Toward a Nuclear Free and Peaceful Korea and Northeast Asia: Being on the Right Side of History
Paper by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, former Foreign Minister of Australia and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, for 4th Kim Dae-jung Peace Conference, Seoul, 10 December 2014
There is no Asian statesman that I, and most of the international community, have held in higher regard than the late President Kim Dae-jung. There could be no more better way of continuing to honour his legacy than convening this high-level conference series. And there could be no more appropriate topic to discuss than what needs to be done now to achieve a nuclear-free and peaceful Korean peninsula and wider North East Asian region.
Most national leaders are quickly forgotten, and rightly so, because most leave no lasting, significant mark on their country, their region or the wider world. Those who are not forgotten – who are remembered for decades, for generations – are of two basic kinds: those who are on the right side of history and those who are not. The divide is between those who make the right calls at critical, pivotal moments in national or world history, the Lincolns, Gorbachevs and Mandelas – and those who don’t, the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos and Milosevics; between the nation builders and the nation wreckers; between the human rights champions and the human rights destroyers; and between those who work to realise the full potential of every member of society and those who crush that potential.
President Kim Dae-jung was one of those unequivocally on the right side of history throughout his long public life: in opposition to Park Chung-hee (and at imminent risk of assassination by his agents); in opposition to Chun Doo-hwan (and under actual sentence of death by his courts); as a fearless supporter of democracy throughout three unsuccessful presidential election campaigns and a fourth triumphant one; and as a real implementer of democracy, of social and economic reform and development, and of political reconciliation with his former persecutors, during his five years in the Blue House. Above all he was on the right side of history as a visionary for peace, in his efforts to achieve a united and peaceful Korea coexisting productively and harmoniously with its North East Asian neighbours – for which he was, along with his democracy achievements, awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
The questions I want to address with you now are what does it mean now to be on the right side of history in North East Asia generally, and on the Korean Peninsula in particular? What are the steps that can and should be taken by our present generation of political leaders that will have future generations thinking of them, as do now of Kim Dae-jung, as true visionaries for peace, of builders not wreckers, of affirmers not oppressors of human dignity, of savers rather than destroyers of human life? Will future generations think on the right side of history those who believe that populist, nationalist drum-beating will serve them and their countries as well as a genuine commitment to cooperative security policymaking? Will history count more on the side of the angels those who seek to acquire or retain nuclear weapons, perhaps genuinely believing they are of real deterrent utility, or those who seek to eliminate them from world’s arsenals once and for all?
Let me talk about these issues under three headings: first, the need for a cooperative security approach to the general geopolitics of North East Asia; second, the need to get serious once and for all about nuclear disarmament, and to rid ourselves of the illusion that nuclear weapons buy anyone real security; and third, the need to achieve a nuclear free and sustainably peaceful Korean Peninsula.
The Need for Cooperative Security. The idea of cooperative security has been round for a long time, but it’s one of which we constantly need to remind ourselves, because it is the only rational and defensible way of conducting international relations in the contemporary world. It embraces a number distinct elements: the idea of collective security, inherent in the UN Charter itself, whereby member states renounce the use of force among themselves but are prepared to come collectively to the aid of any one of them attacked; the idea of common security, first articulated by the Palme Commission, that security is best achieved with others, rather than against them; and the idea of comprehensive security, that security in the modern age is multidimensional, and there are an ever-growing number of non-traditional, transnational threats to both state and human security – like terrorism, climate change, unregulated population flows and health pandemics – that depend on cooperative solutions because they are beyond the capacity of any one state, however big and powerful, to solve for itself.
What cooperative security demands in practice are mind-sets that emphasise consultation rather than confrontation, reassurance more than deterrence, transparency more than secrecy, prevention more than reaction, and interdependence rather than unilateralism. Translated into a North East Asian context, what this means for the various key players is something a little different from the messages that each of them have habitually put out. Getting on the right side of history will require each to do more – and some more than others.
