In early 2018, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump were not on the best of terms, publicly lashing out at each other and threatening the destruction of the other’s state. And yet, within the year they were smiling and handshaking in Singapore, followed not long after by a second summit in Vietnam. These summits, focused on the prospect of North Korea’s denuclearization, have in fact raised important questions concerning the legitimacy of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program: Does the willingness of a sitting U.S. President to meet with the North Korean leader constitute de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state? Has North Korea joined India, Pakistan, and Israel as a member of the “Final Four”—the nuclear-weapon states that exist outside of the framework promulgated by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons?
International law does not offer clear answers to these questions, but the importance of defining de facto nuclear-weapon state (DNWS) status is paramount, lest the United States or another member of the international community continues to engage with North Korea and unwittingly offers the legitimacy that it desires. Consequently, this Note sets out to identify a “nuclear recognition threshold”—the point at which a nuclear-armed state can accurately be considered a DNWS. In this respect, the law on diplomatic recognition serves as a valuable reference point in formulating a “working test” to identify states that have crossed (or are likely to cross) this threshold. By articulating a working test for DNWS status, this Note hopes to encourage members of the international community to be more cognizant of their relationships with would-be nuclear proliferants, as such relationships may lead to those states attaining this status, gaining unintended legal and diplomatic benefits, and threatening the long-term efficacy of the global nonproliferation regime.
The full text of this Note can be found by clicking the PDF link to the left.