Putting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Agenda Back on Track
The Korea Times Column

Putting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Agenda Back on Track

By Marty Natalegawa

The world has concluded a difficult year that has shaken the global community to its core. Concerns over the use of nuclear weapons and increasing proliferation challenges underscore the need to focus on realistic and practical steps to reduce nuclear risks in 2023 and beyond. Despite the seemingly daunting challenges, the outlook is far from hopeless, and the time to act is now.

In 2022, the world experienced a litany of challenges to long-established consensus views and practices designed to limit ― and eventually eliminate ― the threat of nuclear weapons. Risks to non-proliferation were dealt a blow as talks between Iran and major powers aimed at limiting Tehran’s development of a nuclear program stalled. The world had long ago decided that there will be no further nuclear weapons tests, and yet is anxiously awaiting whether North Korea will conduct its seventh test, once again thumbing its nose at the international community and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization.

The year’s most severe challenge to the global nuclear order arose when Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion shredded the negative assurance guarantee to Ukraine ― the promise that Russia wouldn’t threaten its neighbor in exchange for Kyiv handing over its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in its possession. Moscow’s subsequent threats of nuclear retaliation against any state ― or military alliance ― that may intervene in the war increased the potential for further escalation and a disastrous conflict between several nuclear weapon states and a nuclear alliance.

After a long delay, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference finally took place this past summer only to end in failure and disappointment as divisions made sharper by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, particularly control of and military actions in and around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, made it all but impossible to reach a consensus. We briefly saw hope for renewed negotiations on extending the New START treaty between the U.S. and Russia, but that hope is under threat as the first round of talks is postponed.

Yet despite their differences, the NPT nuclear weapon states were able to once again come to an agreement at the Review Conference that a nuclear war between them is unwinnable and must never be fought. Their joint statement to this effect serves as a public reminder of the contradictions inherent in nuclear deterrence. If nuclear weapons can never be used, why must they exist?

If a nuclear war can never be fought, why are countries racing to expand and modernize their nuclear arsenals? If these states are unwilling to part with their own nuclear weapons, how are we to convince others to do the same, such as North Korea? In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, how are we to convince other states that they must never acquire nuclear weapons of their own?

Risks of nuclear proliferation and a further weakening of the disarmament commitments enshrined in the NPT are increasing daily in the Asia-Pacific region. In the Republic of Korea, opinion polling now purportedly shows that a majority of the South Korean public now supports the idea of Seoul building a domestic nuclear weapons capability of its own to face the rising threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and its NATO allies established nuclear sharing to deter the Soviet Union; today, some Japanese and South Koreans feel a nuclear weapons-sharing arrangement is necessary to deter threats they perceive from North Korea and a rising China as Beijing moves rapidly to expand the number and range of its nuclear weapons.

Risks are increasing, but so are opportunities for countries as well as organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament to play a constructive role in holding nuclear threats at bay.

Last year, APLN issued proposals that, if implemented, could reinvigorate efforts towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in our region and throughout the world. Our work at encouraging a more frank and open dialogue between the U.S. and China stands a chance of reducing tensions and building trust between these new rivals, confidence-building that would forego the need for any potential NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangements in our region.

We’re encouraging a constructive tension-reducing security dialogue between southern Asia’s three nuclear weapons-armed states: China, India and Pakistan. Track 2 and track 1.5 talks between these three powers and between China and the U.S. may eventually culminate in official track 1 diplomatic discussion if we persist.

Renewed efforts need to be made to increase momentum for the entry into force of the CTBT and the accession of the nuclear weapons states to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.

Meanwhile, Russia has backtracked somewhat from its nuclear threats, avoiding further escalation and affording us a window of opportunity to reestablish the norm against threatening other states with nuclear attacks.

And at the end of the last year, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida established and hosted the first meeting of the International Group of Eminent Persons whose mission is to build momentum for discussions on the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons ahead of the 2023 Group of 7 leaders’ summit in Hiroshima. Five APLN members were appointed to this esteemed group.

The year 2022 saw several serious setbacks in our mission to realize a world free from nuclear weapons, but there’s no cause for despair. We all must press forward to strengthen the nuclear taboo and see that 2023 becomes the year when we put the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agendas back on track.

About the Author

Dr. Marty Natalegawa is the chair of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). He is a former foreign minister and ambassador of Indonesia. This article is published in cooperation with APLN (www.apln.network).

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to apln@apln.network.

Image: Titan II missile in a silo with its nuclear warhead removed. Bryan Hughes, Flickr.

This article was published in The Korea Times on 4 January 2023 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.