NORTH Korea’s latest nuclear test is bad news, both for Asia and for a world that needs to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons.
But international overreaction – with responses that raise rather than lower the temperature, and push the region closer to a nuclear arms race – would make bad news even worse.
North Korea’s latest action follows behaviour over the last decade that makes Iran look positively restrained in comparison. It walked away from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003; resisted serious negotiations within the framework of the Six-Party Talks established that year by the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan; tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006 and 2009 in breach of a global moratorium; conducted missile tests; ignored United Nations Security Council resolutions and sanctions; sank a South Korean navy ship and shelled one of its islands in 2010; and maintained a steady flow of belligerent rhetoric.
All of this has jarred regional nerves yet again, and there is new talk about the resources that may need to be mobilised to counter Pyongyang. Putting US weapons back into South Korea; acquiring real missile capability; allowing the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel; moving closer to breakout capability – all of these steps now have their advocates.
Nor has North Korea’s behaviour helped the cause of global non-proliferation and disarmament – major downsizing of the US nuclear arsenal, which president Barack Obama wants, will become politically more difficult.
This will translate, inevitably, into calls for more toughness toward North Korea – less diplomacy and more sanctions. More alarmingly, there may now be greater tolerance for those who argue that a country has a right to defend itself against existential threats with equally threatening weapons, or that a world of multiple nuclear powers would be less, not more, dangerous – with threats deterred and risk effectively neutralised.
Such responses would be serious overreactions. At a general level, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn were right to argue that, whatever the case might have been for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, a 21st-century world of multiple competing nuclear powers would be one of massively enhanced global risk.
The core message of the NPT must continue to resonate: so long as anyone has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as anyone has them, they are bound one day to be used, by accident or miscalculation if not by design. For that message to resonate, the major nuclear-armed states must not only remain committed to non-proliferation, but also get serious about disarmament.
In the case of North Korea, the world must of course register its displeasure. But the door should be kept wide open for negotiation.
We also need to revisit the record. World leaders signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994, but we dragged our feet in building the nuclear reactors and delivering the heavy fuel oil promised.
The diplomatic trajectory re-established a few years later was halted by George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil” declaration in 2002. When a potential new deal was negotiated by the US State Department in 2005, US Treasury officials slammed that window shut by warning the world’s banks against conducting transactions with any North Korean entity. The “Sunshine Policy”, which for a decade sustained hope of North-South reconciliation, ended abruptly with president Lee Myung-bak’s election in South Korea in 2008.
The North Koreans are erratic, unpleasant, irresponsible, and unhelpful. But they don’t bear all the blame for the past. New administrations, free of their predecessors’ baggage, are in place in all of the relevant regional capitals. If they, the US, and Russia stay calm, diplomacy might move forward, and the future might not be irredeemably bleak.
• Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister for eight years and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group, is currently Chancellor of the Australian National University.