COM 01/2016

Interview with Prof. Dr. Christoph Bluth on Current Nuclear Threats to Peace and Stability

Christoph Bluth is Professor of International Relations   and   Security at the Division of Peace Studies, University of Bradford. He was previously Professor of International Studies at  the  University of Leeds. He is a specialist on nuclear weapons policy and nonproliferation, and has published numerous books and articles. His most recent books are “The Crisis on the Korean Peninsula” (Potomac 2011) and “US Policy towards the Caucasus and Central Asia” (IB Tauris 2014). On the sidelines of CPG’s international conference “Peace and Stability in Asia – Sources and Solutions of Conflict and Cooperation” CPG  had the opportunity to conduct the following interview with Professor Bluth in which he gives an assessment of the current situation nuclear threats and risks.


Q: Professor Bluth, how would you describe the current nuclear threat in the world?

Unlike in the Cold War period, nuclear weapons have very much a residual deterrent effect as the big nuclear powers have reduced their arsenals considerably. Now that all non-nuclear states have joined the Non- Proliferation Treaty, it is more difficult for states to acquire nuclear weapons because it would mean that they would have to abrogate the membership of an international regime and they would be subject to possible sanctions. But it is also because interstate military conflict has become much rarer than it used to be in the past. So many states do not see any advantage in having nuclear weapons. The P5 (five official nuclear powers) are holding on to nuclear weapons partly as a deterrence of last resort, and the fact that they have nuclear weapons stabilises some crisis regions, which we can see for example in North-East Asia: If the United States did not provide extended nuclear deterrence to Japan and South Korea, then those countries might be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. In a strange way, complete nuclear disarmament is not an option for the time being, but the role of nuclear weapons is much reduced compared to the Cold War period.

Q: Besides North-East Asia, which world regions are particularly sensitive with regard to the development of nuclear weapons?

Obviously, in South Asia, there is a kind of arms race between India and Pakistan. Pakistan pursues a very dangerous policy because they are a revisionist power. They want to change the territorial status quo and they want to balance India. They are committed to a possible first use of nuclear weapons in the event of a major conflict. India may have the upper hand in the longer term because their economic capabilities surpass those of Pakistan considerably. Although the sheer number of nuclear weapons in Pakistan is slightly higher, India is likely to have a more sophisticated arsenal in the future. That is a very dangerous situation. Then, of course, we have the problems in the Middle East where there is the possibility of proliferation if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons. However, that seems to have been mitigated at the moment by virtue of the Iran deal so that Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries will be happy to still rely on the American security guarantee at the nuclear level and will not move toward acquiring nuclear weapons themselves. But it still is a very unstable region and, therefore, there are risks there.

Q: How would you assess the current danger of nuclear proliferation and where would you situate the sources of proliferation?

The risk of further nuclear proliferation is very low because all non-nuclear states are now member states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would be only conceivable if security risks arise in a region where states felt that they absolutely have to acquire a nuclear deterrent, and the Middle East is the most likely candidate for this. But the United States try to reduce this possibility by the arrangement with Iran and by providing extended nuclear deterrence to the other states in the region.

Q: How would you assess the nuclear threat by terrorism, especially regarding so called dirty bombs?

This topic has been discussed for quite a long time already, but it has not materialised yet. Until the emergence of ISIS, this was a very difficult proposition because the manufacture of nuclear devices and the acquisition of missile materials require some kinds of infrastructure which terrorists cannot really create because they are constantly hiding from the security forces and they are not able to locate themselves in a particular area to develop such facilities. If ISIS persists for a longer period of time, there might be a risk that ISIS might look towards the acquisition of a chemical and even a nuclear kind of capabilities. They are clearly thinking about it and there is some evidence for that. But for the moment, the risk is low.

Q: Do you see any probability that one of the nuclear powers would retaliate terrorist attacks by using nuclear weapons against the terrorists’ host country?

Over the years and decades of the nuclear age, the use of nuclear weapons has increasingly become a matter that is not really acceptable anymore in terms of international conventions and law because nuclear weapons are so indiscriminate. The trend in the development of military power has been towards more and more discriminate targeting and conventional force-protection capabilities. The  function of nuclear weapons is more political. They have a deterrent effect, but are not for actual military use. Military use would only occur in extremis where the threat reached such an extent that it threatened the national survival.

