North Korea’s Withdrawal From the NPT: A Reality Check

April 8, 2003
Jean du Preez and William Potter

Kim Jong Il and senior military officers of the Korean Peoples Army

Kim Jong Il and senior military officers of the Korean Peoples Army

April 10 marks a significant event in the history of the 32-year-old nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since its entry into force in 1970, the NPT has grown to 188 members and become the most widely subscribed to international treaty in history. That number will decline by one when North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty becomes effective on 10 April 2003. This will be the first time a state has left the treaty. The significance of North Korea’s withdrawal will be measured by its impact on the validity of the NPT and the nuclear nonproliferation regime and on peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. North Korea’s withdrawal could trigger further defections from the treaty and cause other states in the region to pursue nuclear weapons of their own. Of equal concern is the potential for North Korea to sell weapons-grade fissile material or nuclear weapons themselves to other states and non-state actors, including terrorist groups.

North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT on January 10, 2003, stating then that its withdrawal “will come into force automatically and immediately” [1] on the next day. North Korea stated that it had suspended its 1994 withdrawal from the treaty on the last day of the required three-month notice period and thus did not need to give a further notice to other NPT parties and the Security Council as required under Article X [2] of the treaty. Although no statement to this effect has been issued by the NPT Depositories [3] or other NPT states parties, the generally held view is that North Korea’s withdrawal will come into effect on 10 April 2003 when its three-month notice of withdrawal expires.

Following several weeks of “expert level” consultations between the permanent members of the Security Council during which at least two members (China and Russia) indicated their objections to the Council’s involvement, on April 9, the Council considered North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and its non-compliance with its IAEA Safeguards Agreement obligations. On April 8, China had stalled efforts to obtain a Security Council statement that criticizes North Korea for refusing to submit to monitoring of its suspected nuclear weapons program by the United Nations, saying such a statement would “complicate” diplomatic attempts to resolve the standoff. [4] Following the April 9 closed-door Council meeting, the Council President, Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser of Mexico, told reporters that Council members “expressed their concern and the Council will continue to follow up developments on this matter.” Council members also supported the continuation of the diplomatic process to resolve the crisis. The Council met as a direct result of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors decision on 12 February 2003 to report to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council on North Korea’s “continued non-compliance with its IAEA Safeguards Agreement and the Agency’s inability to verify non-diversion of nuclear material that is subject to safeguards.” [5]

North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the treaty does not come as a big surprise. It only begrudgingly signed the NPT in 1985, after the Soviet Union made clear that North Korean treaty membership was a necessary condition for the provision of coveted nuclear research assistance. North Korea then delayed for more than five years signing the treaty-mandated agreement with the IAEA to safeguard its nuclear facilities. No sooner did it sign a safeguards agreement than the Agency uncovered significant discrepancies in the data North Korea provided on its nuclear program, leading to the demand in February 1993 for special inspections at two plutonium storage sites at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. In response, the following month North Korea declared its intention to withdraw from the NPT. That withdrawal, however, was suspended in June 1993 when Pyongyang began direct negotiations with the United States. The negotiations eventually produced the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to halt and eventually dismantle its production of nuclear weapons-grade material under IAEA verification; to come into full compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement; to remain a party to the NPT; and to take consistent steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to engage in North-South dialogue. In return, the United States promised to supply heavy fuel oil shipments and to construct two light-water nuclear power reactors, agreed to normalize political and economic relations and pledged to “provide formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States.” [6]

Although North Korea is widely believed to have produced and separated enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons, no concrete proof of such development is publicly available. North Korean officials reportedly admitted having a nuclear weapons program during an October 2002 meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, although they subsequently denied making such an admission.

In its letter to the NPT states parties, North Korea stated that despite its withdrawal from the treaty, it “has no intention of making nuclear weapons” and that its nuclear activities “will be confined only to power production and other peaceful purposes.” The letter also claims that North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty is in reaction to its inclusion in the “axis of evil” and being targeted by the United States’ preemptive strike policy. [7] Since its decision to withdraw from the treaty, North Korea has kicked out IAEA inspectors, restarted a nuclear reactor that had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework, and reportedly begun moving spent fuel rods to a reprocessing facility that can produce plutonium.

