On July 4, North Korea conducted a missile test that, according to most analysts, demonstrated continued progress towards fielding an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. Shortly thereafter, the US and South Korean militaries conducted a highly visible missile exercise of their own, launching accurate tactical missiles that could quickly strike targets throughout much of North Korea, perhaps even threatening North Korea’s leadership. Responsible US diplomacy is urgently needed to de-escalate this potentially catastrophic nuclear flashpoint.
Recent alarming actions have continued rounds of threat and counter-threat that have gathered momentum since early this year, with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile tests alternating with massive joint US-South Korea military exercises, deployments of US naval and air forces close to North Korea’s shores and flight tests of US ICBMs — systems already fully tested, deployed and capable of raining hundreds of nuclear warheads on North Korea in short order. Although typically described as “routine,” the US government uses these tests to send a message. Prior to a similar test in early 2016, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told reporters, “We and the Russians and the Chinese routinely do test shots to prove that the operational missiles that we have are reliable. And that is a signal … that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of our country if necessary.”
These bellicose acts have been accompanied by equally bellicose rhetoric. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stated at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that, “The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies. One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces.” This is dangerous language when talking about one of the most militarized conflict zones in the world. Russia and China, the second and third most powerful nuclear-armed countries, share borders with North Korea. Each already has a tense relationship with the United States, and sees the presence of large and capable US forces in the region, including such steps as the deployment of advanced US missile defenses to South Korea, as a potential threat.
In a joint statement, Russia and China called on North Korea, the United States and South Korea to ratchet down the confrontation, with cessation of testing of nuclear weapons and potentially nuclear-capable missiles by North Korea, and a moratorium on large-scale joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea. This approach seems a sensible first step, and a necessary one to avoid a conflict cycle that easily could get out of hand, with disastrous results. It also is consistent with the requirements of the United Nations Charter, which do not allow the resolution of threats to peace, short of imminent threat of aggression, by the unilateral threat or use of military force.
At the same time that one nuclear-armed country was threatening another in the United Nations Security Council, two floors down in the same building, more than 120 nuclear weapons-free countries were polishing the text of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. On Friday, July 7, 122 countries present voted to approve the text, which prohibits the possession, development, testing, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, with only one opposed and one abstaining. The treaty will open for signature on September 20, 2017.
With the nuclear-armed states opposed to any such treaty, it will be a long road to the elimination of nuclear arsenals, via a route still largely uncharted. One might ask why the countries that don’t have nuclear weapons thought an agreement negotiated in the absence of those that still brandish them is worth the effort. They did so because they know that the effects of nuclear warfare know no boundaries, and make no distinction between soldier and civilian. They did so because they know that any large-scale nuclear war would endanger the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings, and that nuclear war among the most powerful states would threaten the foundations of all human civilization. And they did so because they know, and we all should know, that a crisis like the one now growing in Northeast Asia could leap from a spark to an uncontrollable conflagration in unanticipated ways.
The Cold War should have taught us that we were fortunate to have escaped the threat of nuclear annihilation once. It also should have taught us, through the slow mutual education of the superpowers in their arms control negotiations about the immense complexities and unforeseeable dangers that nuclear arsenals pose, that talking to adversaries is of the first, the utmost importance, even when prospects for resolution of conflicts seem most dim. Our nuclear-armed governments must stop threatening and start talking to each other directly and constantly, before it’s too late. It is incumbent on the governments that are most powerful — and hence the most threatening — to take the initiative.
It is time for diplomatic overtures to replace threats. The United States and South Korea should immediately cease large-scale military exercises in the region, providing North Korea with an opportunity to reciprocate by freezing its nuclear-related testing activities.
The US should declare itself ready and willing to engage in direct talks with North Korea, and a commitment to denuclearization should not be a precondition for such talks.
The United States and all states in the region should refrain from military actions that could be interpreted as provocative, including such actions as forward deployment of additional military forces by the United States, and the testing or assertion of territorial claims by deployment of military forces in contested areas by any state.
Finally, the United States and its allies should be prepared to offer the North Korean government meaningful assurances regarding its sovereignty, including a willingness to end the armistice that for over half a century has frozen in place the massive confrontation at the demilitarized zone that splits the Korean Peninsula by negotiating a peace treaty ending the Korean War.