China and North Korea are marked by burgeoning nuclear development plans, with its first nuclear development plans conducted by China in October 1964, followed by North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear tests in October 2006. The two countries steadily increased their nuclear development plans since their first nuclear tests. North Korea and China joined the CTBT regime in 1996 and 1994, but they have continued their adventures with nuclear proliferation over the years.
Illustration by The Geostrata
As per the latest report by the Pentagon, China’s nuclear warheads currently stand at 500. The report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) holds that North Korea’s nuclear warheads stand at 30.
Therefore, the article intends to argue how China and North Korea’s actions to develop their respective nuclear capabilities are weakening and undermining the CTBT regime. In this case, the article intends to showcase recent nuclear development activities undertaken by Beijing and Pyongyang.
NUCLEAR DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES BY CHINA
China has upgraded its technical infrastructure, like fuel reprocessing facilities, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV), and fuel reprocessing facilities, which it lacked during its nuclear tests. China’s lack of technical infrastructure compared to the two nuclear superpowers during its admission to CTBT can be understood by the number of atomic tests, where it conducted only 45 tests.
China has built facilities to simulate tests and expand its nuclear arsenal in its vast test sites and terrains. China aims to expand and diversify its nuclear arsenal consisting of mobile ICBM coupled with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). China to spur growth in its nuclear and conventional warheads to enable its intermediate-range missiles to carry them in its immediate neighbourhood.
A weak CTBT regime will enable China to conduct nuclear tests shortly. China has been building nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities that can extract plutonium from the spent fuel from its nuclear power plants.
Such fuel can enable it to extract weapons-class ultrapure plutonium. Similar assumptions can be justified by the latest satellite images by the China Observer under the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which revealed the photos of new equipment transported to the Lop Nur Nuclear Test Site in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The satellite imageries also showed evidence of tunnel digging and construction activities to conduct nuclear tests in underground locations. The CTBT has banned nuclear tests by its members, and China has not conducted any since it became a signatory in 1996.
China’s compliance with the CTBT regime remains confined only to paper. As per the report titled, 'Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Non-proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments’, China has engaged in activities inconsistent with the ‘zero yield’ standards.
The same can be justified by China’s ongoing efforts to modernise, expand and diversify its nuclear arsenals. According to the observations made by a senior U.S. defence official, the efforts by China to modernise its nuclear arsenals have grown significantly in terms of scale, numbers, complexity and technological sophistication.
The continued efforts by China to expand its nuclear arsenals will enable it to increase its existing stockpile. The current pace of modernisation and development will help China deploy around 1,500 warheads by 2035. The Pentagon estimated that Beijing will stockpile 700 warheads by 2027 to reach its target of having 1,000 warheads by 2030.
NUCLEAR DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES BY NORTH KOREA
North Korea has conducted repeated underground tests since 2006, making the United Nations Security Council condemn its frequent testing.
The current scenario marked by a weak CTBT regime will enable North Korea to aggravate its authoritative assertions regarding missile and nuclear tests.
Therefore, it negates the role of the existing regime by the CTBT for denuclearising North Korea. The gradual weakening of the CTBT will enable North Korea to conduct nuclear tests to create instability and find leverage over the United States. The estimates have indicated that Pyongyang has advanced its program to produce nuclear weapons on a small scale.
The nuclear tests by North Korea help it to develop capabilities to deliver more than warheads on a single missile. In addition, North Korea’s signing of the CTBT would have bound it to the pressure of international law.
A weakened CTBT coupled with a lack of international support will make belligerent states like North Korea conduct nuclear tests.
In 2022, North Korea conducted over 70 ballistic missile tests. A lack of international support for the existing CTBT regime will also help North Korea to test and acquire tactical nuclear weapons, paving the way for a seventh nuclear test. Such developments rule out the possibility of bringing Pyongyang under a verification system under the aegis of the International Monitoring System (IMS) of the CTBT that aims to record any possible nuclear explosion with its dense network of sensors.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE NUCLEAR DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS BY PYONGYANG AND BEIJING IN THE REGION
The rapidly developing expansion and modernisation drive by China and North Korea will fuel insecurity in the countries located in its vicinity. In the case of China and North Korea, the nuclear modernisation drive and atomic development programs will lead to an intense sense of insecurity in neighbouring countries like South Korea and Japan. Such a process will lead to the growth and strengthening of anti-China rhetoric among its defence establishment.
As per the recent poll in 2022 conducted by Pew Research Centre, a significant chunk of the people in South Korea and Japan expressed anti-China sentiments.
In the case of South Korea, 81% of the people expressed anti-China feelings, followed by Japan, where 69% showcased their dissatisfaction towards China. In a survey conducted by the Chicago Council, around 39% of the South Koreans and 56% of the Japanese supported nuclear armament programs by their respective countries.
The rapidly expanding nuclear developmental programs will force Japan and South Korea to develop their nuclear weapons to achieve a deterrent due to the increased sense of hostility by Beijing and Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation programs.
Therefore, the development and deployment of nuclear weapons by the neighbouring countries of China and North Korea will leave the region excessively nuclearised.
In conclusion, the rapidly developing nuclear programs by China and North Korea will undermine the existing CTBT regime. The ongoing nuclear programs by the two countries possess the capability to trigger an arms race and undermine regional security. Such activities include the ability to damage the nuclear proliferation regime in the region, starting a growing arms race.
BY ANIRBAN DUTTA