Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2009.07.15

US must pledge not to attack N.Korea with nukes

The article was posted on The International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun on July 7, 2009 (Permission No. 18-3917)

 In April, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague in which he declared the United States would strive for a world without nuclear weapons. The president had previously indicated his determination to promote disarmament. The speech was noteworthy insofar as it made the position a new policy of the U.S. government. At the same time, however, I found myself asking questions.

 The first concerns the fact that in 2000, toward the end of the administration led by Bill Clinton, the United States had agreed to the "unequivocal undertaking" by the nuclear powers to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. The agreement, which was made at a conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was significant given that since the NPT took effect in 1970, the attitude of nuclear powers had remained unclear for three decades.

 The 2000 agreement is generally not well known mainly because the administration headed by President George W. Bush refused to confirm it and effectively froze it under a thick layer of ice.

 Can Obama melt the ice? Were the contents of his speech more substantial than the "unequivocal undertaking" made nine years earlier? Since these points are unclear from the Prague speech, we have to keep an eye on the future developments.

*All rights reserved by The Asahi Shimbun Company. No reproduction or republication without written permission.

 Second, on April 5, the day Obama spoke in Prague, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong missile, and on May 25 it conducted another nuclear test in defiance of strong international criticism. Its behavior remains as outrageous as ever, but North Korea clearly has reasons for acting the way it does.

 Pyongyang is afraid of a nuclear attack by the United States because successive U.S. administrations have consistently maintained the option of using nuclear weapons. As long as this situation persists, the isolated state is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

 While the problem was mentioned in the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework during the 1990s, and discussed in the six-party talks, the United States has only dealt with it hale-heartedly. North Korea responded by developing nuclear weapons, citing its own security.

 To an extent, implementing stricter inspections may be a useful strategy in attempts to denuclearize North Korea.
But a more effective approach would be for the United States to make the following pledge: "As long as North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, the United States will retain the options to stage a nuclear attack. If North Korea abandons nuclear weapons, the United States will make an unconditional promise not to attack it."

 To make such an approach feasible, the United States would have to change its policy and promise not to launch a nuclear attack against countries that do not possess nuclear weapons. According to the "advisory opinion" issued by the International Court of Justice in 1996, the use of nuclear weapons in principle violates international law. Moreover, it is unethical to use nuclear weapons against countries that are banned by the NPT from possessing them. It is possible for the United States to change its policy and I believe doing so would also meet U.S. national interests.

 The Obama speech made no reference to the use of nuclear weapons. The abolition and nonuse of nuclear weapons are two major and difficult problems that have been discussed for nearly 40 years but have yet to be resolved. Of the two, abolition is more difficult. If abolition is likened to a yokozuna (grand champion) sumo wrestler, nonuse is an ozeki (champion) wrestler.

 Obama received cheers and applause for vowing to beat the yokozuna. But I doubt he would be able to resolve the North Korean problem without tackling the ozeki.

*All rights reserved by The Asahi Shimbun Company. No reproduction or republication without written permission.