Efforts to address the North Korean nuclear crisis
have followed a "one step forward, two steps back" pattern. Despite 15 years
of threats, negotiations, and occasional breakthroughs, what began with fears
of a nuclear weapons research program progressed to an actual test explosion
and has reached the point where North Korean officials now
claim to have weaponized enough plutonium for five or six bombs. Failure
to resolve the crisis has helped drive up military spending in and out of the
region, making resolution only more remote.
This approach to North Korea's nuclear program is clearly lacking. One alternative,
successful in other parts of the world, is a nuclear-weapons-free zone. It
is time to try this tack in Northeast Asia.
Zeroing in on Northeast Asia
A nuclear-weapons-free zone is established by
a treaty in which the zone countries make a commitment neither to produce nor
possess nuclear weapons. By means of protocols, nuclear states in turn provide
legally binding "negative security assurances" in which they forswear the use,
or threat of use, of nuclear weapons within the zone. Such treaties have been
concluded in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast
Asia, and elsewhere.
Various proposals have been advanced for a Northeast Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free
Zone. One proposal, which has circulated
in unofficial diplomatic circles for more than a decade, would cover tactical
nuclear weapons only, and would moreover impose controls rather than an outright
ban. Geographically, this zone would extend to parts of China, Taiwan, Mongolia,
Russia, and the United States. Another
proposal [.pdf] would ban all forms of nuclear weapons but restrict the
zone to the Koreas and Japan. It's also possible to imagine the implementation
of the zone in stages that apply to a larger area and to more categories of
nuclear weapons as confidence-building mechanisms take hold.
For the purpose of advancing the current negotiations with North Korea and
addressing the military spending issue, let's start with a zone that is comprehensive
but restricted to the two Koreas and Japan. Such zones aren't at all easy to
establish, and the concept faces special challenges in Northeast Asia. One
of the countries involved has already nuclearized, and the other two, South
Korea and Japan, possess the technical capacity to do so. The long history
of armed conflict involving these countries and the nuclear states of China,
Russia, and the United States has left a residue of bitterness. A nuclear-free
zone in Northeast Asia would represent an especially big change for the United
States and Japan. Their relationship has long been based on the U.S. provision
of a "nuclear umbrella" to Japan in exchange for cooperation with U.S. efforts
to maintain military dominance in East Asia. No matter the dubious value of
this exchange, it's difficult to abandon long-held patterns when they are connected
to perceived vital interests. To make matters worse, the electoral success
of politicians in both countries depends on the maintenance of a threat environment.
Those same long-standing tensions, however, argue for such a zone. Both Koreas
worry about Japan's potential to become a nuclear state, a potential driven
in part by Japan's anxiety over China. If North Korea's possession of nuclear
weapons is frightening, a nuclear arms race between Japan and China is doubly
so. A nuclear-weapons-free zone that includes Japan – and in which China provides
negative security assurances – would avoid that prospect.
But the most important reason to try this new approach is North Korea. Pyongyang
might accelerate its own denuclearization if provided with assurances that
neither Seoul nor Tokyo would embark on nuclear programs or host the nuclear
weapons of other countries – with the proviso that North Korea must first return
to the Nonproliferation Treaty. Nothing gives insecure countries like North
Korea a greater incentive to pursue nuclear weapons than fear of the nuclear
arsenals, potential or actual, of their adversaries.
In spite of North Korea's recent saber-rattling
and the possibility of leadership instability, now is a good time to move forward.
The U.S. government showed
[.pdf] signs of turning toward multilateralism even before the Obama administration
began to speak of "soft power." The economic crisis should put a premium on
finding solutions not requiring massive military expenditures. In Japan, which
might hold the key to achieving
any regional security mechanism, political change may be in the offing with
the Democratic Party positioned
to unseat the long-serving Liberal Democratic Party. Already, Tokyo has
support for negotiations toward the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone
that came into force in December, providing further momentum.
To proceed, U.S. policymakers must first take a nuclear-weapons-free zone
seriously. Yet such a proposal rarely comes up in the foreign policy literature.
Until now, Washington has seen such zones as a problem, not a potential solution.
It has ratified only the Latin American and Caribbean Nuclear-Weapons-Free
Zone's non-use protocol (and even in that case insisted
on its right to employ nuclear weapons against a treaty party under certain
circumstances). Such hedges do nothing to enhance U.S. security and reveal
a mindset that is out of keeping with today's arms control and non-proliferation
Though the United States cannot initiate the process for creation of a zone
that includes only the two Koreas and Japan – that's the role of the states
within the zone – we can do much to smooth the way. First, we should sign and
ratify non-use protocols to the South Pacific and Africa treaties, without
issuing "understandings" that weaken our commitment. With the United States
finally on board, the concept of such zones will have enhanced legitimacy.
Second, the United States should privately inform South Korea and Japan that
it welcomes efforts toward creating such a zone in Northeast Asia.
Freezing and reducing military
spending on the part of all countries involved could also send a message
to North Korea that it no longer needs a nuclear program to compensate for
its disadvantages in the field of conventional weaponry. A nuclear-weapons-free-zone
and a freeze/reduction in military spending complement one another and could
stimulate progress in the Six-Party Talks as well. Still, the interdependencies
of Northeast Asian security mean that narrowly focused efforts like the six-party
negotiations are unlikely by themselves to achieve success in the long run.
Only a more dramatic shift in the security architecture in Northeast Asia will
hasten North Korea's denuclearization and bring greater security for
all countries in the region.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy