North Korea might not denuclearize, but the US Senate should

By Ryan A. Musto | October 25, 2017

In addressing the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea, the Trump administration seeks a “denuclearized” Korean Peninsula. US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly pledged themselves to this goal in their recent phone conversations, while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently declared in a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: “The U.S., its allies and the world are united in our pursuit of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.” Other observers find this goal to be unrealistic.

Yet when it comes to regional denuclearization, the United States itself deserves scrutiny. Among the most advanced nuclear states in the world (together with China, France, Great Britain, and Russia), the United States ranks last in its commitment to “regional zero.” As the Trump administration champions a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the United States should strengthen its commitment to similar measures in other regions. The US Senate has the power to do just that.

Denuclearization by zone. The term “denuclearized” first entered the mainstream lexicon in the late 1950s, as Cold War powers and pundits debated the merits of establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in Central Europe. Subsequently, nine NWFZs have come into existence through international treaties or agreements: Antarctica (1961), Outer Space (1967), Latin America (1969), the Seabed (1972), the South Pacific (1986), Southeast Asia (1998), Mongolia (2000), Central Asia (2009), and Africa (2009).

The United States is a full member of four of the nine treaties (Antarctica, Outer Space, Latin America, and the Seabed), and has pledged its support for Mongolia’s nuclear-free status. But this record still leaves the United States as a full member of only one NWFZ treaty covering an inhabited region of the world. By comparison, China, France, Great Britain, and Russia are each full members of four.

The Obama administration recognized this shortcoming. In May 2011, President Barack Obama submitted the Additional Protocols to the Treaty of Pelindaba (Africa’s NWFZ) and the Treaty of Rarotonga (the South Pacific’s NWFZ) to the Senate for ratification, following President Bill Clinton’s signature of the Protocols in 1996. In May 2014, Obama signed the Additional Protocol to the Treaty of Semipalatinsk (Central Asia’s NWFZ), and submitted it for ratification the following year. (Meanwhile, no nuclear nation has yet signed or ratified the controversial Bangkok Treaty for Southeast Asia’s NWFZ.)

The ramifications of ratification. Under the Additional Protocols to the African, Central Asian, and South Pacific treaties, the United States would commit itself not to manufacture, store, station, deploy, or test nuclear weapons within the demarcated geographic areas. The United States would also pledge not to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons against the respective regions. In the South Pacific, the United States would commit to keeping its territory (namely American Samoa and Jarvis Island) nuclear-free.

The arguments against ratification are weak. The three NWFZs do not confer a military advantage to one state over another, and there is no foreseeable scenario in which the United States would need to use nuclear weapons in these three regions in any of the ways covered by the treaties. The three treaties allow for the transit of nuclear weapons through the zone (if agreed to by regional states) via ship and airplane, and adhere to the principle of freedom of the seas without committing the United States to the Law of the Sea Convention (to which it does not adhere). All three treaties also promote International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to ensure the peaceful uses of nuclear energy within the zones.

Agreeing to the Additional Protocols would mirror the commitment the United States made to Latin America starting in 1971. Under Latin America’s NWFZ, the United States reserved the right to respond with nuclear weapons to an armed attack by a regional state backed by a nuclear power, a qualification it could also apply to the three treaties up for ratification. In 2011, Republican Senator John Kyl of Arizona voiced his opposition to ratification because he believed that it would “limit the instances in which the President would use nuclear weapons to defend the United States and its allies from attack.” But the Obama administration and Defense Department (including the Joint Chiefs of Staff) concluded that ratification would “not disturb existing security arrangements or impinge upon U.S. military operations, installations, or activities.” There are a few legitimate issues that are specific to the individual treaties, but none of them are showstoppers.

Issues in Africa. Under Africa’s NWFZ there is the issue of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean that is claimed by Mauritius but operated by the United States (on a lease from Great Britain) as a secret military base. Evidence suggests that the United States sometimes stations nuclear weapons at Diego Garcia. While there are many reasons why the United States should reconsider its use of the atoll, full adherence to the Treaty of Pelindaba would not necessarily force the issue. The United States could ratify the treaty with a clarifying statement that it does not recognize Mauritian sovereignty over the territory, as Great Britain did in 2001. Moreover, the United States could follow Great Britain and ratify the treaty without agreeing to include Diego Garcia under its jurisdiction. Because the British continue to have dominion over the territory, the US State Department maintains that ratification would not hinder the activities of US armed forces stationed there.