For China, it means more consistent language like that the message elegantly articulated by President Xi Jinping in Australia recently –and behaviour in practice that is more consistent with that language. Xi told the Australian Parliament that he understood that China was seen as the “big guy in the crowd” and that others “may be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way or even take up their place”: he argued that, on the contrary, what China needed most was both a stable domestic and peaceful international environment, that turbulence or war was utterly against its fundamental interests, that it was committed to peacefully addressing territorial and other disputes through dialogue and consultation, and that it wanted win-win progress with all its neighbours.
All fine words, but what President Xi did not explain was how these objectives would be served – to take one key benchmark issue – by China continuing to insist on roughly 80 per cent of the South China Sea being its own “historic waters”, continuing to resist articulating its claims in any way that make sense under the Law of the Sea Convention, and being utterly unwilling to have competing claims adjudicated in any court of international law. If a state wants to be seen as having a genuine commitment to a rules-based international order, it has to consistently act that way.
For the United States, being on the right side of history means, above all, psychologically adjusting itself to the reality that it is no longer the world’s sole superpower, and recognizing that it really does need to give some strategic space to China through mutually accommodating cooperation. The best expression I have ever heard of the mindset required, was a comment I heard former President Bill Clinton make at a private function in Los Angeles in 2002:
The U.S. has two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.
More of that kind of rhetoric in public, with actions to match, rather than the assertions of continued US global and regional leadership, and determination to maintain absolute military dominance, which constantly flow out of Washington – would help a great deal in avoiding the US-China relationship ending in tears, as so many still fear it inevitably will.
For Russia, one can recognize all the sense of national humiliation in the immediate post-Cold War years which Vladimir Putin has been so adept at harvesting, and lament that the West was too triumphalist and insufficiently farsighted in those years in not building, as it should have, a new common security regime embracing rather than excluding Russia. But none of that begins to excuse Moscow throwing its weight around as it has in Ukraine, in defiance of every principle of a rule-based international order. One can only hope that economic pressure from falling oil prices and the eventual impact sanctions will bring it back to its senses, and that Russia will recognize that its interests – to its east and south as well as to its west – are better advanced by cooperation than confrontation.
For both Japan and South Korea, being on the right side of history means, for a start, escaping once and for all being prisoners of your history. Japan should long ago have put behind it, as has Germany, any suggestion that it is other than completely apologetic for its war of aggression in Asia and the atrocities that were then committed, but periodic side-stepping or backsliding, including leadership visits to the Yasukuni shrine, keep the issue unhappily alive, with Korea as with China. The Korean comfort women issue should long since have been resolved with Yohei Kono’s gracious apology in 1993, but both sides keep scratching away at that scab. The periodically flaring dispute over ownership of the Dokdo/Takeshima islets and their surrounding waters should long ago have been resolved by legal adjudication or joint development negotiation, but it continues to stand in the way of South Korea and Japan having the fully developed alliance relationship they should.
For South Korea and Japan to be on the right side of history in the context of North East Asia security issues generally, and not just in their relations with each other, means I believe developing a degree of healthy independence, and not becoming totally caught up in the US-China power plays which will clearly be the main geostrategic dynamic in the period ahead. That does not for a moment mean relinquishing the alliance relationships with the US, which have been a strongly stabilizing factor in the region, but it does mean making considered, not reflex, judgments about issues as they arise, and working hard to develop deep and multi-layered engagement, both economic and political, with both sides.
It is perfectly appropriate for each country to build the defence capability it needs to be able to deal itself, to the maximum extent possible, with any security threat that may arise, and Japan’s moves under Prime Minister Abe to free itself of some constitutional restrictions in this respect should be understood in that light. But should either Japan or South Korea seek to acquire military capability that is manifestly destabilizing, or creates much higher risks than any possible rewards – as would certainly be the case if either went nuclear, and I will come back to this issue – then they would very definitely be on the wrong side of history.
