When COVID-19 Delays a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference, Is There a Silver Lining?

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A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge on March 24, 2020, in the Dumbo neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo: Justin Heiman - Getty Images

Rose Gottemoeller is the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Center for Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, and was formerly the Deputy Secretary General of NATO

On March 24, the United Nations let it be known that the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is “likely to be postponed” because of the coronavirus pandemic. The NPT RevCon, as it’s known, was due to take place April 27 to May 22 at the UN Headquarters in New York. The gathering is an opportunity once every five years to reconfirm the basic bargain at its heart: The five nuclear weapon states under the Treaty, the U.S., UK, France, China and Russia, agree to reduce nuclear weapons and move toward their ultimate elimination, and the non-nuclear weapon states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons.  That is practically everyone else, because only India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea stand outside the NPT.  2020 is an especially important year for the Treaty, its fiftieth anniversary of sustaining this important bargain.

A postponement is inevitable.  It would not be feasible to meet in person in New York at this time, with thousands of national delegates joined by large contingents from the non-governmental community, supporting arms control and nonproliferation efforts.  Delay may even have a silver lining in that it could allow some groups, such as the nuclear weapon states, to continue working together to launch some new initiatives to bolster nuclear disarmament. 

It may also be dangerous, however.  North Korea has already been testing short-range missiles off its coastline, at the same time claiming that it is impervious to coronavirus.  As the world’s attention is riveted by the pandemic, Pyongyang may feel the temptation to make rapid progress on some aspect of its nuclear weapon program, restarting fissile material production or even conducting a nuclear test. 

The NPT community normally keeps all eyes on North Korea, and never is that behavior more in evident than during the RevCon, because of the peculiar conundrum that the country poses to the NPT system.  North Korea sought to withdraw from the NPT in 1994, notifying under the procedures of the Treaty its intention to do so.  However, the NPT community never accepted that withdrawal notification, and diplomatic efforts ever since have been focused on getting the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons program and rejoin the NPT family.  Because of this limbo status, there is a placeholder for North Korea at every RevCon table, and an enormous amount of discussion of withdrawal policy under the Treaty. 

Iran comes to mind as another possible mischief-maker, although Iran is so immersed in fighting the coronavirus that its resources for new work on its nuclear program are likely to be limited.  In this case, perhaps the postponement could have a positive effect, for unlike North Korea, Iran has never attempted to withdraw from the Treaty.  It is clearly still a part of the NPT family.  Countries who are helping Iran to cope with disease could also use this time as an opportunity to encourage its renewed cooperation with the NPT and its nuclear nonproliferation objectives.  

Thus, although postponement of the NPT Review Conference is inevitable, the nuclear policy community needs to keep a sharp eye out during the pause, to ensure that nuclear mischief does not ensue, whether from North Korea or from other countries.  At the same time, we should look for opportunities for extra progress, whether among the nuclear weapons states, or with states who have posed proliferation concerns inside the NPT family.