Between 1994 and 2002, the Agreed Framework was a tool aimed at bringing North Korea into compliance with its safeguards obligations. However, reports about its clandestine uranium enrichment program, the end of the “freeze” pursuant to the Agreed Framework, and the expulsion of IAEA inspectors brought this phase to an end. On 6 January 2003, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution [8] calling on North Korea to comply with its Safeguards Agreement and readmit inspectors, deploring in the strongest terms the DPRK’s unilateral actions. The resolution also affirmed that unless North Korea fully cooperates with the Agency, the DPRK will be in further non-compliance with its Safeguards Agreement. Following North Korea’s withdrawal announcement on 10 January 2003, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a third resolution on 12 February 2003, [9] effectively requesting the Security Council’s involvement. The Board of Governors declared that North Korea was “in further non-compliance with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement pursuant to the NPT” and decided to report [10] “to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council North Korea’s continued non-compliance and the Agency’s inability to verify non-diversion of nuclear material that is subject to safeguards.”

Although the Council had a variety of options available on how to deal with the North Korean crisis, including punitive measures provided for in the United Nations Charter, [11] it was highly unlikely that the Council would have pronounced itself in any forceful manner. The timing of the Council’s consideration of the issue — on the last day before North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT becomes effective — is also of significance. Indications are that the United States was instrumental in placing the North Korean issue on the Council’s agenda before the effective withdrawal date (10 April 2003), but it did not press for any Council action. China and Russia in particular have so far been opposed to the Council’s involvement given the sensitive nature of the issue and the overarching division in the Council over the Iraqi war. A further complicating factor is Pakistan’s presence on the Council. Not only is Pakistan not an NPT member and a severe critic of the treaty, but some reports indicate that there has been North Korean-Pakistani cooperation in the field of missiles and highly enriched uranium technology. [12] Pakistan is therefore also likely to oppose any future strong collective Security Council initiative that would criticize North Korea.

North Korean rhetoric that any sanctions imposed by the Security Council would be considered a “declaration of war” likely influenced the Council to avoid sending a strongly worded signal to Pyongyang. It is, however, rather disappointing that the Council could not issue a statement calling on North Korea to come into compliance with its IAEA Safeguards Agreement and its NPT obligations. Any future statement of this nature should not suggest the use of sanctions or other punitive actions, but should include a reference to the need for bilateral talks in a multilateral context and the importance of the 1994 Agreed Framework. This would further open the door for quiet diplomacy, involving not only the United States and North Korea, but also other states with direct security-related interest such as China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan.

Although far from a satisfactory response to the North Korean proliferation challenge, the Council meeting hopefully will set the stage for a stronger reaction by the NPT states parties when they meet later this month in Geneva at the 2003 Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting for the 2005 Review Conference. Barring a repetition of the situation in 1994, when North Korea suspended its decision to withdraw from the treaty on the last day of the notice period, the NPT states parties will be faced for the first time with a situation of how to respond to a state’s withdrawal from the treaty.

It is as yet unclear what North Korea’s true intentions are. On the one hand, Pyongyang’s actions suggest the use of nuclear brinkmanship to increase leverage in its negotiations with the United States, in which North Korea would make, as it did in 1994, concessions in exchange for diplomatic recognition, a non-aggression pact, financial incentives, etc. Pyongyang’s severe economic crisis and the slow implementation of the Agreed Framework are important drivers of this behavior. The increased levels of rhetoric coming from Pyongyang may indicate that North Korea is contemplating desperate actions if its insecurities are not resolved. On the other hand, Kim Jong Il may have decided after 30 years of being directly and indirectly threatened by U.S. nuclear posturing and recently being labeled as part of the “axis of evil,” that North Korea’s security requires a stockpile of nuclear weapons to deter a possible U.S. pre-emptive attack. In this case, it would be difficult to imagine why North Korea would give up its aspirations to develop nuclear weapons, dismantle its reprocessing facilities, and agree to intrusive IAEA verification. North Korea is unlikely to give up its only leverage with the United States and its neighbors.

Faced with the reality that North Korea is likely to be outside the NPT as of 10 April 2003, what are the likely consequences of its withdrawal? Assuming that North Korea is out of the treaty and therefore not constrained from developing and possessing nuclear weapons, how will the international community respond to a situation where Pyongyang develops nuclear weapons? What impact will North Korea’s withdrawal have on the future of the NPT? Does this establish the basis for a nuclear domino effect? If so, who are the next possible states to fall? Whose security is compromised by the defection? There are no quick and easy answers to these questions. However, developments and carefully crafted reactions by NPT states parties over the next few months, including at the PrepCom, will be crucial in sending a strong message to Pyongyang and other states that may consider similar options.

