During the last 10 years, North Korea has resigned its membership of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and conducted four nuclear test explosions. It claimed that the latest of these, detected four days ago, was of a hydrogen (fission-fusion) bomb. It made no such claim for the earlier three tests; said to be merely atomic (fission) bombs.
Argument about the veracity of the current claim is underway. There was seismic evidence of a test, but there is good reason to doubt that it was of a hydrogen bomb. We might have a clearer reading on that soon. The UN Security Council has condemned the test, as it has done in the past, describing it as constituting a “threat to international peace and security”. North Korea’s statements have spoken of a remarkable scientific achievement and their ability to threaten the destruction of its enemies, chiefly the United States.
Any rational appreciation of this current piece of theatre would begin by recognizing its elemental ludicrousness, but then acknowledge the great dangers and deadly earnest politics it incorporates.
Life in North Korea is appalling. Its people have little to eat and as Justice Michael Kirby has reported to the UN, there are virtually no human rights there, just widespread and relentless abuses. Expenditure by the regime of its resources and technological efforts on nuclear weapons is cruel.
Interested western oriented countries, particularly US, Japan, South Korea have attempted to have North Korea end its nuclear program, offering a range of economic and political incentives In return. These have failed. Attempts have also been made to engage China and Russia in diplomatic efforts to the same end. These have also foundered.
China is crucial to any solution given its alliance with North Korea and the depth of the latter’s reliance upon China for economic survival. China is known to be angry with its partner and has joined in the Security Council’s condemnation of the nuclear testing program, but it has taken no serious action against it.
At a fundamental level, the North Korean nuclear weapons issue is now emerging as possibly the paradigm case, even more so than the Iran case, of two pervasive phenomena in contemporary international relations.
- The reversion by most States to traditional forms of competition and balance of power politics as the determinant of outcomes in international relations. This development has specifically rejected the purposes and principles of the Charter of the UN; the post Second World War compact.It has resulted in the wretched failures we have witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and a number of countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The abiding aspect of these failures has been the refusal of key States, particularly Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, to permit collective action to make or keep peace, if it would disadvantage them as such, or in their competition with others. Permanent members have also been the most egregious violators of the Charter by invading or attacking other States, for which actions they have not been sanctioned.
- As the key extension of this first notion, which places the possession of power, particularly military power, at the centre of legitimacy; the second phenomenon is the insistence by those States which possess nuclear weapons that they alone are legitimately able to determine who else might and might not have those weapons.
That they are able to make this determination, including through the use or threat of use of their own weapons, is beyond doubt, in the short term. That it is legitimate for them to do so, given global legal and moral commitments to nuclear arms control and disarmament, and the dangers nuclear weapons pose, is preposterous.
Above all, the consequence of the elemental hypocrisy involved in the attempt to manage the world on such a basis is that it will fail and possibly lead to horrendous war.
The first of the two phenomena identified above is not new, as such. But the extent to which relations amongst States have become militarized is extreme. It has been the result of: the failure to reach a new compact, following the end of the Cold War, then the convulsions consequent upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, the wests attempts to treat Russia as the loser. Russia will not accept this and overall, the world has progressively rejected an imperial America. The principle victim in this situation has been the UN Charter system for the resolution of conflict.
The application of these circumstances to the North Korean case is illustrated by China’s obvious interest in the North Korean irritant to the US, Japan and South Korea, given its conflict with them over it’s South China Sea policies and actions. Simply, it can be expected to indicate that a price for it stepping up pressure on North Korea will be that the others make concessions on the South China Sea and more particularly recognize that if North Korea were to collapse it would not be acceptable for it to be folded into South Korea, as a State allied to the US. Russia could be expected to support China in such a stance.
On the specific issue of North Korea’s bomb, the previous policy of Obama’s first term – “strategic patience”- will need to be supplemented by a refreshed diplomacy and some new incentives, but only if China has significantly stepped up its effort with The North Koreans.
But, the current global situation described above, where nuclear weapon states attempt to hold the ring on the possession of such weapons, is failing. Israel, India and Pakistan have won that game. They have nuclear weapons and have refused to join the NPT and the Test Ban Treaty. Iran is on ice, for now, but Saudi Arabia is not. This is an unstable situation.
The hypocrisy which is intrinsic to the NPT, which privileges States with nuclear weapons, is coming home to roost. NPT is only acceptable if those privileged States implement their Treaty obligation to progressively eliminate their nuclear weapons. Instead what we see today is their expansion of their arsenals and their manifest reversion to power, not law or principle, as the reliable determinant of political and security outcomes.
If states were ever to become serious about ending the threat posed to all by the continued existence of nuclear weapons, they would begin a process of negotiated reductions in which all such weapons were in the frame. This is in fact what they have undertaken to do in NPT, a commitment which the International Court of Justice has ruled is an obligation in international law.
Interestingly, Australia was once a leader in the search for progress on nuclear non proliferation and disarmament. A practical process for the safe elimination of nuclear weapons was outlined in 1996 by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, established by Prime Minister Keating. The Commission’s report continues to be recognized as a realistic one. But, Australia’s leadership in this field was terminated by Prime Minister Howard. To widespread dismay, this saw Australia actually vote against a resolution of the UN General Assembly calling for enhanced action on nuclear disarmament.
The Canberra Commission report was supplemented, in 2009, by a Japan/Australia study on nuclear dangers, managed by Gareth Evans.
Axioms which the Canberra Commission identified and thought were of enduring importance were: as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used, whether by accident or decision; any use would have catastrophic effects; as long as any State has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them.
Were the Commission to meet again today, presumably it would add a further basic warning about the consequences of the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by a group such as DAESH.
Only if the nuclear hypocrisy ends will we avoid these outcomes whether at the hands of North Korea or any other State.
On Australian actions, as a country possessing a major proportion of known reserves of uranium and as a permanent member of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Turnbull government should review the resumption by Australia of an active role in global efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Richard Butler AC is former Ambassador to the UN and was Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.