I do not think that terrorism comes anywhere near that. The numbers of deaths from terrorism are relatively small. Terrorists cannot cause the collapse of a country. They cannot occupy a country. Therefore, the nuclear threat is inappropriate and, moreover, the terrorists are not deterred by such threats. The deterrent function of nuclear weapons which is their main function is not applicable in this case. So it would not be very wise for politics to introduce this topic into the public discourse because it is not really credible.

Q: Is there a cooperation between North Korea and Iran regarding the development of nuclear weapons?

We know for certain that there has been cooperation in the ballistic missile field because the Iranian ballistic missiles which would be the delivery systems for nuclear devices are, to a large extent, North Korean technology and design. In terms of nuclear weapons development, of course, the main technological element of the Iranian nuclear program is Uranium enrichment. This is something that North Korea has started now, but whatever technology they use they did not acquire it from Iran. They acquired it from Pakistan. And Iran obviously also acquired this technology from Pakistan. The extent to which Iran has provided any more advanced centrifuges, for example, to North Korea is not known. The technological sophistication of the North Korean Uranium enrichment programme is also unknown. We know that it exists and some people speculate that it is quite advanced, but there is no evidence for that.

Q: Which repercussions does the North Korean nuclear programme have with regard to the foreign policies of other countries and for a possible destabilisation of the country itself?

The United States would have lost interest in North Korea at the end of the Cold War if it had not been for the nuclear programme. That really focused American interest on North Korea and that equated a paradox because the very threat that North Korea is emphasising only exists because of the nuclear programme. For North Korea, the nuclear programme had  been  the  means to try and find some amelioration of a very difficult situation which arose because  of the termination of economic relations with Russia as a result of the end of the Cold War and, of course, the famine that killed about 3 million people in the mid-1990s.

In terms of relations with North Korea regarding other countries, the alliance between the United States and South Korea is very strong, because, although South Korea could defeat North Korea in conventional warfare, it could not respond to the non- conventional means that North Korea has developed. That increases the reliance by South Korea on the United States even though the Cold War has ended. So, North Korea’s nuclear programme clearly has a pronounced effect.

It also makes the relations between North Korea and China more difficult and troublesome for China. The fact that China has this close relationship with a North Korea that has defected from the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not good for China’s international image. So, there are all kinds of ramifications. The importation of ballistic missile defence systems to the region only occurs because of North Korea. But they effect China’s security because China is worried that these missile defences might also be targeted at Chinese nuclear capabilities. So, it has far-reaching consequences. That is for sure.

Q: As North Korea basically  only  has the nuclear card to play, how could it be discouraged to develop its nuclear programme further?

Some of the elements of the agreed framework deal that  involved  some  kind of political relationship to be established between the United States and North Korea as well as some economic support, especially in meeting North Korea’s energy needs, could be revived. North Korea is not prepared to go back to the point where it would disarm completely.

What might be possible is that North Korea would be willing to constrain future developments because it seems that the fact of having an existential deterrent without very clear knowledge about which weapon systems there are and what targets they might be targeted at is probably enough for North Korea to say: It is a nuclear state, it is a powerful state, and it has a deterrent that will deter the United States and South Korea from attacking North Korea. So, that deal might be plausible. Until now, the United States and South Korea have not been willing to entertain this. They have basically said: The only talks that we are going to have would involve going back to the 13 February 2007 agreement and North Korea agreeing to complete disarmament.

But, if they are willing to entertain a second line of negotiations which is purely aimed at constraining future developments, that is a possibility and it is quite desirable because this is something worth having. I think we can live for some time with a nuclear North Korea if it does not become a greater threat, especially if it does not have a demonstrated capability to attack the continental United States.

Q: Do you see any connection between Japan’s new defence policy enabling wider deployments of troops outside of Japan and the nuclear threat by North Korea?

The Japanese will be extremely concerned about the missile threat to Japan because most of the missiles that have been tested had a trajectory over Japan. This is the reason why the Japanese have invested so much in missile defence systems. It seems to me, however, that the changes in the way in which Japan is looking at self-defence have more to do with Japan as a state and the identity of that state. I do not think that it is very much directed at North Korea. But it has applications especially because it provides Japan with a defence against possible maritime intrusions by North Korean vessels. But the main threat to Japan from North Korea is not this kind of attack but a ballistic missile attack and, therefore, ballistic missile defence is the key effort that they are undertaking.

Thank  you  very  much  for  the  interview, Professor Bluth.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Lasse Schuldt and Michael Gayger, CPG.