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Korean Nuclear Crisis – time for Labour to call for dialogue to stop nuclear proliferation

With tensions escalating on the Korean peninsula in what is possibly the most serious nuclear crisis since that over the Cuban missiles in 1962, PM David Cameron’s assertion that Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons ‘was necessary’, was not merely opportunistic and hypocritical but utterly dangerous. Whilst other world leaders ­ Ban Ki-moon, the Russian and Chinese governments, as well as leading politicians in South Korea and the US – have all been calling on both sides in the conflict to show restraint, Cameron was in effect inflaming the situation, giving a green light not least to those in South Korea and Japan who would have their countries develop their own nuclear weapons.

The problem for the Labour Party is that one of its Shadow Defence Secretaries, Kevan Jones, echoed this endorsement of the Trident nuclear weapons system, with the only qualification being that of cost, not of nuclear posture.

The situation is particularly serious since the Korean war of 1950-1953, one of the bloodiest in living memory, has never been ended. Only armistice arrangements are in place on the peninsula, greatly amplifying the risks of miscalculation since military gestures and activities by either side may be easily be seen as provocation, even as an act of war. Now the US and South Korea have pushed ahead with joint military exercises involving the deployment of nuclear capable fighters, warships and missile defence systems in proximity to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), this despite provision for resuming the 6 party talks on Korean denuclearisation in the March 2013 UN Security Council Resolution 2094 imposing further sanctions on the DPRK following its 3rd nuclear test.

At the same time, the US is using the crisis to bring forward, and also increase, its plans for missile defence deployment in Alaska and Guam. The DPRK for its part has rejected the armistice and threatened South Korea, in fact a non-signatory of the agreement, as well as US territories with attack, hinting at a nuclear strike.

This current state of near-conflict should be understood as part of a 60-year cycle of threat and response. Since 1953, starting just a few years after the US had actually used nuclear weapons against Japan with the most horrifying consequences, the North Koreans have faced nuclear threats from the US, a vastly greater adversary, on some nine separate occasions. This past history has clearly contributed to the DPRK’s concern to develop its own nuclear arsenal. Having left the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 after being branded a ‘rogue state’ by US President Bush, the DPRK carried out its first nuclear test in 2006. Its choice of nuclear defence is now being constantly reinforced by the yearly US-South Korea joint military exercises, which, in violation of the spirit of the armistice, provocatively simulate nuclear attack and occupation, even taking place on one recent occasion in disputed territorial waters, togther with the US nuclear posture of first strike attack against the DPRK.

Yet these reasons which all help to explain why the DPRK continues to ignore UN resolutions and remains so bellicose are completely obscured behind the hostile nuclear proliferation prevention policies of the US, which deny the DPRK’s security concerns, dismiss its repeated declarations that its nuclear weapons are for self-defence and to ‘repel invasion’ and not for permanent possession, and ignore its continual requests to the US to open bilateral peace talks.  Far from being irrational, what the North Koreans want is simply a permanent peace agreement to end the Korean war.

The US’s approach to preventing nuclear proliferation by deterrent, with its policies of punitive sanctions and prolonged procrastination in the hope of ‘regime change’ from within, backed by the refusal to take the threat of use of nuclear weapons off the agenda, has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the DPRK’s continued development whilst facing the US’s massive nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert, makes absolutely evident that nuclear weapons do not deter but drive proliferation.

The deterrent approach is based double standards – applying to the DPRK and Iran but not to India, Pakistan or Israel – whilst the officially-recognised nuclear weapons states in continuing with their nuclear weapons modernisation are all in breach of the NPT. Similarly, the DPRK was penalised by the UN after its satellite-cum-rocket text in December 2012 yet India and Pakistan both tested nuclear-weapons capable missiles last year and South Korea was given US approval to double the range of its own missiles, all without condemnation.

The US’s hostile policies have failed to allow the atmosphere of deep mistrust to thaw and opportunities to explore diplomatic ways forward have repeatedly been missed. In 2000, President Bill Clinton was within a whisker of concluding an agreement but decided to leave it to whoever won the 2000 US election. In 2005 and 2007, the 6 party talks made major breakthroughs only to collapse again, not least because of US insistence on issues of transparency and verification which was seen by the DPRK as a sign that President Bush was not prepared for peace. Transparency in security issues is highly sensitive: not something that can be demanded but instead requiring much building of trust.

So long as the DPRK fears for its survival, it will not give up its ‘military first’ stance. Neither China nor Vietnam began to open their doors until after relations with the US were normalised. Yet economic reforms and foreign investment would be hugely beneficial to the North Korean economy: located between Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, the area is a potential industrial and transport hub for these major economies as well as a route for oil and gas pipelines from Russia and Central Asia to Japan. Efforts to raise the living standards of the people would begin to improve its international image and dispel mistrust. Punitive sanctions and military threats will not achieve ‘regime change’ but dialogue is highly likely to provide the route to ‘regime transformation’.

With the DPRK still far from being able to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile, the threat has been vastly over-exaggerated. However improvements in its technological capacities are concerning and need urgently to be addressed. There is a serious danger of igniting a nuclear arms race in the Asia Pacific region. Over recent weeks, editorials in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal and now the Guardian have all called on the US government to turn to diplomacy. Punitive and hostile policies will not resolve the decades of military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Yet David Cameron put the weight of the UK, as one of the world’s most influential powers, behind the warmongers, when instead he should have used the US-UK special relationship to urge caution, and as leader of one of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, sought to persuade the US to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2094 by fostering an atmosphere conducive to talks.

There are those in the Labour leadership that support Trident for fear of appearing weak on defence. Yet here was an opportunity for the Labour Party to be seen to act in a principled and internationally responsible manner. Instead of allowing the Tories to set the agenda on who is or is not ‘foolish’, the Labour Party should add its own voice to the growing calls for the de-escalation of tensions, a better understanding of the DPRK viewpoint and concerns, and renewed efforts at dialogue to achieve denuclearisation and a peaceful solution of the conflict over Korea.

Dr Jenny Clegg has been a senior lecturer and academic researcher in Asia Pacific Studies and is a member of Labour CND.

One Comment

  1. Dave says:

    There have been a great many opportunities for Labour to act in principled and internationally responsible manner but has chosen not to do so.

    Rather than voicing yet another demand perhaps time should be given over to trying to understand why they don’t and, when they don’t, what can be done to get them to change course.

    In view of the serious matters raised by Jenny (and Labour’s previous disastrous irresponsibility) this is something that needs to be sorted sooner rather than later – so I’ll kick off with a suggestion: If the Labour Party demonstrates that it is incapable of behaving in a principled and responsible manner people should stop voting Labour.

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