As to what North Korea needs to do put itself on the right side of history, there will be many who would no doubt think that for Pyongyang to embrace the kind of cooperative security approach I have been describing, much more than a change of mindset is required: more likely what is needed is a complete brain transplant! But that said, we have no option but to keep trying to drag North Korea back into the community of civilised and responsible nations, and I will return later to the whole question of the future of the Korean peninsula.
For nearly all the other players I have mentioned there have been a number of encouraging signs that a cooperative security approach is gaining some traction. The joint announcement by Presidents Obama and Xi, in the margins of the November APEC summit on Beijing, on targets for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, which was then leveraged into a G20 commitment a week later, is a breakthrough that will transform the dynamics of the whole global climate debate. Hopefully this will be a prelude to more thaws in other areas, building on the significant amount of senior-level strategic dialogue between US and China which has in fact been occurring, largely behind the scenes, in recent years.
At the same APEC summit we saw China and Japan take an important step toward rapprochement, or at least defusing some of the acute tension which had been building up over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and other longstanding issues. As to China’s relations with South Korea, as you will know better than me, these have been rapidly intensifying economically and are currently better politically than they have been for a long time – following the Xi visit here in July, before he visited the North.
As to the remaining key bilateral relationship in this region, between South Korea and Japan, one of the enduring frustrations of your friends is that it is not nearly as close and cooperative as it could and should be. Of course you both have to tiptoe around strongly held nationalist sentiments on the history issues I have mentioned. But it should be clear that the benefits of a full and comprehensive rapprochement would outweigh any possible risks, contribute significantly to the general stability of the region, be helpful in addressing the ongoing North Korean issue and certainly help to advance specific regional projects like President Park Gyeun-hye’s proposed Asian EURATOM organization to address civil nuclear energy issues. There have been some small signs in recent months that both sides are willing to work toward that, with next year’s 50th anniversary of the establishment of South Korea-Japan relations, but a more sustained and substantial effort in this respect would be very welcome.
The Need to Get Serious About a Nuclear Weapons Free World.
There is no single issue about which it is more important to apply the cooperative security approach I have been describing than nuclear arms control. Whatever the nature and intensity of unresolved tensions may prove to be between various major players in North East Asia, it is impossible to believe that greater emphasis on nuclear weapons will improve the situation for anyone. But old habits of thought about nuclear weapons, and nuclear deterrence in particular, die very hard in this region. To be on the right side of history is not be stuck, as a great many policymakers in this region seem to be, in a Cold War time-warp, but to recognize that whatever conceivable stabilizing role nuclear weapons may have played in the past, that time is now over.
The arguments against nuclear weapons start with their human and environmental impact. They are, simply, the most indiscriminately inhumane weapon ever invented, and any use of them in any circumstances is a morally indefensible challenge to our common humanity. And they do constitute a threat to life on this planet. Even a relatively small-scale regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan – a perfectly imaginable scenario given the continuing volatility of that relationship – has been calculated as likely to cause one billion or more deaths worldwide because of the nuclear winter effect.
But of course the hard-headed policymakers know all that. And some of them go so far as to say the awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent. What they need to be persuaded about are the strategic arguments against nuclear weapons: that in fact they are at best of minimal, and at worst of zero, utilityin maintaining stable peace. And that keeping nuclear stockpiles – even if you don’t ever intend to use them except by way of retaliation if attacked – is not in fact a risk-free enterprise. They have to be persuaded that the benefits of nuclear weapons are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved. The good news for those who care about our children’s and our planet’s survival, is that there are plenty of good, persuasive arguments to make. They just have to be drummed into the heads of our policymakers.
Let me begin with the risks. Even if there is only a negligible likelihood that nuclear weapons will ever be deliberately and cold-bloodedly used as weapons of attack, no one should think for a moment that there is no risk associated with their possession. So long as any are retained by anyone, the risk really is acutely real of stumbling into a nuclear exchange through accident, miscalculation, system error, or sabotage, and any such exchange would be potentially catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it. Whatever the utility of nuclear deterrence might be thought to be, it has always been an extremely fragile basis for maintaining stable peace.
