolved armistice. In 1950 the Soviets boycotted the UN Security Council (in solidarity with Communist China who were being refused entry to the UN) thereby allowing the US to dominate and lead the UN forces supporting the South. As the direct and ideological successor to his grandfather Kim Il-sung – Kim Jong-un has not forgotten the carpet bombing of his country by the USAF in 1953, nor the American threats to use nuclear weapons then. The fates of Qaddafi in Libya and of Saddam Hussain in Iraq have led Kim’s government to see the possession of nuclear weapons as essential for its survival.

North Korea has an active militia of 1.19 million, 600,000 reservists and 5.7 million paramilitaries. The BBC Panorama programme (available on iPlayer until next September) reports just how well the North Korean forces are ‘dug in’, thereby making a case for bunker busters. Seoul (population 10 million of whom 600,000 are international) is only 20 miles from the demilitarised zone and within range of North Korean conventional artillery, while Incheon (3 million) abuts the border. South Korea has 655,000 militia, 4.5 million reservists and 3 million paramilitaries: and also 35,000 US servicemen (and the US uses Guam – 2,100 miles away – as a ‘permanent aircraft carrier’). Trump has sanctioned the (lucrative) sale of US-made ‘highly sophisticated military equipment’ to South Korea (and Japan); this includes the ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defense’ system (THAAD) to which there are objections from China and Russia who regard it as also aimed at their nuclear arsenals; and also a substantial number of South Koreans who recognize the limitations of this highly expensive form of Missile Defence and also worry that the sites would be natural targets for hostile action.

Hence, the race for time to enable the winning of a nuclear war – by North Korea in their deployment of effective nuclear-tipped missiles against the US-supported deployment in South Korea of THAAD and the ‘more usable’ nuclear armed US B61-12 bunker busters. The crunch point looks like around November 2019.


Apart from actual war, the two main and inter-connected consequences of this are the breakdown of nuclear deterrence theory and of nuclear non-proliferation.

Deterrence is already undermined (as commented in Medact report A Safer World -Treating Britain’s harmful dependence on nuclear weapons) by the attempts to make nuclear war ‘winnable’. These include missile defence systems and modernisation. No defence system can be perfect – the THAAD for Korea seems vulnerable to ‘low-ball/fast-pitched’ missiles (a baseball or softball analogy); yet they provoke fear and anger in the ‘pitchers’ whose response would naturally be to deploy more, and more advanced, missiles and warheads (simultaneous proliferation and modernization) to the detriment of their national economies especially if they also try to develop better warning and defense systems of their own.

The B61-12 development also shows how deterrence theory could fail. While bunker-busting with even low-yield weapons nuclear weapons may seem like a practical solution, use becomes more likely. Loren Cobb, an American Quaker and mathematician agreed to work with the US military in the 1980’s on why Cold War simulations of battlefield (tactical) deployment of nuclear weapons always ended in a nuclear holocaust. His conclusion was that tactical nuclear weapons destabilised the battlefield and led to an unstoppable “tit-for-tat” escalation. Maybe the North Koreans don’t have the capacity for ‘tit-for-tat’ of this type but they do (or soon will) have double-figure yielding thermonuclear weapons which can penetrate defence systems; and although they would ultimately fail (as North Korean capacity for a response would be limited to a few days before becoming overwhelmed) vast amounts of damage will have been suffered affecting both sides and beyond.

But the truth is that the US, UK, France and Russia have never truly believed in deterrence because they reserve unto themselves the right to ‘first (nuclear) response’, sometimes known as ‘flexible response’. Although first developed under John F Kennedy as a way (including the use of missiles) of avoiding the brinkmanship of mutually assured destruction favoured by his predecessor, flexible response was thought to provide an advantage by using smaller nuclear weapons and even (naively) preventing wars with conventional weapons. (It obviously hasn’t.) Cobb’s analysis (above) also indicates errors in the ‘flexible response’ theory. But to this day UK politicians in particular try to convince the public that ‘deterrence works’ (‘every day’) because there have been no nuclear hostilities since 1945. The linked theories of flexible response and of first use clearly contradict the concept of deterrence.


The risk to ‘non-proliferation’ has several fronts. Firstly, the North Koreans have already withdrawn from the NPT. If North Korea succeeds in holding off the Americans, others might be tempted to withdraw (a Trump-inspired ‘double-whammy’). Secondly, political movements in other nuclear-capable nations are promoting their own development of nuclear weapons as American or Russian ‘extended deterrence’ is increasingly seen as ‘unreliable’.[4] Thirdly – this is particularly important – the NPT definition of ‘proliferation’ is merely numerical and ignores nuclear capability.

At all the NPT review conferences in the 21st century (the fifth is due in 2020), the UK has claimed to have been particularly effective in reducing the size of its nuclear arsenal, and indeed has been praised in its additional efforts to promote ways verifying when nuclear weapons are decommissioned (an important aspect of arms reduction programmes). The UK describes ‘minimal effective deterrence’ as if it is intrinsically virtuous. The B61-12 development, which the US has – astonishingly – been allowed to get away with (this may be a case for the International Court) shows the fundamental problem with the NPT as it seems not to recognize the implications of quality over quantity. It is possible to decrease the size of a nuclear arsenal yet increase its efficacy – surely against the spirit of the NPT, one averred aim of which is ‘to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament’.

So what lies in prospect for the 2020 review Conference? The Preparative Conference held in May 2017 (at which there were ‘too few women delegates’) ‘stumbled’ on the pace of nuclear disarmament and on the stalled initiative for a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. There were also predictable but profound differences (typified by an exchange between the delegates from Ireland and the UK) about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) adopted by the UNGA shortly after this Review Conference. Two more Preparation Conferences are due – in 2018 and 2019. It should be abundantly clear from this article that improved understanding of the fears on both sides is required and reflected in the 2020 review Conference. ICAN, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, should – in its peace-making role – now be able to make a positive contribution to resolving the Korean conflict.

It takes two to make a quarrel. Were one side to accept moderation the danger could be averted. We may have little influence over North Korea although their willingness to participate in the Medact/IPPNW conference at York this last September indicates that they are not impervious; we have to trust the Chinese to improve this. We can, however, hope to improve the American understanding of the global consequences of an increasingly likely nuclear war. Trump may be disinclined to listen: others, even in the Republican Party, might. If we get as far as the 2020 Review Conference without nuclear conflict over Korea, differences about the TPNW should be put aside in favour of a common cause – a total ban. On the other hand, if there is a nuclear conflict in 2019, Deterrence Theory will have been blown.

[1] Hans M. Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, 2014. https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/publications1/Brief2014_PREPCOM2.pdf

[2] See: https://thediplomat.com/2015/08/satellite-imagery-north-korea-expanding-uranium-production/

[3] As described by He-Joon Chang in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism – Penguin, 2011.

[4] For Russian concepts of deterrence, see Kristin Ven Bruusgaard (2016) Russian Strategic Deterrence, Survival, 58:4, 7-26, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2016.1207945