What’s in a Name? North Korea and the Contested Politics of ‘Nuclear Weapons States’


The second nuclear summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly last week with no deal and no plan for North Korean denuclearization. When asked how he had discussed the matter with Kim, Trump responded by noting, “denuclearization is a very important word, has become a very well-used word. A lot of people don’t know what it means but to me it’s pretty obvious we have to get rid of the nukes.”

Trump’s odd response is in part correct — “denuclearization” is an important word and its meaning is anything but clear. The term seems to be doing a lot of diplomatic work for both parties with very little consensus on what it means. But while the focus has been on the contested meaning of denuclearization, scholars and policymakers have largely taken for granted what it means to “nuclearize” in the first place.

The United States continues to define denuclearization as the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea sees denuclearization as the dismantling of its nuclear weapons as well as the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons in the region. Denuclearization is unclear precisely because “nuclearization” is often unclear. Is a state “nuclear” after a successful nuclear weapons test? Or does the technical ability to develop nuclear weapons already signify nuclearization? And, perhaps most importantly, at what point does nuclearization pose a threat?

The disagreement over denuclearization represents a broader trend in nuclear diplomacy where seemingly self-evident language becomes a matter of negotiation and conflict. Often, what is at stake is not necessarily what nuclear capabilities states have but how those capabilities are recognized and represented in global politics. This is in part why Japan’s possession of highly enriched uranium, or uranium enriched at 20 percent and above, is not considered as threatening as, say, Iran’s.

Not all nuclear countries are “nuclear” in the same way. Some possess the latent ability to develop nuclear weapons but, for a number of reasons, have chosen not to do so. For example, around the same time that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered Iran’s secret enrichment activities in 2002, South Korea’s past illicit enrichment activities were also made public. South Korea admitted to conducting uranium enrichment and separating small quantities of plutonium in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These activities were not declared to the IAEA and so were in potential violation of international law. Other countries have specific security guarantees or are under the nuclear umbrellas of either the United States or Russia — should we think of NATO countries as “nuclear states”? And then there is the complex interaction between nuclear statehood and international law in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which legally recognizes the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China as “nuclear weapon states.” But because the NPT only recognizes countries that exploded a nuclear device prior to 1967, it leaves India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea in a sort of legal limbo because they have nuclear weapons but are technically not “nuclear weapon states” according to the treaty. Finally, the United States made a whole new category of state when it recognized India as a “responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” instead of a nuclear weapons state when it negotiated the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.

And of course, in some cases, recognition is not desirable. Israel’s nuclearization has never been recognized, by itself or by the United States, yet many historical accounts demonstrate that the Middle Eastern country has indeed developed nuclear weapons. The United States has bolstered Israel’s ambiguity by providing it with the language to downplay its possession of nuclear weapons. Recently declassified documents reveal that former Israeli politician Yigal Allon noted in 1969, “I am constantly using a phrase agreed with Kissinger — that Israel is not a nuclear state.” Iran, meanwhile, inverts Israel’s strategy by vying to be seen as “nuclear” despite the fact that it does not possess nuclear weapons.

Given the many ways in which states may be seen — and see themselves — as “nuclear,” what are the implications for North Korea’s nuclear statehood? North Korea, of course, is not a legally recognized “nuclear weapon state” under the NPT, and at any rate it withdrew from the treaty in 2003. But the politics of recognition are still relevant for understanding North Korea’s unique status. The country actually declared itself a nuclear power in 2005 — before it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Despite conducting numerous tests since then, however, international recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status is not a product of its capabilities alone. When it conducted its most recent missile tests in 2017, North Korea yet again asserted that it was a “nuclear state.” But the technical reality of North Korea’s capability clashed with the political implications — recognizing its status as a nuclear state would also come with change in U.S. policy and the admission that perhaps the goals of nonproliferation had failed in North Korea. This is why, though it may seem obvious on paper, observers have had to argue that North Korea should in fact be seen as a “nuclear power.” Others have characterized North Korea’s nuclearization as a matter of “acceptance.”

Some observers argue that what North Korea really wants is formal recognition of its “nuclear weapon state” status. But perhaps the country has learned from India’s experience negotiating with the United States — in his 2018 New Year’s Day speech, Kim noted that North Korea is a “responsible, peace-loving nuclear power.” Seeking de facto recognition outside of the NPT may be as important, if not more so, than seeking legal recognition because it may allow North Korea, like India, to eventually shift away from its rogue status.

In focusing on denuclearization, analysts largely ignore the contentious and messy processes by which nuclear status gets recognized, processes that involve questions of legal and social recognition. The dispute is not necessarily whether North Korea is a nuclear state, but rather whether it should be seen as one — suggesting  a social recognition process rather than a self-evident status that stems objectively from capabilities. And when North Korea declares itself to be a nuclear state, it in part does this in order to gain the status, and perhaps the legitimacy, that comes with being a nuclear state on the global stage.

Conflict over the phrase “denuclearization” follows a broad trend of linguistic contestation in nuclear politics. It is not simply a matter of determining the correct definition of these terms but rather of exploring what the language does for the different actors involved. Denuclearization will likely continue to mean different things for both the United States and North Korea because, for the United States, “denuclearization” is an attempt to deny recognition to North Korea as a “nuclear” state. Denuclearization is not simply the denial of capabilities but also the denial of status.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, David Sanger pointed out that the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last June changed the “optics of the relationship more than the reality.” But the reality of nuclear weapons, and undoubtedly of international politics more broadly, is very much a matter of optics — that is, of the ways in which states can manipulate reality to suit their political purposes.



Sidra Hamidi is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Her research examines issues of identity and status in nuclear politics. Her current book project explores the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear states as it is constructed and used by the nuclear programs of Israel, India, and Iran.

Image: Stefan Krasowski