For obvious reasons, North Korea’s nukes are getting all the headlines. But the vast majority of the world’s nukes are in Russia and the US, and the number of nuclear weapons in the world actually decreased last year. Good news? Not necessarily.
Independent global think tank the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute tracks the world’s nuclear weapons. Its July 2017 report recorded that Russia has the world's biggest weapons stockpile with 1,950 deployed warheads, and 5,050 others.
The US is just behind Russia with 1,800 deployed and 5,000 other warheads. No other countries, including China’s total arsenal of 270 nukes, even come close. SIPRI estimates North Korea has between 10 and 20 warheads.
Deployed warheads means they are placed on missiles or located on bases with operational forces. 'Other' warheads are retired and awaiting disassembly or held in reserve.
The total number of nukes in the world actually has been in steep decline since the mid-80s peak of nearly 70,000 warheads, with the US and Russia retiring old weapons.
But that news is not as good as it sounds. SIPRI points out that the rate of reduction has slowed down; and spending on nuclear forces increased in recent years because of “extensive and expensive modernisation programmes”.
A new arms race?
SIPRI said all the other nuclear states, including Israel which has never confirmed or denied that it has nukes, “are either developing or deploying new weapons systems or have announced their intention to do so.”
China is working on improving the quality of its nukes rather than the quantity, while India and Pakistan, which are both outside the Non Proliferation Treaty, “are expanding their nuclear weapon stockpiles as well as developing new land-, sea- and air-based missile delivery systems,” the SIPRI report said.
This is one of the reasons why a nuclear-armed North Korea is viewed as such a bad idea. The complicated tensions and international rivalries in Northeast Asia - and the rather dreadful logic of nuclear deterrence - means it could catalyse an arms race comparable to the Cold War nuclear build up, with uncertain consequences.
So you have this position for a much more dangerous nuclear scenario emerging globally as a result of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea.
Dr Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute explained the traditional realist idea of the Northeast Asian nuclear security dilemma to SBS News.
“The US would either be forced to dramatically and visibly strengthen deterrence against North Korea, potentially by forward-deploying tactical nuclear forces on the peninsula; or Japan and (South) Korea would see it in their interest to get their own nukes,” he said.
“That would lead to a breakdown of the non-proliferation regime in East Asia. If Japan got nuclear weapons, China would respond by changing the posture of its nuclear forces, and dramatically increasing the size. The US, Russia and India would have to respond to that Chinese move.
“So you have this position for a much more dangerous nuclear scenario emerging globally as a result of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea.”
Get used to a nuclear North Korea
The alternative argument, that the US waging war on North Korea to reverse its emerging nuclear status is essentially impossible because of its catastrophic and unpredictable costs, has been forcefully summed up by Associate Professor Robert Kelly from Pusan National University in South Korea who points out that the US has tolerated a nuclear-armed Pakistan for close to 20 years.
“We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands of a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.”
He continues, “There is no silver bullet regarding North Korea. Were there, we would have used it long ago.”