The immediate impact of North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty is its action or inaction to reveal its nuclear weapons intentions. On the one hand, it is conceivable, that Pyongyang recognizes that it has exhausted the possibility of positive returns to its brinkmanship policy and will therefore agree to a face-saving approach in which bilateral negotiations with the United States on a variety of security and economic issues are imbedded in a multilateral framework. The relative restraint in the nuclear sector shown by North Korea during the past three weeks while the United States was engaged in war in Iraq is consistent with that interpretation. Alternatively, one can point to bellicose statements from the North Korean Foreign Ministry this week [13] that it no longer regards a non-aggression pact with the United States as a means to resolve its security dilemma. Pyongyang’s statement that possession of a “tremendous military deterrent” is needed to avoid war with the United States could be interpreted as referring to the need for a nuclear deterrent. However, this statement could also refer to North Korea’s large arsenal of conventional artillery aimed at Seoul and the U.S. military forces in South Korea.

In the short- to medium-term, North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT is unlikely to produce dramatically different nonproliferation behavior on the part of its non-nuclear weapons neighbors. South Korea and Taiwan, however, can be expected to renew long dormant discussions about the value of nuclear weapons for their security, while Japan will likely initiate more serious deliberations about the value of the NPT for Japanese security. South Korea and Japan are the two countries whose proximity to North Korea raises security concerns most directly. Taiwan’s consideration of a nuclear option would be tied to an increased threat from China. (Taiwan is not formally considered a state, and does not enjoy any formal U.S. security guarantee or nuclear protection). There is no sound basis for believing that these states will alter their nonproliferation stance for now as they benefit from the extended U.S. nuclear deterrent. As long as the United States maintains its influence in the region over these states and continues to provide nuclear protection to South Korea, it is unlikely that South Korea and Taiwan would develop nuclear weapons of their own. North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT may reopen domestic debates in a number of other states outside the region that previously possessed or pursued but then renounced nuclear weapons (e.g., South Africa, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina, and Ukraine). However, it is unlikely that any of these states will reexamine their decisions to forgo nuclear weapons. What is more likely is that states such as South Africa, Egypt, and Brazil (all members of the New Agenda Coalition) would harden their criticism that the nuclear weapons states, and the United States in particular, are contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons by not fully adhering to their own NPT obligations to undertake systematic and progressive efforts towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons arsenals.

However, if North Korea takes more provocative actions such as resumption of plutonium reprocessing or an underground nuclear weapons test, some states in the region may entertain the notion of developing a nuclear capability of their own. In such a scenario, Japan might decide to develop some form of a nuclear capability that might lead to an increase in nuclear weapons numbers in China. This could in turn have an impact on the Indian and Pakistani arsenals and nuclear postures. There could also be repercussions in Taiwan and South Korea, both of which had nuclear weapon aspirations of their own before U.S. pressure forced the termination of their inchoate programs in the 1980s. This expanded “nuclear neighborhood” could lead to a reassessment of China’s longstanding “no-first use” nuclear deterrent policy. An additional concern would be the impact on possible Iranian aspirations to further pursue a nuclear weapons option. Although Iran has not been found in non-compliance with its IAEA Safeguards Agreement and its NPT obligations, there are concerns, most notably by the United States, over the development of an Iranian uranium enrichment facility. These concerns are further fueled by Iran’s refusal so far to enter into an Additional Protocol agreement with the IAEA. Given that it has also been branded part of the “axis of evil,” an Iran aspiring to nuclear weapons will closely watch how the United States and the rest of the NPT states parties react to North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty. Iran may also decide that it would be in its supreme national interest to develop a “tremendous military deterrent” to avoid war with the United States.

The longer-term impact of North Korea’s treaty defection on the nonproliferation regime would depend not only on the direction and pace of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but also on the reaction by North Korea’s neighbors and the international community at large. If North Korea clearly opts for nuclear weapons and the international reaction is muted and ineffectual, as was the case following the nuclear tests in 1998 by India and Pakistan, it will send a conflicting message about the real security benefits for NPT states in good standing. There are of course differences between the North Korean situation and the Indian and Pakistani cases — the latter states never agreed not to proliferate and when they tested and produced nuclear weapons, they were not under any treaty constraint. North Korea pursued a nuclear weapons capability in violation of its treaty and IAEA obligations. Of further significance is the fact that despite strong principled positions against recognition of their nuclear status, the NPT states parties are living with India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear status. Most states parties do not condone or endorse this de facto situation, but accept the reality of it and continue to cooperate with both these states in many other ways. Similarly, despite Security Council resolutions and calls by NPT states parties, Israel still remains outside the treaty. Although not a “declared” nuclear-capable state, Israel is widely considered to have a small to medium size nuclear weapons arsenal. The challenge facing the NPT states is whether to accept North Korea as another state with nuclear weapons outside of the treaty or whether to work with it to get rid of its nuclear weapons in exchange for long-term political and economic benefits.

Of further concern, is the danger that North Korea could sell its plutonium, highly enriched uranium, or finished weapons (if these indeed exist) to other countries or non-state actors, including terrorists. North Korea’s record with ballistic missile sales to Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria is already a matter of concern. These deals, however, provided a lucrative income to a severely impoverished country. Selling weapons-grade fissile material to terrorists would even be more lucrative, but also much more dangerous for the North Korean regime. This threat further emphasizes the need for urgent initiatives to address the crisis — bilaterally, regionally, and globally.

What impact would North Korea’s withdrawal have on the future of the NPT and the treaty’s review process?

North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty brings the treaty to a crossroad in its history. However, barring any further withdrawals (unlikely in the short term given the potential severe consequences) and provided the United States, China, Russia, and other East Asia regional powers such as South Korea and Japan engage Pyongyang to address political, security, and economic issues of mutual concerns, the treaty will survive this threat. The forthcoming PrepCom in Geneva will be the litmus test for how the states parties react (collectively or individually) to the first withdrawal from the treaty. In doing so, it would be important for states parties not to send a negative message about the validity and relevance of the NPT as the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The states parties at the PrepCom have the right and the responsibility to comment on North Korea’s withdrawal. Strong expressions of discontent over this development would send a powerful message to North Korea and any other state party that may be considering a similar option — that the international community will not stand idle while some states parties choose to challenge international peace and security through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Although a consensus statement issued by the states parties at the PrepCom would certainly send such a strong message, it is unlikely to be achieved given the already strong opposition from China and Russia to any formal consideration of the matter by the Security Council and the PrepCom. Lack of agreement over such a statement will also send a negative message about the states parties’ ability to face this crisis. An alternative, and more likely option, would be for the state parties to express their concerns in the factual summary of the PrepCom.

North Korea’s imminent withdrawal from the treaty, makes the need for real dialogue between concerned parties all the more important. However, such dialogue should address all issues of concern related not only to North Korea’s nuclear program, but also to its security and economic needs. Only constructive dialogue, not indirect and direct threats by both sides, will provide a chance of finding a solution to the current crisis. This may in the end pave the way for a permanent settlement to the issue. The special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General to North Korea, Mr. Maurice Strong, stated on April 8: “You cannot divorce peace and security in this area from the economic security of North Korea. They have been undertaking some reforms, they have been trying to prepare themselves to be more actively cooperating with, or seeking the cooperation of, the international community in terms of their own economic development.” [14] This kind of approach would address the North Korean security concerns and should provide the required incentives needed to convince Pyongyang that its security lies as a responsible member of the international community within the nuclear nonproliferation regime and not with nuclear weapons.


[1] Letter, dated January 10, 2003 by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the French Presidency of the United Nations Security Council and the States Parties of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
[2] Article X(1) stipulates that “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty of it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interest of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties and the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such statement shall include a statement of extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”
[3] United States of America, Russian Federation and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
[4] “China Blocks U.N. Statement Condemning N. Korea,” The Washington Post, April 9, 2003, p. 16.
[5] IAEA Board of Governors resolution and Report by the Director-General on the implementation of the Safeguards Agreement pursuant to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons between the Agency and the Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea (GOV/2003/4) (
[6] 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework.
[7] North Korean letter dated January 10, 2003.
[8] IAEA Board of Governors resolution GOV/2003/3 (
[9] Report by the Director-General on the implementation of the Safeguards Agreement pursuant to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons between the Agency and the Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea (GOV/2003/4).
[10] As provided for in Article XII.C. of the IAEA Statute.
[11] Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Act of Aggression” provides for measures such as economic sanctions, blockades, and ultimately, the use of force (
[12] “When Did WMD Deals between Pyongyang and Islamabad Begin?” Daniel A. Pinkston (; Gaurav Kampani, “Second Tier Proliferation: The Case of Pakistan and North Korea,” The Nonproliferation Review ( Fall/Winter 2002), pp.107-116.
[13] Press release issued by the Foreign Ministry of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, 6 April 2003 (
[14] Press release dated 8 April 2003 by the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, Maurice Strong (

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