US leadership needed to prevent nuclear testing by North Korea
North Korea’s nuclear weapons test explosion underscores the need for stronger US leadership to prevent the testing, spread, and use of the world’s most dangerous weapons. US ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would set a clear international standard.
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The case for the test-ban treaty is stronger than ever. Since the treaty was last considered in 1999, substantial investments in the US nuclear labs and scientific advances in nuclear weapons science mean that we know more now about how to sustain the arsenal than years ago when the US conducted nuclear tests.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics oppose US treaty ratification because they say the treaty is unverifiable – that signatory countries may cheat, and that their actions are largely unknown. But today, the treaty’s global nuclear test monitoring system is now more than 85 percent complete and is more capable than anticipated a decade ago. US intelligence and test monitoring tools are highly effective, as their rapid reporting on the North Korean test showed.
When the treaty enters into force, the US and other states will have an additional tool to deter potential testing: short-notice, on-site inspections to investigate any suspicious events. With the treaty in place, no would-be proliferator could be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility would escape detection.
The treaty can also be enforced by action from the UN Security Council. The Security Council found unanimously at a summit-level meeting in January 1992 that nuclear proliferation is a threat to world peace and security. If a signatory country violated the nuclear testing ban, action to enforce the treaty could include sanctions and use of force if authorized. If that action were to be vetoed, treaty members would be free to act individually in response, including resuming testing if they believed it was necessary.
Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, US presidents have sought an end to nuclear testing. It has been a half-century since President John F. Kennedy sought to negotiate a comprehensive test ban but achieved only the Limited Test Ban Treaty. A quarter century has passed since Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush secured the ratification of the treaties banning high-yield test explosions and so-called “peaceful” nuclear explosions.
Today, the United States is acting within the framework of the responsibilities of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but is not reaping the full security benefits in return because it has not yet ratified the pact. As Obama said in 2009: “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering helped to draft the Kennedy Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and served as US ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan.