The dangers of nuclear fatalism

A ‘no can do’ mindset on the Korean Peninsula will only end in disaster

Tanya Ogilvie-White

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia

8 December 2017

The belief that there is no peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Tanya Ogilvie-White writes in this chapter from Nuclear Asia, the new publication from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.

The rapid expansion of nuclear weapons capabilities in Northeast Asia has narrowed policy options to the extent that nuclear fatalism has taken hold in the expert community.

This fatalism, the belief that disarmament diplomacy is permanently moribund and that only military responses to rising regional threats have any chance of success, could very well lead us down a path to further nuclear proliferation, nuclear accidents and nuclear war. The consequences would be catastrophic and yet despite the heightened sense of alarm that has set in among decision-makers and commentators, not enough is being done to steer a safer path.

It is imperative that those with deep knowledge of Northeast Asian security dynamics do not succumb to this spreading fatalism, and instead push for extraordinary diplomatic efforts to stabilise the region and reduce nuclear risks. Australia has an important and constructive role to play in this regard, especially in relation to the ongoing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

What is nuclear fatalism?

Nuclear fatalism describes the ‘no can do’ mindset of those who believe – against the evidence – that nuclear weapons programs cannot be peacefully rolled back or frozen once a state has weaponised its nuclear capability. It leads to diplomatic paralysis, as efforts to negotiate are considered increasingly futile and, despite the immense risks involved, only military responses – either pre-emption or deterrence – are regarded as credible methods for dealing with nuclear adversaries.

Why has it set in?

Nuclear fatalism has existed since the advent of nuclear weapons and has waxed and waned ever since. But it rose sharply after India and Pakistan conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1998, setting off a nuclear arms race in South Asia. It was widely believed that these tests ushered in a second nuclear age, making universality of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – and the creation of a security environment more conducive to multilateral nuclear disarmament – much more difficult to achieve.

Not surprisingly, North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 and a string of increasingly powerful nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang, have spurred another dramatic rise in nuclear fatalism, to a point where not only is peaceful nuclear rollback in North Korea widely considered impossible, but the only policy responses that are considered feasible are military ones that are risky and even reckless.

What is the evidence?

Evidence of this dynamic abounds, both in the nuclear expansion and modernisation programs of the world’s nuclear-armed states and in the doctrinal and policy discussions among these states and their allies. It is also on display in United Nations bodies, and among academics, think-tankers, journalists and media commentators.

In relation to nuclear developments in Northeast Asia specifically, these include proposals for the creation of a formal, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-style strategic command in the Asia Pacific, the reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea and Japan, the development of indigenous nuclear weapons programs by these states and Australia and – worst of all – calls for pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities.

More on this: The nuclear refuseniks

These proposals are being put forward in a fevered atmosphere in which their wider and longer-term negative consequences are either not being fully thought through, or are being accepted as inevitable or unavoidable.

They’re also being put forward against a backdrop in which past disarmament successes are being ignored, previous diplomatic efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are being ridiculed, derided and misrepresented (including the reasons for their failure), and new proposals for diplomatic engagement are being dismissed or undermined.

False, superficial and misleadingly negative accounts of the Six Party Talks are part of this fatalist dynamic, which is being reinforced by ignorance of the detail of what was a complex and multifaceted diplomatic process.

The Beijing‑initiated talks, which brought North Korea, China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia to the negotiating table from 2003-09, were tortuous and frustrating, but they were not the out and out failure that fatalists claim. Most importantly, they opened channels of communication, engaging the notoriously secretive Kim Jong-un regime in a process that temporarily de-escalated tensions.

There are numerous reasons why the talks eventually stalled, including North Korean intransigence and duplicity, but hardliners in the then-US President George W Bush’s administration were also to blame, as they caused US negotiators to keep moving goal posts at the most sensitive times in the negotiations, undermining confidence in the process and making it extremely difficult to sustain.

Why is it so dangerous?

When nuclear fatalism takes hold among political and military elites, it limits the policy toolbox, placing too much emphasis on the capacity of nuclear weapons to reduce or contain threats. There are numerous examples of this happening during the Cold War and it is generally accepted that luck intervened on more than one occasion to prevent what would have been a devastating nuclear exchange.

In today’s more complex strategic environment, and amid rapid technological change, it is riskier than ever to design strategic choices around the hope for lucky outcomes, whether that applies to the capacity of pre-emptive strikes and missile defence to function in combination as denuclearisation tools, or on the capacity for traditional nuclear deterrence postures to manage nuclear threats and prevent nuclear use.

More on this: North Korea is the litmus test for a nuclear weapons ban

Placing too much faith in either one of these military approaches, including pitting each against the other in a competition for the least bad option, locks in nuclear mindsets and leaves too much to chance.

Add impulsive, narcissistic, over-confident personalities, political inexperience, high-alert postures and diminishing warning times into the equation, and it is easy to see how an over-reliance on nuclear weapons could lead to nuclear war, whether deliberate or accidental.

The dangers are real. In addition to the horrific humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war at the regional level, in which chemical and biological weapons could also play a part, there is grave potential for conflict escalation involving Russia and China, the implications of which need not be spelled out.

