Peter Hayes and Michael Hamel-Green: The Path Not Taken, The Way Still Open: Denuclearizing The Korean Peninsula And Northeast Asia

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Peter Hayes is Professor of International Relations, RMIT University, Melbourne; and Director, Nautilus Institute, San Francisco, email Michael Hamel-Green is Dean of and Professor in the Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development, Victoria University, Melbourne, email] Introduction

The international community is increasingly aware that cooperative diplomacy is the most productive way to tackle the multiple, interconnected global challenges facing humanity, not least of which is the increasing proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Korea and Northeast Asia are instances where risks of nuclear proliferation and actual nuclear use arguably have increased in recent years. This negative trend is a product of continued US nuclear threat projection against the DPRK as part of a general program of coercive diplomacy in this region, North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the breakdown in the Chinese-hosted Six Party Talks towards the end of the Bush Administration, regional concerns over China’s increasing military power, and concerns within some quarters in regional states (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) about whether US extended deterrence (“nuclear umbrella”) afforded under bilateral security treaties can be relied upon for protection.

The consequences of failing to address the proliferation threat posed by the North Korea developments, and related political and economic issues, are serious, not only for the Northeast Asian region but for the whole international community.

At worst, there is the possibility of nuclear attack1, whether by intention, miscalculation, or merely accident, leading to the resumption of Korean War hostilities. On the Korean Peninsula itself, key population centres are well within short or medium range missiles. The whole of Japan is likely to come within North Korean missile range. Pyongyang has a population of over 2 million, Seoul (close to the North Korean border) 11 million, and Tokyo over 20 million. Even a limited nuclear exchange would result in a holocaust of unprecedented proportions.

But the catastrophe within the region would not be the only outcome. New research indicates that even a limited nuclear war in the region would rearrange our global climate far more quickly than global warming. Westberg draws attention to new studies modelling the effects of even a limited nuclear exchange involving approximately 100 Hiroshima-sized 15 kt bombs2 (by comparison it should be noted that the United States currently deploys warheads in the range 100 to 477 kt, that is, individual warheads equivalent in yield to a range of 6 to 32 Hiroshimas).The studies indicate that the soot from the fires produced would lead to a decrease in global temperature by 1.25 degrees Celsius for a period of 6-8 years.3 In Westberg’s view:

That is not global winter, but the nuclear darkness will cause a deeper drop in temperature than at any time during the last 1000 years. The temperature over the continents would decrease substantially more than the global average. A decrease in rainfall over the continents would also follow…The period of nuclear darkness will cause much greater decrease in grain production than 5% and it will continue for many years...hundreds of millions of people will die from hunger…To make matters even worse, such amounts of smoke injected into the stratosphere would cause a huge reduction in the Earth’s protective ozone.4

These, of course, are not the only consequences. Reactors might also be targeted, causing further mayhem and downwind radiation effects, superimposed on a smoking, radiating ruin left by nuclear next-use. Millions of refugees would flee the affected regions.   The direct impacts, and the follow-on impacts on the global economy via ecological and food insecurity, could make the present global financial crisis pale by comparison.  How the great powers, especially the nuclear weapons states respond to such a crisis, and in particular, whether nuclear weapons are used in response to nuclear first-use, could make or break the global non proliferation and disarmament regimes.  There could be many unanticipated impacts on regional and global security relationships5, with subsequent nuclear breakout and geopolitical turbulence, including possible loss-of-control over fissile material or warheads in the chaos of nuclear war, and aftermath chain-reaction affects involving other potential proliferant states. The Korean nuclear proliferation issue is not just a regional threat but a global one that warrants priority consideration from the international community.

