Some Intellectual and Practical Meanings of the Idea of Building A Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Northeast Asia

By Samsung Lee, The Catholic University of Korea


In this essay, I intend to address some of the typical and sceptical questions which supporters of the idea of establishing a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Northeast Asia, and ultimately of denuclearizing the world, are often confronted with. The most frequently asked question is: Is it possible at all to achieve such a lofty ideal? Isn't it simply a case of intellectual exercise only in the heads of some visionaries?

Of course, nobody can give definite answers to those sceptics. One thing we can say, however, is that there are two different ways of approaching this matter, and that we need to make a choice between the two, which is both an intellectual and existential decision any serious person has to confront in critical moments of his or her life. One may conclude that the ideal of denuclearizing this region is destined to remain an ideal, and say that it is not the way the real world works. Another way of approaching the matter is to recognize the ability of human communities to build new values and institutons that may restrain the logic of naked power and violence. When we refuse to accept the possibility of change, there will be no hope. When we try to find hope, we will be able to see certain possibilities. When we despair of ourselves, we will never be able to change anything. Only when we retain some optimism in humanity, we will be able to control some aspects of our destiny.

Based on this simple but important choice, I believe that our discussion of a nuke-free zone in Northeast Asia should have a few significant and practical effects, especially with respect to the way we think of peace and security in Asia as well as in the world at large. In the first place, the discourse on denuclearization in a region is by itself a profound intellectual challenge to the dominant perspective on nuclear issues. Contemporary mankind has been constantly refusing to face honestly the state of permanent crisis in which most of the peoples of the world gave up thinking at all of the ever-present danger of nuclear disaster. We have been totally accustomed to the ideology of nuclearism that has been dominating the world since the first atomic blasts in August, 1945. It teaches us that the presence of nuclear weapons is not a human disaster but a divine gift to the mankind. It teaches us that nuclear weapons means to us stability and power, not vulnerability and common insecurity.

The fact that American atomic bombs were successfully developed during the global war against German Nazis and the Japanese militarism gave nuclear weapons a mythical legitimacy, with the ideological consequence that the development, possession and even the use of the atomic bomb could be justified in the name of liberty and humanitarianism. It was presented as a means of ending the bloody war and reducing human casualties. In reality, however, it was a weapon of genocide against tens of thousands of unarmed civilians.

We must also remember that what defeated the German and Japanese militarism during the World War II was not the atomic bomb but the political coalition among the other major powers, especially the United States and the Soviet Union. What mattered ultimately was not military science but good politics.

The campaign for nuclear-free Northeast Asia contributes to reminding the peoples of the region that what keeps peace and security is not going to be good weapons but good politics of building common institution and new values. It teaches us how to change our way of thinking about peace and security to achieve a better and viable common security. This is the most important political significance of our campaign to denuclearize Asia.

Another function of the campaign for denuclearization is to change the present structure of military dependency in East Asia. Even after the end of the Cold War, the principal pillar of security policy in South Korea and Japan is to maintain the system of bilateral military alliance with the United States, in which the nuclear hegemony of the U.S. constitutes the soul of the system. On the Korean Peninsula, the South is instinctively relying on the destructive power of the foreign forces, including, of course, the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. Here the prevailing logic is that to possess stronger force than the North is the most essential principle for security. To mobilize even foreign military forces, those of a strong hegemonic power like the United States, is considered to be one of the indispensable elements of sound national security strategy. The state of mental dependence on the nuclear umbrella of the U.S. was the logical consequence of this line of thinking, among both the policy-makers and the public.

We may call this a dependent nuclearism in weaker countries. Our campaign for a nuke-free East Asia is to challenge the prevalence of that dependent nuclearism in less powerful countries, including South Korea. The domination of dependent nuclearism in South Korea is instrinsically related to the absence of genuine inter-Korean efforts to promote peace and cooperation on the Peninsula. The dependent nuclearism in South Korea was destined to provoke North Korean temptation to develop its own nuclear arsenal.

The Americans withdrew their tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula in early 1990s. Only few people believe, however, that the option of employing the nuclear first stike in certain circumstances was definitely eliminated from the strategic thinking of the military establishments of the United States and of the key power groups of the South Korean society.

The state of dependent nuclearism in East Asian coutries is both the extension and reflection of the nuclearism in the major powers. Our campaign for nuke-free Asia is challenging this situation. In this sense again, it is a practical as well as intellectual challenge.

Another important question which our movement for denuclearization faces frequently is the argument that the only realistic alternative to the inherently unequal system of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to recognize and promote the autonomy of all non-nuclear countries to build their own atomic weapons. This line of thinking is actually widespread and even popular among many peoples of the Third World. In this perspective, the effort to build nuclear weapons by Iran or Iraq, North & South Koreas, India and Pakistan, should be justified. In a sense, this is the worst form of a mistaken Third-World-ism.

