Terence O'Brien: Delving for nuclear disarmament
OPINION: This year marks 30 years since New Zealand declared itself to be, by law, a non-nuclear country. It marks too the 21st anniversary of the World Court finding sought by New Zealand (with others) which concluded unanimously that there exists an obligation within the international community to pursue, and conclude in good faith, negotiations on nuclear weapon disarmament in all its aspects.
These landmarks help shape a New Zealand identity in international affairs, although New Zealand ministers speak rarely now in public about the non-nuclear policy; and it features sparsely in official literature about this country's foreign or defence policy.
As a fast follower rather than a lead actor NZ strives, however, inside the United Nations with a relatively small group of like-minded, to keep the banner of nuclear disarmament aloft.
Closer to home New Zealand plays a constructive hand within the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) on non-proliferation. Yet even while a United States president in 2009 eulogised "a world without nuclear weapons" that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, all progress inside the UN system on nuclear disarmament is deliberately and persistently resisted by the nuclear weapon states (NWS) – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – as well as other owners – India, Pakistan and Israel.
Decades-long stalemate cried out therefore for a different approach. In 2016 a decision sponsored by New Zealand and more than 120 others bestowed directly upon the UN General Assembly (UNGA) itself the task of elaborating concrete legal measures, provisions and norms that are required for a binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Negotiations proper will begin on June 15.
Severe corridor pressure from the NWS to derail this initiative signals their concern that the symbolic worth of an eventual UN disarmament text, negotiated by a substantial UN majority, is not to be underrated. It is ironic that with the ominous spectre of a resumed nuclear arms race now beckoning , the NWS adamantly state that the time is not right for disarmament negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons.. They will not participate. The new American UN ambassador, alongside British and French representatives, deplores the initiative as unrealistic, given North Korea's (DPRK) persistent destabilising nuclear behaviour.
Yet the pattern of Western response to DPRK nuclear and missile tests that are then countered by sanctions, followed by more tests and yet more sanctions, is plainly not working. The DPRK's ability to evade sanctions for more than half a century is notorious – beginning before ever it acquired nuclear capability. Defiant DPRK actions like missile launches become commonplace in response to perennial large scale US military exercising on the Korean peninsula.
Regime survival remains the supreme goal of the DPRK leadership. Its tendentious conviction is that nuclear weapon ownership is indispensable to secure that goal; while the actual potency of its present arsenal might remain open, it is a master of public brinkmanship.
New Zealand has considerable interest in a stable, prosperous North East Asia, although its influence is negligible. New Zealand has a record of involvement in the Korean war (1950-53); a continued presence on the Armistice Commission that supervises the Korean demilitarised zone in the absence of a long overdue peace treaty; as well as contributing to the so called 1994 Agreed Framework through financial support for KEDO, a scheme linking guarantees of energy supply to the DPRK to curbs on its nuclear armament potential.
For the United States that agreement was a non-proliferation bargain; for DPRK it was a regime survival bargain as it would have "normalised" a sovereign diplomatic relationship with the US. A "sunshine policy" propelled by South Korean leadership to improve relations with the north coincided with the Framework Agreement. Another dose of sunshine would serve well now.
The framework fell over in 2002 because of infractions on both sides. President G.W. Bush buried it. In 2003 the DPRK formally renounced membership of the 1970 UN Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A standoff ensued and additional efforts to find compromise failed. All these years later we now confront a DPRK acquiring nuclear capability which it is unlikely to surrender.
President Donald Trump asserts the DPRK nuclear capability will be 'taken care of" and that China has a special responsibility to curb DPRK. If that does not occur the US will act alone "with allies". China itself reproaches the DPRK's nuclear ambition. It has long urged the US to take the lead to directly engage Pyongyang without robust coercive preconditions. It warns ominously now against any military action on its doorstep; and strongly opposes the US's intention to install a new high-altitude missile defence system on the peninsula.
The idea that the present dangerous predicament can or must be settled by unilateral force of American arms is daunting.
New Zealand interests and its role in non proliferation and disarmament, and its bedrock commitment to an international rules system with power of authorisation of military action, point to resolute support for a political settlement that trades regime survival along with diplomatic engagement – for a nuclear freeze and eventual denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. That last would involve equivalent restraints upon the DPRK, the US and China.
A readiness to negotiate without preconditions the long-overdue Korean War peace treaty could be the start.
Terence OBrien is a Centre for Strategic Studies NZ Senior Fellow.
- The Dominion Post