US President Donald Trump’s decision on Friday to decertify the Iran nuclear deal threatens the future of the landmark agreement, creates greater instability in the Middle East, and weakens America’s position in the wider global order.
Why is the agreement important?
Adopted in October 2015, the agreement was the culmination of 20 months of intense negotiations between Iran and a US-led coalition made up of the UN Security Council P5 nations (the US, the UK, Russia, France and China) as well as Germany. It significantly limited Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and achieve a domestic nuclear weapons capability.
In exchange, a range of longstanding US and EU economic sanctions were removed against Iran. This allowed access to wider export markets for its beleaguered oil industry and permitted greater amounts of external investment – particularly from interested parties in Europe and China.
Iran was permitted to retain a civilian nuclear program for power and medical purposes. However, this was subjected to regular checks by international inspectors to ensure no nefarious activities were taking place.
Further reading: Why now? Understanding the Iranian nuclear breakthrough
The US president is required to certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days. If non-compliance is detected, the president’s decertification begins a congressional process that can end with the reimposition of sanctions.
Many saw the agreement as a significant and positive foreign policy legacy for former president Barack Obama. It was a rare achievement for an administration that largely fumbled in its approach to the Middle East.
Consternation over Trump’s inability to effectively handle the Iran deal began long before he was sworn in as president. On the campaign trail, Trump described it as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” without clearly stating why.
As president, Trump has sullenly recertified the agreement twice. But he always indicated he wanted to assume a more hostile stance toward Iran.
While taking a harder line toward Iran is hardly a desire Trump holds alone among Republicans, he has offered little coherent vision on an alternative. Aside from vague threats of violence and suggestions he could “renegotiate” the agreement, Trump has provided little in the way of viable policy options.
In the case of the former, short of regime change, this would only lead to a more hostile Iran and a greater probability of nuclearisation – just as it did in similar circumstances during the Bush years.
For the latter, Trump is unlikely to be able to mobilise the necessary partners to return to the negotiating table. Nor could he entice an antagonised Iran to trust future US commitments after it feels the US has once again duped it.
The ‘spirit’ of the deal
Trump’s justification for decertification stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s “spirit”. This is despite other partners in the negotiations, and his own advisers, indicating that Iran remains compliant with the agreement.
Trump cites Iran’s support for militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as its ongoing ballistic missile program and backing of Syria’s Assad regime, as a dereliction of its commitment to the deal.
The problem with this logic is two-fold and interrelated.
First, none of these activities are included in the nuclear agreement. While they are certainly challenges to be responded to with a combination of carrots and sticks, the deal was never designed or intended to resolve them.
Second, Trump seems to expect that the agreement should act as a panacea to the wider challenge of Iran for the US. This attitude ignores the complex, slow and ongoing nature of adversarial diplomacy.
Normalising Iran within the international system – the ultimate goal of US engagement – is a process that will likely take decades. In this endeavour, an all-or-nothing attitude only serves to weaken Washington’s position in any ongoing delicate negotiations, where both parties need to walk away with some sense of accomplishment, dignity and confidence in their partners.
Obama was starkly aware of such realities. He knew that while he might not be able to curtail all of Iran’s regionally destabilising activities, discussions on the nuclear issue in isolation could offer a path forward.
The decertification also reinforces Trump’s disdain for multilateralism as a key tool for promoting US interests and resolving international problems.
Not only does Trump’s decision incense America’s partners in the deal, it also joins a long list of multilateral frameworks, alliances and agreements he has either abdicated, threatened or weakened. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord, and NATO.
US participation and leadership in these institutions directly serves its own international interests: it helps it shape the norms and standards by which other countries engage in the global arena.
But, by undermining these same structures through such non-consultative and unilateral actions, the US disincentivises other countries from adhering to the rules-based international architecture it has sought to sculpt since 1945.