When small and medium size powers develop nuclear weapons, however, the practical utiltiy of those weapons is not to restrain the dominating power of the United States or any other major nuclear powers. In a situation where major powers already possess much more advanced and numerous nuclear weapons, a few nuclear warheads developed by small countries can not work as an instrument of balancing power against the major powers. Instead, the real utility of the nukes of small and medium size countries is most likely to be one of threatening and destroying neighboring countries. The recent developments of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan are to the point here. Their nuclear warheads are not primarily intended to promote the political equality with the superpowers. Their principal targets are the peoples and territories of their own relatively weak neighbors.

It is also the case with the Korean Peninsula. In the early 1990s, at a time of the nuclear crisis aroused by the suspicion of the North Korean nuclear weapon development, many critical Koreans supported the idea of 'nuclear sovereignty.' The rationale of nuclear sovereignty was, in its nominal sense, an ideology of defending national self-determination in the area of nuclear policy, against the attempts by major nuclear powers to impose the unequal NPT regime on weaker non-nuclear countries according to a set of fairly questionable, politically biased, selective criteria. However, the practical implication of the nuclear sovereignty ideology was to promote the rights of the two Koreas to kill and destroy each other by the ultimate weapon. It was also inclined to defend South Korean nuclear development as a way of countering potential threat of uncertain nature by Japan in uncertain future. In a word, the primary function of the 'nuclear sovereignty' argument was to promote hatred and self-destruction among the immediate neighboring countries.

I believe that there can be only one kind of genuine sovereignty in so far as the issues of nuclear weapon development are concerned. It is the sovereignty of mankind as a whole over the destructive ideologies of nuclearism propagated by the political power groups of small and large countries alike.

The only viable alternative to the present unequal NPT system is not to build a more dangerous world in which all the nations rush to develop nukes, but to organize better international efforts to control and ultimately eliminate the nuclearism and the nukes themselves of the major powers. The misleading ideology of nuclear sovereignty is both unrealistic and self-destrucive.

Having said this, I would like to turn to a discussion of some problems in the present global state of nuclear management that is dominated by a few great nuclear powers. One problem is concerned with the way the nuclear weapons and materials within the major nuclear nations are controlled (or left out of control). The international society should continue to try to make more democratic the process of decision-making on the nuke issues. First, we need to build a more democratic and participatory regime of controlling the fate of the nuclear weapons and materials of the major nuclear powers, allowing substantial participation of non-nuclear countries into the decision-making process.

In the second place, we need a fairer and more transparent criteria of nuclear inspection against non-nuclear nations, free from arbitrary political biases of the superpowers, especially the United States. As long as the non-nuclear countries continue to be excluded from the process of decision-making on the global nuclear weapon issues, we cannot achieve a sustainable regime of international non-proliferation. A policy of non-proliferation based on coercion and power of great powers, which is not built on a genuine consensus of non-nuclear members, is ultimately destined to fail. The present system of NPT is full of great power centrism, political bias, and self-contradiction of nuclearism. Such a system will continue to promote greed and ambition for nuclear ambitions among the less powerful countries, tribes and resentful groups in various parts of the world. The goal of non-proliferation in such a system is doomed to failure.

Another major related problem is concerned with the various attempts by the United States and its allies in East Asia to justify and build missile defense systems. The U.S.-led planning of a Theatre Missile Defense system in Northeast Asia as a joint venture with Japan in recent years has a very important negative implication in relation to our goal of denuclearizing Northeast Asia. The principal efforts of the major countries in this region must be directed toward building a regime of depending less on missiles and missile-defense systems. The race to build more missile-defense systems by leading powers will lead to more desperate efforts by the targeted countries to build more advanced and more numerous missiles. It guarantees another vicious circle of military spending race in the region. What it promotes is not security but common insecurity.

At a time of serious economic depression, and even a famine in the case of North Korea, the continued effort of the U.S. and the Japanese consent to build the TMD system will contribute to increasing rather than decreasing the instability and the danger of military crisis, not to speak of distorting the priority of resource distribution among all the East Asian countries. Instead, more substantial political and diplomatic efforts must be directed to building a regime of reducing military spending and restraining weapon developments.

One may say that the development in science and technology is largely a natural part of the continuous process of social changes in human history. What mobilizes the opportunities of new technology and science into building means of human self-destruction, however, is a fundamentally political process. Good politics for peace and denuclearization in Northeast Asia must start with a brave and wise decision by the U.S. and Japan to give up the fantasy of building a mini-SDI in this region and stop the plan which is based on a premature and vulnerable technology and a waste of enormous human resources.