Even a limited nuclear war would have far-reaching and devastating impacts, causing major disruption of production, supply chains, banking and insurance, to the extent that it has been described by some economists as ‘ground zero’ for global business, threatening to bring the world’s economy to its knees.

Unilateral provocations could also have dire consequences: Pyongyang’s recent threats to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test (which would likely involve a live missile test loaded with a hydrogen-bomb), poses enormous environmental and humanitarian risks, adding urgency to the situation.

Peacefully de-escalating the US-North Korea nuclear crisis should, therefore, be the international community’s number one priority and regional actors–including Australia–have a special responsibility to step up their efforts.

What can be done about it?

It is true that there are no easy options. Every state that has developed nuclear weapons, whether they did so before the NPT was negotiated or after, believes that threatening their adversaries with nuclear attack and exposing the world (including, potentially, their own populations) to the resulting humanitarian catastrophe, is a legitimate response to security challenges.

More on this: A nuclear arms rethink

As a result, non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament efforts are fraught with difficulty and plagued with roadblocks, so much so that nuclear fatalists can and do cite one failed or flawed diplomatic initiative after another as evidence in support of their own arguments.

But behind these diplomatic failures lies a reluctance on the part of the nuclear-armed states and their allies to acknowledge that the risks posed by nuclear weapons (their own, not just those of their adversaries) are rising, and that finding ways to reduce reliance on them during a period of rapid strategic and technological change is a shared responsibility worthy of major political and financial investment.

The urgent question now facing the international community is how to generate and sustain effective diplomatic momentum at a time when North Korea and the US are recklessly exchanging nuclear threats and counter-threats, US President Donald Trump’s administration is taking a rigid approach based on punishment, denial and military over-confidence, and all the while North Korea is conducting more missile tests, advancing its nuclear capability and increasing its international pariah status.

To date, few diplomatic proposals have been put forward, and those that have are not receiving adequate regional and international backing. There have been numerous calls from the South Korean and Japanese expert communities to try to resume the Six Party Talks (or variations on them), but these are not being taken seriously.

More on this: How to stop North Korea's bomb

China has also put forward a formal dual-track diplomatic proposal (the only state so far to do so), a so-called ‘freeze for freeze’, whereby Pyongyang would agree to suspend all nuclear and missile tests and Washington and Seoul would suspend their Foal Eagle joint field training exercises (one of the largest military exercises in the world and a long-running source of North Korean insecurity).

The idea behind this is to defuse tensions and create space for negotiations over a series of inducements (the establishment of a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, the normalisation of North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the US and Japan and the promotion of economic and energy cooperation) in return for nuclear disarmament by North Korea.

Beijing’s proposal has been prematurely rejected by the Trump Administration, which, while claiming to be trying to exhaust all diplomatic options, is actually issuing threats and applying forceful pressure without offering inducements of any kind – a tactic it must know has no chance of success.

Predictably, North Korea’s Kim regime has shown little interest in dialogue. Despite this, immediate discussions on how the Chinese proposal might work in practice would be helpful, because a window of opportunity exists before the next round of US-South Korea joint military exercises, which are due to take place in March 2018.

What can Australia do?

Having signed the 1953 Armistice, Australia is committed to defending South Korea in the event of an attack by the North – an international obligation that Canberra is bound by, whatever the status of its alliance with the US, or its opinion of the Trump Administration’s reckless nuclear diplomacy.

The ongoing nuclear crisis thus has serious strategic implications for Australia, a point that should propel herculean diplomatic efforts to cool the situation. On a positive note, there have been some high-level attempts by Canberra to directly and indirectly engage Pyongyang – these efforts need to be sustained, even though the task is difficult, unpalatable, costly and often politically awkward.

There are other urgent steps Australia can take, too. For example, rather than relying on sanctions and repeating the US line that China should be doing more to resolve the North Korean crisis, Australia can offer its support for China’s diplomatic efforts, including the freeze for freeze proposal, which will have a stronger chance of uptake if states in the wider region push for it to be pursued.

Canberra can also do more to push back against nuclear fatalism, including by speaking out more assertively and consistently against unhelpful and bellicose rhetoric from allies and adversaries alike.

Polls indicate that the Australian public would support this approach, with more than 80 per cent support across the political and social spectrum for the Turnbull government to step up its diplomatic efforts.

More on this: Living with a nuclear North Korea

Longer-term, the success of diplomatic initiatives in Northeast Asia will be dependent on the nuclear policies of the world’s nuclear-armed states, and here Australia can play a much more constructive role than it currently does.

Most importantly, it can use international forums, including the 2018 UN High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, to emphasise the need for nuclear-armed states to demonstrate their commitment to nuclear risk reduction, including by acknowledging, reducing and eliminating the nuclear dangers that their own nuclear arsenals pose.

This kind of big picture, long-term, holistic approach is necessary because the failure of any state to actively work towards the goal of nuclear elimination reinforces nuclear mindsets, weakens the nuclear non-proliferation regime and undermines every targeted attempt to deal with specific proliferators.

On this point, by reconsidering its high-profile opposition to the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty (NWBT), and instead focusing on how to ensure a prohibition regime can coexist with and build upon the NPT, Australia would be making a major contribution to nuclear risk reduction in Northeast Asia and beyond.

This is a piece from Nuclear Asia, the new publication from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.

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