Dialogue as deterrent

Print edition : June 03, 2005

Intelligence reports of a possible nuclear testing by North Korea prompt other East Asian states to call upon the country to return to the six-party talks.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

(From left) Foreign Ministers Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea, Li Zhaoxing of China and Nobutaka Machimura of Japan at the start of a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting of Foreign Ministers in Kyoto on May 7.-YURIKO NAKAO/REUTERS

NUCLEAR non-proliferation has always been a sensitive issue in East Asia, meaning different things to different states at any given time. The massive military presence of the United States in the region as the self-styled "guarantor" of peace and security across the entire Asia-Pacific region inevitably complicates the perceptions of the lead players such as China and Japan, given the changing nuances of Washington's "political will".

Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the world's only theatres of war-time nuclear devastation, non-proliferation has often acquired a more strident "moral" overtone in East Asia than elsewhere. It is, of course, an entirely different matter that Japan, the only victim of war-time nuclear strikes, hardly ever censures the U.S. for the strikes. Instead, a "pacifist" post-imperial Japan has remained safe, for several decades since the end of the Second World War, under the protective nuclear umbrella of the U.S. itself.

It is against this background that the commencement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference-2005, in New York on May 2, was noticed by policy-makers across East Asia almost as conspicuously as at the United Nations headquarters itself.

The event was "heralded" by the news of the testing of a new short-range missile by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) on May 1 and by U.S. "intelligence-reports" that Pyongyang might now carry out an underground test of a nuclear weapon for purposes of deterrence or, indeed, "aggression".

The latest U.S. "intelligence" about the DPRK's preparations, as of May 10, for a nuclear-weapon test was said to be based on satellite imagery of the possible test-site. The "evidence" was taken seriously in East Asia, which explains much of the policy pronouncements by East Asian players at the NPT conference and outside it. It was irrelevant to much of East Asia that the credibility of U.S. "intelligence" on the subject of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had already taken a tumble with regard to Iraq.

Of all the East Asian states, China is the only NPT signatory with nuclear weapons. At the other end of the spectrum, the DPRK is the only country from this region to have renounced its adherence to the NPT, which it did a couple of years ago. Significantly, the U.S. and others tend to believe that China alone can "influence" the thinking of DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il.

Chinese officials have remarked, behind the scenes, that the DPRK does not really take orders from China. However, Beijing provides some vital economic aid to Pyongyang. More importantly, China remains the host for the now-stalled six-party talks on the DPRK's nuclear weapons programmes. The six parties are the DPRK, the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Significantly, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean leader Roh Moo-Hyun met in Moscow on May 9, during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World. The two leaders called upon the DPRK to return to the six-party talks. The message to Kim Jong-Il from a political friend like Hu Jintao and a fellow ethnic leader like Roh Moo-Hyun could not have been more pronounced as a call to desist from any plans to test a nuclear weapon at this stage.

At the conclusion of a conference in Kyoto on May 7, the Foreign Ministers or the representatives from as many as 38 countries, belonging to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), called upon the DPRK to take a "strategic decision" against testing a nuclear weapon "so as to achieve the de-nuclearisation of the [Korean] peninsula in a peaceful manner through dialogue". The ASEM leaders were restrained in their language because some members like Japan, the host, were of the view that they had not yet received "confirmation" that Pyongyang was on the brink of testing an atomic weapon.

The goal of de-nuclearisation of the entire Korean peninsula would imply a two-in-one list of wishes: (1) A move by the DPRK to give up its programmes of making, testing and deploying nuclear weapon(s); and (2) A decision by Washington to keep South Korea, too, free of American nuclear weapons at all times.

The DPRK has often accused the U.S. of stockpiling nuclear weapons on South Korean territory (including the maritime zone) for possible use against it in a "pre-emptive strike" under President George W. Bush's "doctrine" after his "discovery" of an axis of evil - Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran and North Korea. However, Washington as also Seoul and Tokyo, both American allies with variable intensities of closeness to the "leader", have generally allowed ambiguity to cloud the question of whether or not the U.S. has kept its nuclear weapons within its own military domains inside South Korea.

AT the NPT review conference in New York, Zhang Yan, head of the Chinese delegation, said on May 3 that Beijing, which was opposed to the proliferation of atomic weapons in any form, would call upon all those outside the treaty to join it as "non-nuclear-weapon states".

With the DPRK having pulled out of the NPT, the latest Chinese appeal would certainly mean a call to it to reconsider its decision and re-accede to the treaty without testing or deploying an atomic device. The NPT regime of inspections and other forms of surveillance would then apply to the DPRK.

More significantly, China's call would also imply a suggestion to both India and Pakistan to join the NPT as "non-nuclear-weapon states". Now, India's principled opposition to the discriminatory NPT, with its categorisation of nuclear haves and have-nots and the related unfair practices, is well known in international circles, while Pakistan has simply toed the Indian line.

China has, in the same breath, expressed itself in favour of continued efforts to enhance the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime in accordance with "new developments". The nuclear weapon tests by India and Pakistan in 1998 do not fall in the category of such "new developments" while the DPRK's suspected preparations for a test do.

The Chinese formulation could indicate a certain willingness by Beijing to consider some alternative ways of promoting non-proliferation. However, the fact remains that Zhang Yan's call is categorical about wanting those outside the NPT to join it as "non-nuclear-weapon states".

The status of a "non-nuclear-weapon state" could also mean that the country concerned will not be recognised under international law as a nuclear power. However, the NPT is not amenable to allowing any of its adherents, other than the five recognised nuclear powers, to possess atomic arsenals by whatever name or description. Therefore, the Chinese call can only mean that those outside the NPT should join it without possessing any nuclear weapons in their arsenals. This call is very timely for the DPRK case.

Japan wanted the NPT conference to "send clear messages" to the DPRK. This is considered significant in the light of speculation that Tokyo might come under tremendous pressure at home to reconsider its policy of nuclear pacifism if neighbouring and "hostile" DPRK were to test and deploy the bomb.

A relatively new Japanese proposal was about "proactive cooperation" among states through participation in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative of maritime interdictions consistent with the relevant United Nations resolution.

While this may need to be studied with care by India, a maritime player, a relevant question, as Francis Fukuyama and Kongdan Oh had pointed out in a study, is about "equality" in the relationship between Japan and the U.S. This aspect will assume new overtones should the DPRK detonate a nuclear weapon in a manner that raises domestic pressure in Japan about its own security in spite of the American umbrella.

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