North Korea is currently believed to have sufficient plutonium stocks to produce up to 12 nuclear weapons.6 If and when it is successful in implementing a uranium enrichment program - having announced publicly that it is experimenting with enrichment technology on September 4, 20097 in a communication with the UN Security Council - it would likely acquire the capacity to produce over 100 such weapons. Although some may dismiss Korean Peninsula proliferation risks on the assumption that the North Korean regime will implode as a result of its own economic problems, food problems, and treatment of its own populace, there is little to suggest that this is imminent. If this were to happen, there would be the risk of nuclear weapons falling into hands of non-state actors in the disorder and chaos that would ensue. Even without the outbreak of nuclear hostilities on the Korean Peninsula in either the near or longer term, North Korea has every financial incentive under current economic sanctions and the needs of its military command economy to export its nuclear and missile technologies to other states. Indeed, it has already been doing this for some time. The Proliferation Security Initiative may conceivably prove effective in intercepting ship-borne nuclear exports, but it is by no means clear how air-transported materials could similarly be intercepted.

Given the high stakes involved, North Korean proliferation, if unaddressed and unreversed, has the potential to destabilize the whole East Asian region and beyond. Even if a nuclear exchange does not occur in the short term, the acute sense of nuclear threat that has been experienced for over five decades by North Koreans as a result of US strategic deterrence is now likely to be keenly felt by fellow Koreans south of the 38th Parallel and Japanese across the waters of the Sea of Japan. China, too, must surely feel itself to be at risk from North Korean nuclear weapons, or from escalation that might ensue from next-use in the Korean Peninsula resulting not only in the environmental consequences noted above, but in regime collapse and massive refugee flows.  South Korea and Japan appear willing to rely on their respective bilateral security pacts with the United States to deter North Korean nuclear attack for the time being.  However, should South Korea and/or Japan acquire nuclear weapons, the outcome would be destabilizing, especially if this resulted from rupture of their alliance relationships with the United States.   Both have the technical capability to do so very rapidly. South Korea has previously engaged in nuclear weapons research but desisted after US pressure. Japan still proclaims its adherence to the three Non-Nuclear Principles although recent confirmation that the United States routinely transited nuclear weapons through Japan and retains the right of emergency reintroduction of nuclear weapons has tarnished Japan’s non-nuclear image.  Moreover, it has large stockpiles of plutonium that could rapidly be used to produce nuclear warheads. Such responses, already advocated by conservative and nationalist groups within South Korea and Japan, could trigger a regional nuclear arms race involving the Koreas, Japan, Taiwan, and China, with incalculable wider consequences for Southeast Asia, South Asia and the whole Pacific and beyond. These developments would spell the demise of the current global non-proliferation regime as underpinned by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Failure to reverse the DPRK’s nuclear breakout is also an important factor driving a general malaise in the exercise of American power which one of the authors has characterized elsewhere as “the end of American nuclear hegemony.”8

The advent of the Obama Administration in Washington, and the new Hatoyama Government in Japan, both with declaratory policies of pursuing progress towards nuclear disarmament and placing greater emphasis on diplomatic approaches to regional issues, might open a new window of opportunity for addressing Korean and Northeast Asian nuclear and security dilemmas, including consideration of new approaches to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and the wider Northeast region (Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan and Mongolia).

In the above context, this paper examines the applicability of nuclear weapon free zones to the Korean Peninsula. Such zones represent a form of state-based cooperation that aims to denuclearize a geographic area.9

We note at the outset that the logic of a NWFZ requires major policy shifts by all the parties.  As one reviewer of this paper wrote:

The US needs to jettison extended deterrence and nuclear missions of the Pacific Command.  South Korea and Japan need to accept extended non-nuclear deterrence and reject the nuclear option.  North Korea needs to forego its only bargaining chip and minimum deterrent to US attack.  And China, depending on how much of it is included in the zone, will likewise need to make exceptional sacrifices.  Particularly important will be the domestic political obstacles to acceptance of a zone in place of weapons and nuclear protection—the bureaucratic, military service, and other institutional interests that are wedded to nukes.

Obviously, these are severe limiting conditions that unless overcome, would make it difficult to create a full-fledged NWFZ in Northeast Asia or even in the Korean Peninsula.  However, we argue below that a zone delimited to only the Peninsula can avoid many of these limitations, and over time, the other obstacles can be worn down and eventually overcome.

[The rest of the article can be found by following the link to the Asia-Pacific Journal]

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