North Korea’s test of a nuclear device has prompted discussion of its missile program. When I was at the State Department, I spent years working on the creation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). I am disappointed that I have not seen it mentioned in connection with North Korea’s development of missiles. Before the North Korean test, the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” published several articles dealing with missile proliferation and the MTCR: “Missile proliferation: Treat the disease,” and “Too late for missile proliferation?” as well as several other articles that were part of a debate about how to deal with missile proliferation.
The MTCR is basically an export control agreement for nations capable of supplying missile hardware and technology. By joining the MTCR they agree not to supply items or knowledge to proliferating countries that could be used to build nuclear capable missiles. It is not an arms control agreement that prohibits the proliferation of missile technology. It is more like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
As proliferating countries become more capable of producing missiles on their own, the export restrictions of the MTCR have less effect. The MTCR probably did slow down North Korea’s development of missiles, but now it is less effective. However, building missiles is “rocket science,” and there are some very difficult technologies involved. Therefore, the MTCR may still play a role in limiting or slowing down the ability of North Korea to build more powerful and more accurate missiles, but at this point, slowing down is about the best it could do. Press articles seem to agree that North Korea could build strategic nuclear missiles that could reach the US by 2020, e.g. a New York Times article says, “Military experts say that by 2020, Pyongyang will most likely have the skills to make a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile topped by a nuclear warhead.” However, the MTCR might still help restrict the accuracy and the size of the warhead for such a missile by 2020. It might mean that North Korea could be able to hit somewhere in the greater Washington metropolitan area with a bomb the size of the one the US used on Hiroshima, rather than one that could reliably hit Pennsylvania Avenue and destroy both the White House and the Capitol, as well as most of the city. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable, but the greater the chances that a missile might misfire, go off course or fail to detonate, the better.
Of course it would be better to have in place a strong treaty that prohibits missile proliferation like the NPT does for bombs, but that is unlikely. One reason the MTCR is so weak is that it is all that even the friendliest countries, like the UK, France, or Japan, would agree to. Furthermore the NPT has not been successful in limiting nuclear proliferation by the most threatening countries, such as North Korea. As in most areas of life, laws constrain decent people, but criminals commit crimes despite the laws against it.
One advantage of the NPT is that it has its own police force, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has performed its job well in a number of cases, discovering and reporting prohibited activities by member parties. However, the IAEA has no authority in countries that are not parties to the NPT, which includes most of the worrisome countries, such as North Korea. There are countries that have joined the NPT, but then have gotten off the track, perhaps after a change of government. This happened in Iran. The IAEA has worked successfully in Iran and is a key component of the US-Iran deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.