Not all of the nations in Africa have ratified the Treaty of Pelindaba. While the continent’s only former nuclear weapon state (South Africa) is a full member, some notable omissions include Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But incomplete membership has not stopped the United States from joining a NWFZ in the past. In the early 1980s, the United States became a full adherent to Latin America’s NWFZ while the region’s two most advanced nuclear states (Argentina and Brazil), and the state in part responsible for the most dangerous nuclear showdown in history (Cuba), remained non-members. US ratification of the Treaty of Pelindaba would not have to overcome nearly such ominous holes in regional membership.

Issues in the South Pacific and Central Asia. In the South Pacific, tensions over the transit rights of oceangoing vessels climaxed in the mid 1980s, when New Zealand refused to allow US nuclear-powered ships and US ships carrying nuclear weapons to enter its ports. That was a bilateral dispute with an ally, though, and Washington and Wellington finally put the issue to rest last year.

Guam, which functions as a key military outpost for the United States, is not included in the territory covered by the Treaty of Rarotonga, and the denuclearization of American Samoa and Jarvis Island would hardly constitute a setback to the US strategic posture. Nor would the denuclearization of US territory be unprecedented. Under Latin America’s NWFZ, the United States denuclearized the far more contentious territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Central Asia’s Treaty of Semipalatinsk does not cover Afghanistan, so the United States could forego the denuclearization of its military bases stationed there.

Reasons to ratify. Aside from highlighting how full adherence to these three treaties will do little to hamper US strategic capabilities, it is important to recognize the benefits of ratification. There are reasons specific to the treaties themselves. For example, all three treaties prohibit the dumping of radioactive waste, a measure not even covered by Latin America’s NWFZ. The Treaty of Semipalatinsk also has an environmental security clause that calls for cooperation in securing loose nuclear materials. This clause looks to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists and to mitigate the environmental effects of the Soviet nuclear legacy in the region, critical goals deserving of US support. Meanwhile, US adherence to the Treaty of Pelindaba could help spur comprehensive membership across Africa.

The nuclear nations of India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea are not members of the three NWFZ treaties, but neither are they members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a legal instrument the United States ardently supports. And unlike with the NPT, these four states are not eligible under the NWFZ treaties. As relative latecomers to the nuclear arms race and with more limited capabilities, these nations have not been asked to join the denuclearized zones covering inhabited regions. Perhaps in the future that will change, but it is a decision for the regional states. In the meantime, formal US adherence to the three treaties can only bolster denuclearization norms in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and beyond.

Ratification of the three treaties would enhance US credibility in its quest for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. It could reinforce to Pyongyang that the United States seeks regional denuclearization through diplomatic, rather than military, means. US ratification could also emphasize to Pyongyang the need to take regional denuclearization seriously, whether on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere.

In the mid-1980s, North Korea made a mockery of denuclearized zones when it called for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and hosted an international conference on the issue as a cover for its nuclear weapons program. As a nuclear state, North Korea’s posture towards denuclearized regions has been mixed. For example, one North Korean ambassador stated last year that his country’s nuclear weapons do not target African nations, but North Korea also recently threatened to test a nuclear weapon in the Pacific, raising the specter that it could do so in the South Pacific.

More broadly, ratification of the three treaties would augment the United States as a leader in the field of nuclear arms control. The recent negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations is a reminder that global opinion favors a denuclearized world. While the United States has serious reservations about the ban treaty, full adherence to three NWFZs could help the United States reiterate its support for that lofty goal at little cost.

It is time for the United States to join the other advanced nuclear powers and ratify the African, Central Asian, and South Pacific NWFZ treaties. Doing so would not only strengthen the US commitment to the wellbeing of those regions, but would also strengthen the conviction that the United States is serious about regional denuclearization.


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