NPT Withdrawal: Time for the Security Council to Step In

By Bunn, George; Rhinelander, John B. | Arms Control Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview

NPT Withdrawal: Time for the Security Council to Step In


Bunn, George, Rhinelander, John B., Arms Control Today


The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) provides that a state-party intending to withdraw from the treaty must give the UN Security Council three months' notice of its intention and provide the Security Council with its reasons for withdrawal. This provision was intended to give the Security Council an opportunity to deal with any withdrawal that might produce a threat to international peace and security.

More than two years ago, North Korea renewed its 1993 notice of withdrawal from the NPT, a notice that had been suspended a decade earlier during negotiations with the United States. That announcement left the Security Council with only a single day before North Korea would become the first country to withdraw from the NPT.

The Security Council did nothing. Indeed, it has continued to ignore North Korea's action even as Pyongyang has repeatedly stated its intention to produce nuclear weapons, sending a dangerous message to other states considering withdrawal. The once-every-five-years NPT review conference that will meet in New York this month provides a valuable opportunity to address the North Korea case and prod the security Council to address similar cases that may emerge.

North Korea's Actions and Security Council Inaction

Article X of the NPT provides a "right" to withdraw from the treaty if the withdrawing party "decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this [t]reaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." It also requires that a withdrawing state-party give three months' notice.

In January 2003, North Korea cited this provision, announcing its intention to withdraw from the NPT after U.S. officials said that Pyongyang had admitted to efforts to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Soon thereafter, North Korea kicked out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who had been monitoring its nuclear reactors and associated fuel-cycle facilities in Yongbyon to ensure that plutonium was not diverted to weapons purposes. Pyongyang has since claimed on several occasions that it is making nuclear weapons from the plutonium, and U.S. officials continue to accuse North Korea of enriching uranium for additional nuclear weapons.

The episode was in many ways a repeat of a similar standoff a decade earlier. In March 1993, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT after questions were raised about whether it was covertly reprocessing plutonium for nuclear weapons. The IAEA a month later referred the case to the security Council. Later, as the United States was preparing for an attack on North Korea's reactor and plutonium separation site, former President Jimmy Carter met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Carter reported to then-President Bill Clinton that North Korea was prepared to negotiate with the United States.1

Carter's intervention led to U.S.-North Korean talks, to the pulling back by North Korea of its 1993 notice of withdrawal a day before it would have become effective, and to the eventual negotiation of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the two countries. That agreement froze Pyongyang's plutoniumbased nuclear program for nearly a decade, although U.S. officials claim it did not block parallel uranium-enrichment efforts for some of that period.2 In both cases, however, North Korea pushed its NPT rights beyond their limits. It took advantage of information and technology gained from other countries that may well have relied on its promises to use them for peaceful uses.

The NPT has usually been interpreted as permitting its non-nuclear-weapon members to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) so long as these materials are not later used to make nuclear weapons.3 Plutonium and enriched uranium can be used to power nuclear reactors but also to provide the explosive material for nuclear weapons. To assure that nuclear materials and facilities are not used to make nuclear weapons, the NPT and associated bilateral NPT safeguards agreements require disclosures of nuclear activities by statesparties and authorize inspections by the IAEA. …

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