There is, and always has been, a major risk not only of human error or misjudgement under stress, but of miscommunication (the risks here now compounded by the sophistication of cyber weapons) and of basic system error, with harmless events being read as threatening (as, e.g. in 1995 with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin advised that he should immediately retaliate against an incoming NATO missile, which proved to be a Norwegian scientific rocket launch).
Much archival evidence of the Cold War years – when command and control systems on both sides were thought to be highly sophisticated, and were more so than are some between potential nuclear adversaries today – has now revealed how close to calamity the world regularly came, much more so than was understood at the time. It is not a matter of good policy or good management that the world has avoided a nuclear weapons catastrophe for nearly seventy years: it is sheer dumb luck. These risks are dramatically compounded when nuclear armed states maintain nuclear weapons on dangerously high “launch-on-warning” alert status – as is still the case, more than two decades years after the end of the Cold War, for some 1,800 weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals.
Moreover, new technical developments may make old calculations redundant. There is a risk, in particular, that new generation long-range conventional attack weapons, and missile defence systems – of the kind that the US seems determined to develop, and which are genuinely troubling policymakers in Russia and China – will be so sophisticated and powerful as to create real doubts in states’ minds about the survivability of their retaliatory, second-strike capability. In an extreme crisis situation this could encourage such states to strike first; and at the very least is likely to encourage them to expand their nuclear armouries, with all the potential that has for setting off new nuclear arms races.
Given the scale of these risks, what is the force of the arguments for nuclear weapons that so many policymakers seem to be persuaded by? The answer is: not very great. None of the main arguments in favour of the utility of nuclear deterrence have, on closer examination, anything like the force they usually seen to possess.
The first and most common argument is that nuclear weapons have deterred, and will continue to deter, war between the major powers – that the balance of nuclear terror between the U.S. and the Soviet Union maintained peace throughout the Cold War, and has done so since between other potential pairs of belligerents, including India and Pakistan, India and China, and China and the U.S.
While nuclear weapons on the other side have always constituted a formidable argument for caution – and fear of their possible use was obviously crucial, for example, in securing the back-downs on both sides that ended the Cuban missile crisis – their impact has been much exaggerated. Certainly, there is simply no evidence that at any stage during the Cold War years either the Soviet Union or the U.S. ever wanted to cold-bloodedly initiate war, and were only constrained from doing so by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons.
We know that knowledge of the existence on the other side of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war in the past between major powers. Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and killing of civilians caused leaders in the past to back down – including after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the historical evidence is now very strong that it was not the nuclear attacks which were the key factor in driving Japan to sue for peace, but the Soviet declaration of war later that same week. Although the context there was different – terminating an existing war rather than deterring a new one – the point remains that concern about being on the receiving end of the extreme destructive power of nuclear weapons may not be, in itself, nearly as decisive for decision-makers as usually presumed. Other explanations may be more important.
A plausible non-nuclear explanation for the “Long Peace” since 1945 is that what has stopped – and will continue to stop – the great powers from deliberately starting wars each other is, more than anything else, a realization, after the experience of World War II and in the light of all the rapid technological advances that followed it, that the damage that would be inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweighing, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.
A second familiar argument for the strategic utility of nuclear weapons is that they will deter large-scale conventional attacks. But there is a long list of examples where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: e.g. the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars. The calculation evidently made in each case was that a nuclear response would be inhibited by the prevailing taboo on the use of such weapons (on which more below), at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state was not at stake.
Of course some smaller states, and North Korea is the most obvious example, do seem to think that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention. But that confidence is not well-founded. Weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons that are not backed by the infrastructure (e.g. missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack. In the case of North Korea, its strongest military deterrent remains what it has always been: its capacity to mount a devastating conventional artillery attack on Seoul and its environs.