With these basic considerations in mind, I would like to address some of the major points regarding the proposal of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in this region. To begin with, I agree with Dr. Hiro Umebayashi that the most critical objective of a Northeast Asia NWFZ is to contribute to preventing a potential competitive escalation of nuclear development among Japan, the ROK, and the DPRK, or between Japan and a reunified Korea. The three parties, i.e., Japan and the two Koreas, are presently declared non-nuclear countries. This will be able to serve as the most basic foundation for establishing an early form of the NWFZ in Northeast Asia. At the end of 1991, the two Koreas agreed to a declaration of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, which was precipitated by the American announcement to withdwaw tactical nuclear weapons from the Peninsula. Given that Japan is committed to maintaining its non-nuclear status by constitution, the natural starting point for a NWFZ in this region is to establish "a Trilateral Treaty among Japan, ROK and DPRK with negative security assurances (NASs) by surrounding nuclear weapon states, namely the United States, China and Russia," as Dr. Umebayashi suggested in May 1996.

I support the proposal of Dr. Umebayashi. The idea of NWFZs is to establish an island of trust on a sea of distrust and insecurity. The island is inherently vulnerable to impacts initiated by any one of the nuclear weapon states outside of the island. However, the island will serve as the starting point to build a mode of peace and security relying not on arms race but on trust. That will provide a great learning process to the three state parties who have ample grounds for distrust and hatred because of the past brutal histories.

The proposal starts from the concept, with which I am in total agreement, that the initiative to protect Northeast Asia from potential nuclear disaster should come from the internal efforts of the three non-nuclear countries. Especially given the widespread distrust between the Koreans and the Japanese of deep historical roots and also the limited but significant popularity of the mistaken idea of nuclear sovereignty in small countries, including Korea, it is essential to build confidence among the three parties first. Unless the peoples of this region liberate themselves from all kinds of petty nuclearism, there should be no way we can control the big nuclearisms of major powers.

We should be aware, however, of some cynicism that may impede possible efforts to achieve such a trilateral treaty for denuclearization Many believe that what prevented the nuclear weapon development by Japan and South Korea in the last decades has been the military alliance led by the United States. This leads to the conclusion that as long as the U.S. remains allied with both countries of South Korea and Japan, there is no ground to worry about nuclear arms race between the two countries, and therefore no need for any arrangement of a non-nuclear weapon treaty. Then the immediate need for such a trilateral arrangement among Japan and the two Koreas in this region may come from the military confrontation between North Korea and South Korea/Japan. However, in a situation where North Korea is also contained by the NPT and its agreement with the United States of 1994 from developing nuclear weapons, one may question the practical significance of any trilateral treaty against nuclear weapons among Japan and the two Koreas. Then, the natural question is what the use of the trilateral non-nuclear zone treaty among the three parties is going to be, except the symbolic value it may have as a commitment to peaceful coexistence between Korea and Japan despite the remaining historical enmity?

This scepticism may lead us to raise the question of whether an agreement on NWFZ can establish any framework of substance guaranteeing that the existing nuclear powers will not use the ultimate weapon against any one of the three non-nuclear countries. In this context, one may ask what the Negative Security Assurances by the nuclear powers (the United States, China and Russia) may mean practically. The Americans have been explaining the Negative Security Assurance, in the context of the Korean Peninsula, as a promise not to use nuclear weapon unless the North Koreans initiates aggression. In other words, it may mean that even in case of a conventional military conflict on the Korean Peninsula the Americans may justify use of nuclear weapon if they conclude that the North Koreans are responsible for the outbreak of the conflict. The American government is intending to retain the nuclear first-strike under any circumstances. In this way, the negative security assurance and the nuclear first strike option can be compatible in the strategic thinking of the nuclear powers. Given that they still possess a large stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, in practical terms, the Negative Security Assurance may sound hollow to certain parties, especially the North Koreans.

This scepticism is inevitable from the fundamental contradiction that building a nuclear free zone is an attempt to control the use of nuclear weapon in a limited area in a situation where major powers continue to retain large stockpiles of nuclear warheads and are practically free to use them when they find it to be in their national interest to do that.

Nevertheless, I believe that a small step may lead to a significant change especially by changing the way we think of security and peace in our region. We can not overcome overnight the fundamental limitation of the Negative Security Assurances which the major nuclear powers are willing to pay abundant lip-service to. Only when we successfully build a regime of trust and non-nuclear security among the three parties in this region, we will contribute to the ideal of transforming the Negative Security Assurance by the nuclear powers into a system of Postive Security Assurance, in which a possession of weapons of massive destruction by any country is sanctioned by joint international effort.

A leading role by the three non-nuclear parties in constructing a framework of non-nuclear peace will give us an unprecedented opportunity to construct a non-nuclear alliance in Northeast Asia. This unique alliance of non-nuclear countries may in turn work as a starting-point to build a system of common security that controls both the bestial impulses to go nuclear within the three parties and the persistent infatuation of the major nuclear powers with the logic of nuclear deterrence.


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