Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows a massive failure of diplomacy on all sides: by NATO in expanding eastward in disregard of Russia’s security concerns; by Ukraine in not recognising how provocative its actions were seen by Russia; and by Russia’s seeming incapacity to present its views effectively and constructively. It is incomprehensible, in the twenty-first century, for any state, let alone a permanent member of the Security Council, to resort to war in violation of international law and the United Nations Charter.
The war highlights that effective diplomacy is absolutely essential to maintaining international peace and security. The parties to any major dispute must make every effort to clarify differences and “red lines”, and to find solutions. Russia has been opposed to the expansion of NATO for many years, but there was no high-level process in place for trying to resolve this and related issues. Given Mr Putin’s views on subjugating Ukraine, opinions differ on whether the war could have been averted by serious negotiations, but clearly the absence of a process for addressing Russia’s concerns was an aggravating factor.
A profoundly significant aspect is Mr Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons to deter intervention against Russia’s invasion. As recently as January the five NPT nuclear-weapon states had declared that “… nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” Yet here nuclear threats have been made in support of aggression. This undercuts the claim that, by making war less possible, nuclear weapons are a source of stability in international relations. It also highlights that nuclear weapons remain an existential threat to the world, especially in the hands of a leader of uncertain rationality (a major concern also during the Trump presidency).
Some have drawn the lesson from this war that only nuclear weapons can keep smaller states safe from attack by powerful states. Ukraine was quick to draw the conclusion that Russia would never have attacked if Ukraine had kept the nuclear weapons it acquired in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Of course the situation was not that simple, the Soviet weapons were never under Ukraine’s effective control. However, suggestions that Iran, North Korea and others will have drawn a similar conclusion are probably correct. Further, the views of those in South Korea and Japan advocating acquisition of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against China or North Korea will be strengthened by events in Ukraine. Russia’s actions, by prompting some to rethink their commitment to non-proliferation, have damaged the non-proliferation regime.
To cite the war on Ukraine as a reason for acquiring nuclear weapons is not only short-sighted but extremely dangerous. The risk of nuclear war is serious enough already, with nine nuclear-armed states. Adding to this number will only compound the risk. North Korea, by going nuclear, has placed itself in a three-way dynamic, with both the US and China; if North Korea’s actions were to push Japan and South Korea into going nuclear, there would be an even more difficult five-way dynamic. Not only is a nuclear stand-off dangerous to the protagonists, if a nuclear war eventuates it would have regional and probably global consequences. It is essential to find a better basis for national security than the threat of collective annihilation!
The key lesson – the need for diplomacy and constructive engagement
As a consequence of the Ukraine war, North Korea may be even less receptive than before to negotiations on denuclearisation. However, this should not be overstated; North Korea was already firmly committed to its nuclear deterrent, so any reinforcing effect will be marginal. Rather, the principal lesson should be the need for every effort to resolve issues before any situation degenerates into war. Constructive engagement is needed between North Korea, the United States and other parties, in order to reduce tensions and take steps to reduce the risk of war, especially nuclear war, on the Korean peninsula.
An obvious direction to explore is replacing the 1953 armistice with a peace treaty. The armistice suspended, but did not end, the Korean war. North Korea believes it needs a nuclear deterrent because until there is a final peaceful settlement the war has not ended. North Korea could be offered negotiations on a peace treaty, conditional on agreeing to an immediate (and ongoing) freeze of its nuclear and missile programs. This would address the two major causes of tension on the Korean peninsula – the continuation of the state of war, and North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile programs and associated tests.
Negotiating a peace treaty would require close collaboration between the US and China, the third party to the armistice and the state most able to influence North Korea. This collaboration would be another benefit from the engagement process – the opportunity to start a process of confidence-building between China and the US as well as between the US and North Korea.
In parallel with the negotiation of a peace treaty, priority should be given to developing nuclear risk reduction steps. These would include emergency communication channels (hot lines), discussions on ensuring effective security on nuclear weapons and fissile materials, and concepts such as de-mating (storing warheads separate from delivery systems). The discussions could also cover measures against accidental, mistaken or unauthorised nuclear use. Hopefully North Korea would come to understand that nuclear weapons, far from being a guarantee of national security, could be a source of considerable danger. An unauthorised launch, for instance, could result in massive retaliation. Ongoing dialogues on these various subjects would be of mutual benefit and help confidence-building.
In support of the negotiations, agreement would also be required on measures to verify the freeze. There would need to be a clear understanding of what the freeze involves. It should also be clear that the peace treaty will terminate if the freeze is violated. Verification aspects of the freeze, and subsequent nuclear reductions, are discussed in the papers referenced below.
A peace treaty would be followed by negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement, covering all the issues involved in normalising North Korea’s relations with other states, especially South Korea. These negotiations are likely to take some years, and could be reflected in a series of agreements on specific issues. Removal of sanctions and an economic package would be essential aspects, also military confidence-building measures, force reductions, and so on.
The negotiations would include how to achieve denuclearisation. The international community will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state – North Korea needs to be prepared in due course to return to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. North Korea is not likely to agree to total denuclearisation until it is fully assured about its security (this could be guaranteed collectively by the permanent members of the Security Council), but progressive reductions should be sought. The engagement process outlined here will help build the confidence and trust needed to progress denuclearisation steps.
Nuclear weapons will not guarantee national security or international peace – while nuclear weapons exist there is a continuing risk they will be used, whether by accident, mistake, unauthorised action or even an unstable leader. The more states that have nuclear weapons, the greater these risks. Nuclear-armed states must recognise it is in their national interest, as well as the international interest, to progressively reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination. Every state should commit to resolving major differences through constructive engagement, in accordance with the UN Charter. In the case of North Korea, constructive engagement can resolve the perceived threats that have led it to believe its security depends on nuclear weapons.
.J.Carlson, Denuclearizing North Korea – The Case for a Pragmatic Approach to Nuclear Safeguards and Verification, 38 North, January 2019, https://www.38north.org/reports/2019/01/jcarlson012419/; and IAEA Safeguards in North Korea Possible Verification Roles and Mandates, 38 North, March 2020, https://www.38north.org/reports/2020/03/jcarlson031620/.
About the Author
John Carlson is a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) and an APLN Senior Associate Fellow. He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non‑Proliferation (VCDNP) and a member of the International Advisory Council to the International Luxembourg Forum.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.
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