We are hearing again now plenty of the old argument from pro-nuclear weapons advocates saying that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is now if it had not given up its nuclear weapons in 1994 on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But Vladimir Putin knows that if he drives his tanks into Donetsk or even further west, a nuclear-armed Kiev would be no more likely to mount a nuclear strike against it than Washington would. The evidence of history strongly suggests that nuclear weapons simply do not act as stabilizing tools in the real world: simply because the risks associated with their deliberate use are so high, they just do not act as a deterrent to the kind of adventurism we are now seeing in Ukraine. The one thing that Ukrainian nuclear weapons would have added to today’s mix is another huge layer of potential hazard: from all the risks of system error and human error – miscalculation, misjudgement, mistake – that are associated with the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone, a point I will come back to.
There are also cases where the presence on both sides of nuclear weapons, rather than operating as a constraining factor, has been seen as giving one side the opportunity to launch small military actions without serious fear of nuclear reprisal (because, again, of the extraordinarily high stakes involved in such a response): as with Pakistan in Kargil in 1999, and North Korea in the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. It may be that – rather than, as the old conservative line would have it, “the absence of nuclear weapons would make the world safe for conventional wars” – it is the presence of nuclear weapons that has made the world safer for such wars. There is substantial quantitative, as well as anecdotal, evidence to support what is known in the literature as the “stability/instability paradox” – the notion that what may appear a stable nuclear balance actually encourages more violence under the shelter of the nuclear overhang.
The general point in all of this is that nuclear weapons are inherently unusable – and because key players know that, even if so many are reluctant to openly concede it, nuclear deterrence has nothing like the power it is commonly assumed to have. Military commanders have long understood that there are formidable practical obstacles involved in the use (and by extension threatened use) of these weapons at both the tactical and strategic level, not least the damage they can cause to one’s own side and to any territory being fought over.
Beyond the practical obstacles, even the most hard-headed policymakers have to take seriously the profound normative taboo which unquestionably exists internationally against any use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at stake. Since the early 1950s – when it began to sink in that their destructive capacity really was infinitely greater than anything previously seen – such deliberate use has been seen as inconceivable by the leaders of any country thinking of itself, as civilized, and wanting to be thought so by others. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the Taiwan Straits crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis, and the force of the taboo has if anything since grown. Even John Foster Dulles said that if the U.S. had used nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam or against China over Taiwan, “we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned”.
So what does it mean for South Korean policymakers to be on the right side of history when it comes to nuclear weapons? And what does it mean for the other major US ally in this region, Japan? It means, for a start, not even beginning to succumb to the temptation to acquire nuclear weapons of your own, despite the continuing enthusiasm of some public figures like Chung Mong-joon for going down that path, and some opinion-poll evidence of greater public support than one would see in Japan, where anti-nuclear sentiment has been historically much stronger.
Not only would going down this path involve you in tearing up your solemn treaty obligations under the NPT with all the international condemnation that would bring; not only would it involve you spending huge sums of money building weapons systems that would in practice be unusable for all the reasons I have already spelled out, and at the same time carry all the risks I have described; but, so long at least as you enjoy an strong alliance relationship with the United States, and all the security assurances that go with that, there is no conceivable reason for you to do so.
I would make this point just as strongly if the US had no nuclear weapons at all, as I hope one day it will not. What matters for South Korea and Japan, and indeed other US allies in this part of the world, including my own country Australia, and in Europe – who feel, as all of us do, that there are some conceivable military threats we might face in the future that we might not be able to meet entirely on our own – is that we benefit from the extended deterrence that the US provides us. And what that means in practice is that we benefit from the US’s extraordinarily formidable conventional military capability. What matters to us is not the so called nuclear umbrella but rather that conventional umbrella, which is overwhelmingly capable of dealing with any conceivable threat contingency – be it posed by conventional weapons, by chemical or biological weapons, or even nuclear weapons.
The reality of this conventional protection means that there is something more that we US allies can do to be on the right side of history, making our own contribution to achieving a nuclear weapons free world. I strongly believe that those of us U.S. allies, including my own country, who are presently sheltering – or believing that we are sheltering – under the US nuclear umbrella, should be prepared to make clear our acceptance of a much reduced role for nuclear weapons in our protection.
