Did North Korea’s Nuclear Test Violate International Law?

by Christopher Le Mon

The announcement of a successful test of a nuclear weapon by North Korea (update: articles by NYT, WaPo, Guardian, and the text of the North Korean announcement) raises the question: did such a test render North Korea in violation of international law? As is often the case, the briefest questions can be the most challenging to answer convincingly.

Treaties Banning Nuclear Testing

Two treaties restrict nuclear testing as such: the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (often referred to as the Partial Test Ban Treaty [PTBT] or the Limited Test Ban Treaty), which entered into force in 1963, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has not yet entered into force. North Korea is not a party to either of these treaties (treaty status here and here).


2 Responses

  1. North Korean Nukes: Is the UN Obsolete or Worse?

    In the thoroughly interesting post Did North Korea’s Nuclear Test Violate International Law? Opinio Juris contributor Christopher Le Mon addresses his title-question, which proves no small task. After resolving that North Korea’s nuclear test did not violate any positive international law, Le Mon goes on to argue: [I]s the international legal order a worthless burden on interntional affairs? Hardly. In fact, the core institution of the international legal order — the United Nations — offers the best means for an effective multilateral response to the dangerous and provocative North Korean nuclear tests….In the last paragraph of its 6 October 2006

  2. Great, enjoyable, informative post! Thanks.

    That said, I do find problematice the section entitled “Going Forward… .” As argued in my related post on Transnational Law Blog, offering the world the solace of continued economic sanctions is no solace at all. Since economic sanctions have brought us to the position we hold today, and would likely incentivize nuclear proliferation by North Korea, they are a less than ideal response to the recent nuclear test. In fact, economic sanctions would continue to cause more harm than good.

    If the UN is to legitimately claim relevance in our increasingly multipolar world, it has to find creative, effective solutions to the problems unique to our era, including rogue, nuclear states. Taking a page out of the playbook that failed us previously does not meet this challenge. Economic sanctions should not be greeted with further faith, but should be avoided like a nuclear plague.

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