Nuclear nonproliferation is a legacy of global governance during the Cold War. It began as an effort of the United States to prevent the spread of the nuclear weapons technology developed as part of the Manhattan Project. Initially, the United States attempted to contain the technology through monopoly and isolation until realizing that such plans were not tenable.
From the beginning, the regime for nuclear nonproliferation is discriminatory, dividing the world between the nuclear haves and the have-nots. As many states technologically advance with significant growth in national power, the current discriminatory state in nuclear nonproliferation becomes a source of discord and frustration, in particular, given the lack of commitment and/or progress of the nuclear weapons states in nuclear disarmament.
Nuclear nonproliferation is still very relevant and important in today’s world order. Today, other than the five nuclear weapons states (United States, Russia, China, UK and France), there are four nuclear-armed states (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea). The number of nuclear-armed states would likely have been larger in the absence of the global regime for nuclear nonproliferation.
In fact, there were about 20 states that explored developing their nuclear weapons capability but don’t have such a capability today. Many would agree that the spread of nuclear weapons around the world is not desirable for international security, as such spread could have implications for potential use, misuse or mishandling of the nuclear weapons.
Although people argue that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is flawed and needs to be revised with regard to its effectiveness against noncompliance or the vagueness of its language, many states have decided to stay with the NPT as they see nuclear nonproliferation advantageous to their national interests. Many states would agree that nuclear nonproliferation is essential for the strategic stability of global power dynamics amid mounting geopolitical conflicts.
Nuclear nonproliferation is being challenged. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war presents unprecedented challenges to the international system, such as the rule of law, state sovereignty, supply chain pressures, fiscal crises, food and energy security and nuclear nonproliferation. States, in particular the states facing serious international security threats, may rethink the utility of nuclear weapons.
North Korea will be further emboldened to solidify its position on nuclear weapons. With the rupture in the U.S. and Russia relationship through the war, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the only remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, will have dim prospects for renewal. We now have a new cold war between the U.S. and China with an active arms race underway. The global norm of nuclear being taboo is also being challenged as recent studies have found that people in the Western world are becoming hawkish on the use of nuclear weapons against enemy states.
For nuclear nonproliferation to remain valid and effective, education of the younger generation is essential. The world is witnessing the protracted inability of the international system to make progress in nuclear arms control. At the same time, many countries, given the concern over energy security and climate change, are seeking opportunities to introduce nuclear power as a nuclear newcomer.
How should we counter states’ movements away from the goal of disarmament or nonproliferation, as they are driven by realist national interests? How do we ensure that the continued spread of commercial nuclear power technology does not increase the risk of nuclear proliferation? Part of the answer to these questions has to do with raising new people ― new people with new perspectives and a new vision.
As it is ever more important to seek safe and responsible use of nuclear technology, we need people who can guard the technology safely and responsibly. We need to develop nuclear nonproliferation experts throughout the world and in key regions and countries of importance with idealism.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC) of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has been pursuing this goal. Over the last nine years, NEREC has trained 270 students from 45 different countries through the NEREC Summer Fellows program and Research Fellows program. Each year, about 35 students are selected as Summer Fellows or Research Fellows with half of them nuclear engineers (or other engineering majors) and the other half international relations/political science majors.
They perform multidisciplinary research on nuclear non-proliferation policy in small groups, presenting the results at the annual NEREC conference, and publishing their work in the NEREC Annual Report. The multicultural mix of the students strengthens our collective ability to see issues from rich diverse perspectives.
As the fellows live, study, research and travel together, they develop close friendships. The continuous supply of these future experts will contribute to promoting global nuclear nonproliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy while promoting nuclear nonproliferation culture in respective countries.
As noted by Tom Hickey at the 2022 NEREC-Sejong Conference on nuclear nonproliferation, there has been relatively limited public engagement and discourse on the issue of nonproliferation, although the threat of nuclear proliferation may be rising.
Building up the capacity of the next generation through supporting young people who engage with non-pro/disarmament issues, means those young people are likely to carry that engagement with them throughout their lives. We need to amplify the perspectives of the young generation and their engagement with the policy community to bring about changes in the status quo of nuclear nonproliferation.
About the author
Yim Man-sung is a professor in the Department of Nuclear & Quantum Engineering at KAIST.
This article was published in The Korea Times on 10 August 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.
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