Preventing Nuclear War in Korea
Joseph Gerson is a Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England and author of the forthcoming Empire and the Bomb: How the United States Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto Press/University of Michigan).
Kofi Annan has again urged us to be wise and to refrain from the self-defeating practice of playing superpower bully. In the wake of North Korea’s reported nuclear weapons test, the outgoing UN General Secretary is clear that Pyongyang’s nuclear test is “unacceptable.” Instead of militarized sanctions, however, he urges bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Just over a decade ago, Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic intervention was required to save Bill Clinton and the Korean people from the Clinton’s arrogant belief that we would prevail in a nuclear game of chicken. President Bush has yet to learn the lessons of that crisis, nor has he learned those of his own disastrous invasion of Iraq. Instead, he insists that the crisis with Pyongyang be resolved on the terms that he dictates. He refuses bilateral negotiations and warns that “all options [including nuclear attack] are on the table.”
This crisis is not an aberration. Rather, it is systemic product of sixty years of US nuclear arrogance. Beginning with the UN General Assembly’s first resolution in 1945, the vast majority of the world’s nations have sought security through nuclear weapons abolition. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) which followed roughly 25 years later, provided that in exchange for the non-nuclear nations foreswearing nuclear weapons ambitions, the nuclear powers would provide them technologies for nuclear power generation. Article VI committed the Nuclear Five to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Six years ago, under pressure from the world’s nations during the NPT Review Conference, the declared nuclear weapons states, led by the United States, reiterated their “irrevocable commitment” to implement Article VI and to take 13 still neglected steps toward its fulfillment. Last year, more than 150 nations, including US allies, voted for a UN resolution calling for negotiation of a nuclear weapons abolition convention. Only five countries voted no: the US, Britain, France, Israel, and India.
There is also the legacy of US nuclear threats. Since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, every US president has prepared or threatened to initiate first strike nuclear attacks during crises, confrontations, and wars. This has led some other nations — including North Korea and Iran — to seek deterrent nuclear forces. Since 1950, the US has threatened North Korea with nuclear attack at least eight times.
The Bush administration compounded these structural and historical crises with its arrogant approach to the two Koreas. In one of his first foreign policy blunders, two months after assuming office, President Bush humiliated South Korea’s courageous Prime Minister Kim Dae Jung and derailed a nearly completed disarmament process with North Korea. In consequence, North Korea resumed development of what appears to be its primitive nuclear weapons program, and the US-South Korean alliance has been in shambles.
The stakes of the US-Korean crisis are far greater than is popularly understood. More immediate than the prospect that in a decade or so the DPRK could develop nuclear weapons that work and missiles that could reach Seattle, or even the possibility that it might export nuclear technologies, is the danger of a catastrophic Northeast Asian arms race. Japan’s new nationalist Prime Minister has advocated that Japan — which has hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and missiles that can reach the moon — become a nuclear weapons state with a first strike policy. Given the still-deep wounds of Japan’s brutal conquest and colonization of much of China and all of Korea, a Japanese nuclear weapons program would likely lead China to jettison its “minimum deterrent” nuclear policy. A dangerous 21st century involving the US would then be fully engaged.
This need not be our future. Anticipating Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, during the week before the North Korean test, a delegation of senior Japanese nuclear weapons abolitionists — including A-bomb survivors — reminded US audiences that the world is almost completely unified in opposing North Korean nuclear weapons development. They also warned that much of the world is aghast that the world’s superpower, with an arsenal of 15,000 deployed and stockpiled thermonuclear weapons, refuses patient bilateral negotiations with a desperately poor and isolated country, instead threatening military actions and war.
Why do Bush and Cheney fear testing Pyongyang’s offer of a denuclearized Korean peninsula in exchange for bilateral negotiations? Why not use those negotiations to engage the Six-Party negotiators to create a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone like those in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, and Latin America? And why not prevent future nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear wars by honoring our “irrevocable commitment” to Article VI of the NPT and by implementing the 13 steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference?