A turbulent fortnight of provocations and tensions

In this article, Project Alpha’s Maila Beniera reviews the events that have followed the passage on March 2nd of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 – a turbulent fortnight for non-proliferation.

The DPRK’s barrage of missiles and revelation of a ‘miniaturised nuclear warhead’

A few hours after the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2270 imposing enhanced and stricter sanctions on the DPRK as punishment for its January nuclear test and rocket launch, Pyongyang fired six short-range projectiles in an act of defiance against the UN action. Those actions have been followed by Kim Jong Un’s announcement last week that the country has successfully developed miniature nuclear warheads, and an additional firing of two more missiles amid the ongoing annual joint military exercise of the U.S. and South Korea.

The first batch of projectiles were reported to be fired on March 3 from a 300mm-caliber multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) while two short-range Scud-type missiles were launched on March 10. Furthermore, Pyongyang announced its nullification of all existing economic cooperation with the South and threatened to sell off the South’s assets from the two countries’ shared economic area. Kim Jong Un has also ordered his military officers to be ready to mount pre-emptive attacks and to use the country’s nuclear weapons in response to what he described as ‘nuclear war moves’: the largest-to-date military drill of US and South Korea. Kim then boasted that Pyongyang’s nuclear advancements included the development of miniaturised nuclear warheads, which he claimed could be fitted into ballistic missiles and can be called a ‘true nuclear deterrent’.

Kim’s Jong Un’s latest nuclear declarations, although difficult to verify, should certainly not be dismissed. His announcement was backed with photographs of what appeared to be a nuclear warhead suitable for integration into a ballistic missile. Some analysts have stated that the spherical device on display was a mock-up or model, wrongly claiming that personnel standing near a true nuclear weapon would require protective clothing to shield them from radiation. Actually, the uranium or plutonium metal core inside a nuclear weapon is only weakly radioactive, and images of US nuclear delivery systems show personnel handling nuclear warheads without protective gear.

South Korea’s Defence Ministry stated it does not believe that DPRK has successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead, nor deployed an ICBM. The US Department of Defence has said ‘it had not seen North Korea demonstrate a capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead’.

Included in the photos were various missiles – or indistinguishable mock-ups thereof – including the KN-08 Mod 1 and 2 and Nodong series, which DPRK has previously showcased in 2012 and 2015.

In response to these North Korean provocations, US forces in South Korea have tested the M270A1 MLRS. This test was undertaken separately from the US-ROK joint exercise, and was declared as a demonstration of the US capability to destroy DPRK’s long range artillery in case it decides to fire into South Korea. The US and South Korea have also began formal talks on deploying a terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD) anti-missile defense system in the peninsula, a move which has been opposed by both Russia and China.

In response to Pyongyang’s series of nuclear aggressions, Japan launched a protest through its embassy in Beijing, with its Ambassador to the UN Motohide Yoshikawa cautioning that the DPRK “may do something more.” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s representative to the UN, commented that Pyongyang appears to have not learned properly from the latest round of sanctions while the Chinese Foreign Minister asked for all parties to remain calm and exercise restraint.

Iran’s missile tests – a violation of UN resolutions?

Adding to the tension posed by nuclear threats in the Korean peninsula, on 8 March, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) conducted multiple ballistic missile test-firings. While the US has stated that it is considering referring the tests to the UN Security Council as a possible breach of Resolution 2231, an Iranian spokesperson stressed that its missile programme and test-firing were not in violation of the country’s nuclear commitments outlined in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The IRGC test-fired at least one medium-range Qiam ballistic missile, said to be marked with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out”, from an underground facility in Bushehr province. From a separate location in the East Alborz mountain range, Iran launched at least two Ghadr-H ballistic missiles, and additional Ghadr and Shahab missiles were reportedly launched from sites near Qom.

Whether Iran’s most recent ballistic missile test-firing was a violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is still in question. US and French officials have stated that the acts violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran to refrain from developing or test-firing ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. The IRGC’s commander however has stressed that Iran will not halt its ballistic missile development, as the missiles are a legitimate part of their conventional deterrent capability. A similar position was previously reiterated by Iranian leaders, stating that Iran is within its rights to test missiles, which they claim have no nuclear weapons capability.

It is worth noting that Iran also test-fired an Emad missile in October 2015, which the UN’s Iran Panel of Experts found to be a violation of Resolution 1929 (June 2010) and led the US Treasury to impose sanctions against entities involved in Iran’s missile programme.

For its part, the US expressed that it will raise the issue of a possible violation at the Security Council and intends to take appropriate actions. The possibility of additional sanctions from the UN however is extremely small, as Russia and China, with their veto powers, have previously expressed their disapproval of further restricting Iran’s missile development and arms trade.

With North Korea further intensifying its nuclear development and continuing nuclear threats amid sanctions and international pressure, as well as Iran’s continuing missile activities, continue to make the path to non-proliferation challenging. Undeniably, Iran’s nuclear deal was a significant step towards a more stable security climate, but provocations seen in recent weeks have the potential to undermine the still fragile non-proliferation landscape.