Of course it is the case that so long as any nuclear weapons continue to exist, in the hands of China, Russia, North Korea or anyone else it is not unreasonable for us to want to be able to rely on U.S. nuclear protection for nuclear threat contingencies. Although I personally believe, as I have already indicated, that the arguments for the utility of nuclear deterrence have been grossly exaggerated, I have to acknowledge that there is some psychological comfort involved in being able to retaliate in kind against nuclear attack, and that, for Japan and South Korea particularly, the continued availability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to defend against nuclear threat contingencies has been politically important in stilling those voices who would like to see each country develop a nuclear weapons capability of its own.
But when it comes to non-nuclear threat contingencies, whether they involve chemical or biological or conventional or cyber weapons, surely it is time for us all to step back. We know that, with the U.S. help on which we can all reasonably rely, we have the capacity for the indefinitely foreseeable future to deal with any such contingency, however severe, through the application of conventional military force. And we should now all say so, in so many words. Because so long as we continue to insist that the nuclear option be kept open for a variety of non-nuclear threat contingencies, notwithstanding our collective capacity to deal with them by non-nuclear means, we are contributing absolutely nothing but rhetoric to the achievement of a nuclear-free world. Extended deterrence, I repeat, does not have to mean extended nuclear deterrence.
The Obama administration has wanted its Asian and European allies to go down the path of accepting a declaration by it that the ‘sole purpose’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, not any other kind. This formulation does not go quite as far as a ‘No First Use’ declaration, but is a long way down that path, and as such would be an extremely important doctrinal shift, and a crucial way-station on the road to nuclear abolition. In the context of the lead-up to its 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review, the then Labor Government in Australia indicated it could live with a ‘sole purpose’ formulation, and in Japan the then DPJ Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also dipped at least a toe in that water in a 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
But any such move was halted, I’m sorry to say, by the resistance of South Korea, led by its military, and a number of Washington’s NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe. The 2010 NPR ends up saying no more on the subject than that while the U.S. is ‘not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons… [it] will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted’. And nothing has happened since, other than the recent adventurism of Russia in Ukraine no doubt making it harder than ever to persuade Central and Eastern Europeans that they can live comfortably with less nuclear protection, and recent heightened tensions with China and North Korea in this region no doubt having a similar effect here.
A more robust commitment by South Korea and Japan to really leading the way on nuclear disarmament – not just through general rhetoric but by adopting specific path-breaking policies – would I believe pay real dividends. I know it is easier, psychologically and politically, for Australians than others who live in more troublesome neighbourhoods to play a leadership role in this respect. But I really believe that all of us, acting together, could add very considerable momentum to the disarmament cause if we were to come out strongly in favour of the U.S. adopting a declaration that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack, and better still if we were to argue explicitly for Washington adopting a “No First Use” posture.
For us to continue to be as hypocritical as, frankly, we have been – arguing that everyone else do as we say, but not as we do, when it comes to reliance on nuclear weapons for our security protection – certainly does not help the non-proliferation agenda. And it certainly does not begin to be a recipe for reducing the terrible risks that the world continues to face so long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere. It’s time for us not just to talk, but to act.
The Need For a Nuclear Free and Peaceful Korean Peninsula
In turning now to the specific question of how to achieve a nuclear free and sustainably peaceful Korean Peninsula, we have to disentangle and try to prioritise three distinct policy objectives in relation to North Korea, and the means that are realistically available to advance each of them, recognizing that strategies designed to advance one objective may in practice actually be counterproductive to the achievement of others.
The first is to avoid conflict between North and South, and to create the conditions for peaceful unification; the second is to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and denuclearize the peninsula; and the third is to redress the atrocity crimes and other indefensible human rights violations occurring in the North. There are differing constituencies internationally and domestically, as one would expect, for these different objectives, and when it comes to implementing them, different emphases on the virtues of sticks (sanctions and the like) and carrots (various kinds of engagement strategy)
China strongly supports ‘no war, no instability, no nukes’, but is concerned (although probably less now than it used to be) about the strategic implications of unification – and quite unmoved by human rights abuses. The West would support all three objectives, with human rights violations being a relatively recent addition to the list, being unable any longer to be ignored as a result of the definitive recent report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK led by Australian Justice Michael Kirby. Within South Korea there is clearly support for all three objectives, but with considerable differences of emphasis, as to both priorities and means of implementation, being evident over time as between conservative and progressive governments.
