2021 APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest, Honorable Mention
Data Driven Disarmament: Considering the relationship between emerging technology, the Korean Peninsula, and the Next Generation
by Jamie WITHORNE
Across the nuclear policy community, there has been a recent pivot to emerging technology. That is to say, the community has increasingly found itself concerned about the potential for emerging technology to drive competition between states, thereby exacerbating the potential risk for escalation and subsequent nuclear use. Many of these existing conversations have focused on specific lethal technologies, providing morose warnings of “data driven destruction”—namely, arguments that new technology will make the world more vulnerable to nuclear destruction. However, these arguments often fail to consider that advances in emerging technology (specifically software-oriented improvements, like information processing), paired with new voices of the next generation, can begin to make the world safer from nuclear use. By specifically considering the case of the Korean Peninsula, this piece will show how emerging technologies can begin to pave the way towards data driven disarmament, instead of data driven destruction.
Before considering the impacts of emerging technology, it is important to first define what this term means. As more analysts have begun discussing the concept, the more the term “emerging technology” has devolved into a buzzword. Arguably, all technology can be classified as “emerging.” For this reason, it is more pragmatic to think of emerging technology as an umbrella term that incorporates two distinct types of new technology: hardware (e.g., physical machines) and software (e.g., algorithms and data). Advances in both categories feed into one another. That is to say, advances in hardware must be made to accommodate for advances in software. Most conversations in the “data driven destruction” camp preferentially consider emerging types of hardware, thereby limiting their arguments strictly to the function of machines. Conversely, considering advances in software more in-depth makes it easier to conceptualize the potential peace promoting benefit of emerging technology more holistically.
Presently, the world is at a pivotal moment with respect to data, the fuel for emerging software. Because of advances in technology, there is currently the most data — with respect to both sheer quantity and diverse data type — available to individual analysts than ever before. New types of data have become recently available at a near exponential growth rate, leading to what some experts call “big data.” With big data comes a growing need to process all its associated intricacies to yield useful and relevant information.
Information invariably shapes global nuclear policies and decision-making, and with this nascent big data movement comes the unique opportunity to improve nuclear information processing. Improvements in information processing can produce more targeted nuclear insights which can lead to improved transparency, verification, and monitoring, key aspects of successful nuclear disarmament. Simply put, recent advances in information processing have great potential to alleviate global nuclear risk by providing the opportunity for more data forward nuclear disarmament policies.
The Korean peninsula is a prime example of how information processing might begin to promote and shape data driven disarmament efforts. In the Republic of Korea (ROK), information processing is one of the most important industries, including people working in computing, as well as in academic and research settings. The ROK has made significant advances in information processing from the mid-1990s until today. Considering this, the ROK is clearly an important partner when it comes to information processing technique sharing, collaborating on data issues, and building trust and transparency on issues of Asian security, given its location. The ROK has established itself in the information technology sector, making them well prepared to begin to deal with new challenges that big data poses. Because of this expertise, they are well positioned to lead the way when it comes to emerging big data information processing, including opportunities for data driven disarmament.
The ROK has also clearly demonstrated a vested interest in disarmament affairs, particularly on the Korean peninsula. ROK’s proximity to a nuclear North Korea directly effects their security, making the Korean peninsula an integral player in dialogues on Asia-Pacific security, particularly when it comes to discussions of disarmament. At the same time, there has been a global rise in open-source analysis of North Korea’s nuclear program and associated military capabilities. Advances in information processing, particularly in the earth observation domain, have enabled more constant and transparent monitoring and verification observations of North Korea’s nuclear program, despite the country’s non-adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
Considering these factors together, it is clear the ROK could not only use the emerging technology of advanced information processing to build global partnerships and share information when it comes to strategic big data processing, but it could also add an additional layer of nuance and analysis when it comes to open-source observation of North Korean nuclear activities. Given its history of technical expertise and its important strategic location, the ROK is well positioned to begin to use emerging technologies for disarmament.
Likewise, young people are similarly well suited to begin to not only address the challenges associated with emerging technology, but also have the potential to come up with creative applications of emerging technology that can work towards a more peaceful Asia-Pacific region. Young people have been exposed to conversations of data for their entire life and have grown up synergistically with most emerging technologies. Because of this, they have a more ingrained sense of knowledge about the possibilities of the technology and can begin to think of creative applications for them that might help lead the world to more creative disarmament solutions.
Considering all these factors, it is clear that advances in emerging technology, especially in data and information processing, pose a great opportunity for both the Korean peninsula as well as the next generation of new voices to creatively engage with these technologies in order to move the world towards disarmament. There are seemingly limitless possibilities for rising actors to provide novel solutions in tandem with novel technologies, particularly in the nuclear policy community. These new voices can use their innovation to move the conversations surrounding emerging technology from ones of data driven destruction to data driven disarmament.
Image: APLN/iStock, Dilok Klaisataporn.