The toothless Missile Control Regime

Michael Richardson | 21 Jul 2020

An uncomfortable fact is being obscured in the continuing controversy and big power maneuvering over what to do about North Korea's recent ballistic missile launches. While there are global treaties prohibiting the production, possession and proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there is no similar international agreement banning the manufacture, testing, sale and export of missiles that could carry them to their intended targets.

After ten days of wrangling, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously at the weekend (15 July) for a compromise resolution demanding that North Korea suspend all activity related to its ballistic missile program and reinstate its moratorium on missile launches. In rejecting these demands, Pyongyang's UN ambassador Pak Gil Yon noted correctly that North Korea was not bound by any international law or multilateral agreement prohibiting development of missiles, which he claimed were needed for the country's defence.

The missile trade gives the regime of Kim Jong-Il a malign influence and clout in world affairs that it would otherwise not have as the isolated government of an impoverished country. This influence is magnified when combined with concern that North Korean scientists and engineers may already be able to fit the nosecones of their missiles with chemical and biological warheads and may eventually be able to do the same with nuclear weapons when they can make them small enough.

A report released by South Korea's defence ministry in 2003 estimated that North Korea had shipped over 400 short-range Scud missiles to the Middle East since the 1980s. The biggest buyers were Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Syria but also included Egypt and Libya.

North Korea has been selling missiles, parts and technical assistance to Iran for more than 20 years. Teheran's latest Shahab series of missiles are North Korean derivatives. This collaboration took a big step forward late last year when Pyongyang shipped 18 new single stage missiles to Iran that had been fully developed, but never flight-tested, in North Korea.

After North Korea created a storm by firing a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan into the Pacific in 1998, it announced a halt to all flight testing of long range missiles the following year evidently hoping to receive major benefits and concessions from both the US and Japan. Meanwhile, it kept design work, engine and component testing, and missile assembly going at home, while doing flight testing in Iran and sharing the information with Teheran. All in secret of course. Pyongyang declared an end to its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile launches from North Korea in 2005, claiming bad faith by Washington and Japan.

Last September, North Korea signed a joint statement with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US at the end of the fourth round of the six-party talks in Beijing. The outline said that in return for certain commitments by the other parties, Pyongyang would abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, and return at an early date to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and checks by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But the joint statement said nothing about missile production and testing, although the six parties committed to joint efforts for lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Nor did the joint statement refer to North Korea's stocks of chemical and biological weapons, which are lighter payloads for missiles to carry than nuclear warheads and are also easier to fit.

The nearest thing the world has to an anti-missile treaty is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Formed by the Group of Seven leading industrial powers in 1987, it now has 34 member states, including Russia, the US and most advanced missile manufacturers.

The MTCR is a voluntary arrangement with a set of guidelines regulating the export of ballistic and cruise missiles and other unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used for chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. Members agree to restrict their exports of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometres or delivering any type of weapon of mass destruction. 500-kilograms is considered the minimum weight of a first generation nuclear warhead, while 300 kilometres is believed to be the minimum distance needed to carry out a strategic strike.

A senior US state department official was quoted as saying earlier this year that MTCR members had slowly been able to extend missile-related export controls to a number of non-supplier countries, "including some of the key transshipment points, such as Cyprus, Malta, Hong Kong and, to some extent, Singapore." Two other international instruments reinforce the MTCR but fall short of making it obligatory for all 191 member states of the UN to observe its terms. The 2002 International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation has more than 120 signatories. But like the MTCR, it is voluntary and simply calls on countries to show greater restraint in their own development of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction and to reduce their existing missile arsenals if possible.

The UN Security Council in 2004 unanimously adopted Resolution 1540 declaring that the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery were a threat to international peace and security. The resolution was enacted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, making compliance mandatory on all UN member states. Although it was the first time that ballistic missiles and other means of delivering weapons of mass destruction were classed as a threat to international peace and security, the resolution did not mention the MTCR or refer to its guidelines.

Needless to say, North Korea and Iran shun all attempts to limit missile development. They are among some 20 non-MTCR countries that possess the most sensitive missile systems. Over half of these 20 countries have indigenous missile development programs, and the rest are customers who have acquired complete missile systems.

So North Korea's recent launches are a critical test of whether the international community can work together more effectively to prevent, or at least delay, the spread of advanced missile technology. This proliferation is further destabilizing already troubled regions of a world that has so far been unable to agree on binding curbs for missile development.


Michael Richardson, former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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