It is very difficult in practice to keep the three strands separate, not least when Pyongyang is so dedicated to mixing them up (as when last month it not only threatened another nuclear test but nuclear war in retaliation for the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee calling for the Security Council to refer the DPRK to the International Criminal Court). But I agree with the excellent recent Stanford study by Shin, Straub and Lee, which I note has been presented to the National Assembly and received some bipartisan support here, that we should try to de-link nuclear and non-nuclear issues so far as possible.
A Nuclear Free Peninsula. On the question of reversing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and achieving the denuclearization of the peninsula, I have had some experience of the frustration of these negotiations, having been involved as Australia’s Foreign Minister, albeit at some distance, in the negotiation and implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. I am less persuaded than some others that all the blame for the breakdown of that first agreement belongs to Pyongyang: our side dragged our feet in building the nuclear reactors and delivering the heavy fuel oil we promised, partly owing to a widespread belief that the regime’s collapse was imminent. And when a diplomatic trajectory was re-established a few years later, that was immediately crushed by George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” declaration in 2002.
The course of events since then has not been encouraging. Since confirming its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 it has been actively developing and testing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, and probably now has up to ten explosive devices in stock which it is getting closer than ever to being able to deliver over long distances. The Six-Party Talks (bringing together North and South Korea with the US, China, Japan and Russia) have been stalled since 2009, and the situation further complicated by Pyongyang’s regularly adopting a posture of extreme belligerence with which we are all wearily familiar.
But all that said I don’t think that the situation is totally hopeless. I don’t think it is naïve to believe that the North Korean regime has no intent to ever aggressively use the nuclear devices it now has or may build in the future: it is erratic, irresponsible and deeply unpleasant, but it is not completely irrational, and knows that any such use against the South, Japan or the US would be completely suicidal. The reasons for developing them seem to be primarily that they think they will deter attack and bolster the regime’s credibility at home and abroad. Pyongyang has used its weapons capability as bargaining chip in the past, and I don’t think it impossible that it could enter into a denuclearization bargain in the future if given in return security guarantees in which it can genuinely believe, the normalization of its diplomatic relations, sanctions relief and an appropriately generous economic support package.
The question is how now to get to that bargain, and how long we can wait. The basic posture that the United States has adopted has been described as ‘strategic patience’ -- essentially old-fashioned containment and deterrence. It has been unwilling to negotiate with North Korea in a Six Party or any other framework, partly because there is no trust that it will deliver on any agreement and partly because it doesn’t want to appear to give any ground to its claim to be now a legitimate nuclear weapons state.
But while containment and deterrence are absolutely legitimate strategies in this context, with all the supporting measures like sanctions and the Proliferation Security Initiative that have been accompanying them, they must be accompanied by a serious willingness to leave the door open for negotiations. Letting the situation drag on indefinitely is not risk free. Not only is North Korea improving its capability all the time, but even in the absence of deliberate use, there are all the risks, already discussed, of human and system error, miscalculation and misjudgement associated with any possession of any nuclear weapons anywhere, and particularly in a volatile environment like the Korean Peninsula. The Six Party Talks remain the best available vehicle for such negotiations, and it is important that united international pressure be maintained for their resumption on an unconditional basis, and that the US fundamentally rethink its position in this respect. To do so would place it on the right side of history.
If talks can be started there are a number of scenarios as to how all the necessary pieces might be brought together. The most comprehensive, and I believe attractive, is that proposed by former senior US official Morton Halperin, which involves a new Treaty on Peace and Security in North East Asia with the following elements: termination of the state of war in Korea; a permanent monitoring council; mutual declaration of no hostile intent; provisions of assistance for nuclear and other energy; and, most ambitiously, establishment of a North East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, embracing both Koreas and Japan, which all the NPT nuclear-weapon states would agree to abide by. Protection would be given to South Korea and Japan by their having the right within a certain period to withdraw from the Treaty if its denuclearization provisions were not being effectively implemented.
All this is ambitious, but not impossible if the political will is there. And whether there is that political will can only be established if we are prepared to seriously test the ground.
A Peaceful Peninsula. While the key players on the nuclear front will be the United States and the other Six Party Talks members, the key player in initiating strategies to keep the peninsula peaceful and moving toward ultimate unification is clearly South Korea itself. The most thoughtful and comprehensive proposal I have seen for how this might best be done is the Shin, Straub and Lee Stanford study, which advocates a policy of “tailored engagement”.
Their idea is to establish a new high-level policy supremo with overall charge of a policymaking and delivery process which would be built on cross-party domestic consensus, be measured in pace, and focus on developing a number of dimensions of practical North-South engagement– clearing away obstacles to eventual unification rather than promoting unification as such. The kinds of engagement proposed involve humanitarian activities; educational exchanges; cultural exchanges covering everything from sport to food; economic engagement through trade and investment, even if this might be seen as cutting across some of the international sanctions regimes; and developmental engagement, particularly in building northern infrastructure.
An important and necessary ice-breaking measure to get moving a new and more positive phase in the North-South relationship would be to wind back the May 24th measures of 2010, whereby the administration of President Lee Myung-bak suspended inter-Korean economic cooperation in an understandable and reasonable response to the egregious sinking of the ROKS Cheonan. Very far-reaching in their impact, and making it impossible to implement most of the elements of the tailored engagement approach just described, these measures do seem to stand in the way of implementing President Park’s own trust-building, or step-by-step confidence building, and it is to be hoped that her administration yields some ground in this respect. To do so would place her on the right side of history.
In the context of the new international focus on North Korea’s appalling human rights record – about which Pyongyang is obviously very sensitive, as its mini charm-offensive demonstrated for a few months this year as it tried to hold off an adverse UN vote – there will be those who will argue that any kind of new attempts at engagement by the South will be at odds with the need to keep the North under pressure. I think a better answer is that proposed, again, by Shin, Straub and Lee, when they suggest that South Korea would be better leaving the international running on human rights violations to others (while not hesitating to support appropriate resolutions), and concentrating internally on providing humanitarian and other targeted assistance to those in most human rights need.
I am well aware that it is not easy either in principle, or in political practice, to reconcile some of the competing imperatives when one is trying simultaneously to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear program, stopping its appalling record of human rights abuse, and at the same time trying to create a constructive environment, and a web of engaged economic and other relationships, which will build trust and confidence to the point that peaceful unification will ultimately be achievable. And there is always the risk that whatever progress is felt to be made, it may be undone overnight by some new egregious Northern provocation.
But ultimately these objectives do converge, in a sense that a North Korea which has a confident, trusting and mutually beneficial set of economic and other relationships with the South will be much less inclined to think it needs nuclear weapons for its protection, or hopefully, that it needs to oppress its own people.
This was the vision that we know drove the late President Kim Dae-jung, He did more than any other leader before or after him to bridge the division of North and South. His dream of reunification is one we can all share. He was a true visionary for peace in every sense of that phrase. But he was nobody’s pushover. His idealism and his optimism was not in any way a product of naivete. His ‘”sunshine” policy was a pragmatic blend of incentivisation and engagement that recognised the critical importance of direct contact between the governments and peoples of North and South.
He understood and applied the basic principles of cooperative security. He understood all too well that peace-making is a messy process and that we must deal with the facts as they are, and not as we would like them to be. But he didn’t just drift along, waiting for something to happen. He made things happen, and he was prepared to take the risks necessary to produce the rewards. He was a man who in everything he said and did was on the right side of history.
Kim Dae-jung’s approach has never been more needed than now, and I appreciate this opportunity to honour the memory of this great Korean, and international, statesman.