No Nukes in Northeast Asia

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.

Good Timing

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 provided financial 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 imperatives.

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 in Focus.