North Korea's Nuclear Detonation Is Driving the Push for Global Test Ban Treaty

By Patrick Goodenough | May 28, 2009 | 5:21 AM EDT

This station in far-northern Canada's Nunavut territory, part of the International Monitoring System set up under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, detects radioactive noble gases released when a nuclear detonation takes place. (Photo: CTBTO)

( – If a global nuclear test ban pact were now in force, a test like the one North Korea says it conducted on Monday would trigger an on-site inspection, according to the U.N.-affiliated organization that is preparing for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Once the CTBT is in force, the Vienna-based body said this week, “the norm against nuclear testing will be considerably strengthened, as a nuclear test will then constitute a breach of international treaty law.”
Tibor Toth, the Hungarian diplomat who heads the CTBT Organization’s preparatory commission, said North Korea’s action underlined the urgency of getting the treaty operational.
But the CTBT can only enter into force when nine more specific countries ratify it – and they include North Korea, which has not even signed it.
The others holdouts are the United States, China, Iran, Israel, Egypt and Indonesia, which have signed but not ratified the treaty; as well as India and Pakistan, which like North Korea have done neither.
The nine are the last of 44 specified countries which, at the time the treaty was being negotiated in the 1990s, had nuclear power or research reactors.
President Obama has said he will make U.S. ratification a priority. Although the U.S. has upheld a moratorium on testing since the early 1990s, the Senate rejected the pact in 1999 by a 51-48 vote that fell mostly along party lines. A two-thirds majority is required for ratification.
In 1999, then Sen. Joe Biden, ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, led the unsuccessful attempt to get the legislation passed. At a non-proliferation conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment last month, an Obama administration official said that Vice President Biden would spearhead the new push to get Senate ratification.
Opponents of ratification argued in 1999 that the U.S. would not be able to maintain its arsenal and superiority without testing, and also cited difficulties in verifying compliance.
CTBT supporters say much has changed since, including the national security imperatives of preventing testing by rogue states; the increased effectiveness of an expanding verification regime; and technical advances which, according to a statement this month by a group of non-governmental organizations supporting the CTBT, “would not compromise future efforts to maintain the reliability, safety, or security of the United States’ remaining stockpile of nuclear warheads.”
The verification regime will comprise an International Monitoring System (IMS) of 337 facilities in 89 countries around the world. Three-quarters are already in place, the CTBTO says. When an explosion occurs, these facilities gather seismic, hydroacoustic, radioactive and other data. The information is sent via satellite and ground hubs to the Vienna headquarters for scientific analysis.
When North Korea carried out its first nuclear test, in 2006, IMS stations as far away as South America detected the seismic activity, and one in Canada – about 4,500 miles from the test site – measured the release of radioactive noble gases less than two weeks after the test. The CTBTO says this time round its system may detect radioactive gases from Monday’s detonation in days rather than weeks.
‘Objective judgments about capability becoming difficult’
On May 6, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the U.S. released a report that drew mixed reviews from non-proliferation experts – happy about its emphasis on U.S. leadership on nuclear issues and the need to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime, but unhappy that it did not recommend CTBT ratification.
The Pentagon meanwhile has begun a nuclear posture review (NPR) that will establish nuclear policies and strategies for the next 5-10 years. Carried out in conjunction with the Department of Energy, the review process will stretch into the fall and a final report is expected to be presented to Congress early next year.
The last NPR, in 2002, cautioned that maintaining the nuclear stockpile without further testing may not be possible indefinitely.
“Some problems in the stockpile due to aging and manufacturing defects have already been identified,” it said. “Increasingly, objective judgments about capability in a non-testing environment will become far more difficult.”
“Nuclear nations have a responsibility to assure the safety and reliability of their own nuclear weapons,” the 2002 report said.
Countries among the CTBT holdouts that have expressed a willingness to ratify it if the U.S. does include China and Indonesia. But analysts do not foresee India shifting on the issue before nuclear-armed rival Pakistan does – or vice versa.
Israel’s reluctance to ratify has been tied both to concerns about on-site inspections, and to the fact that Iran and Egypt have not done so. For its part, Egypt says Israel’s position is a key factor in its refusal to ratify.
A Center for Nonproliferation Studies report last year predicted that Iran would not ratify the CTBT until both the U.S. and Israel have done so.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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