This has direct relevance for normalising Iran’s behaviour. It has viewed the international system as arrayed against it since at least the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Under such conditions, getting Iran to embrace a less revisionist and disruptive approach to foreign policy through socialisation and co-operation will hardly be helped by undermining a key structure of rapprochement.
At a wider level, such unilateralism harms US relations with its more traditional allies, which view it as a less reliable and predictable partner.
Trump’s transactional worldview may put little stock in national prestige. But such qualities can be just are crucial to the long-term diplomatic relationships of international affairs as short-term material concerns.
Should the US wish to maintain its global primacy, it cannot simply devolve into a bully power and expect others to remain in lock-step with its goals. While most US presidents have seemed to grasp this concept to varying degrees, it seems wholly beyond Trump’s neophytic views on grand strategy in foreign affairs.
On Wednesday a historic ceremony will take place in the UN General Assembly – the opening for signature of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it. More than 40 are expected to sign today, and more will sign over the coming weeks and months. As it was adopted by a vote of 122 to one, it can be expected that close to 100 countries will sign before year’s end and it will enter into force in 2018.
The agreements is long overdue. It is 72 years since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 71 years since the first resolution of the newly formed UN General Assembly called for “the elimination from national armaments of the atomic weapons”.
It comes at a time of deeply disturbing resurgent nuclear threats and risks of nuclear war, which are considered by most experts – such as the 15 Nobel laureates among the custodians of the Doomsday Clock – to be as high as they have ever been.
It will provide the first comprehensive and categorical prohibition of the world’s most destructive weapons. The treaty makes clear that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of these weapons means they can never be used again, and consequently should be eliminated. It affirms that as the risks concern the security of all humanity, all countries share this responsibility.
Countries that join the treaty must not develop, test, produce, possess, transfer, receive, station, deploy, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. There are provisions outlining a pathway for those that have nuclear weapons now, had them in the past, or host nuclear weapons, if they can verify they are rid of their nuclear weapons, related programs and facilities.
The treaty is carefully crafted to complement other disarmament treaties, in particular the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Not only is the content of the nuclear weapons treaty historic, but the process of its genesis has also transformed the moribund nuclear disarmament landscape. For the first time, a nuclear disarmament treaty has been led by the countries without the weapons, and has an unequivocal humanitarian basis.
The level of involvement of civil society was unprecedented, particularly Japanese hibakusha (those who survived the atomic bombs) and nuclear test survivors, including from Australia.
The UN was used for the first time in 21 years to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty, because it’s most inclusive and democratic forum, the General Assembly, is able to adopt substantive measures by vote.
This is in stark contrast to the NPT conferences and the Conference on Disarmament, which are paralysed by a requirement for consensus.
The treaty was able to be completed from negotiating mandate to adoption in eight months, with only four weeks of actual negotiations. This was because of a widespread determination to seize this landmark opportunity on the part of many states, who were more willing to put aside parochial agendas than I have ever witnessed in a nuclear forum over the past 35 years.
Fierce opposition came from nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent countries (including Australia), as a US document to its NATO allies demonstrates. Strong political and economic pressure exerted on many countries by the US, UK, France and Russia, despite peeling off some smaller and weaker countries, proved ineffective.
Pressure on countries not to sign, most publicly US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ admonition to Sweden, will likely ramp up. However, the treaty is a triumph of the interests of common humanity, and is not going away.
The dangerous brinkmanship and extreme threats traded between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are only the latest explicit threats to use nuclear weapons by a succession of leaders, including Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, and leaders in India and Pakistan.
Relations between the US and Russia are at their worst in 30 years, with a resurgent Cold War escalating. Relations between the US and China are at their lowest point in decades. Pakistan and India are expanding their nuclear arsenals faster than anywhere else. Both sides are implementing deployments and policies for early use of nuclear weapons if war erupts.
North Korea’s escalating development and testing of both nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles demonstrate that any determined nation can develop both.
The fundamental problem is what South African ambassador Abdul Minty described as “nuclear apartheid”, with the countries possessing nuclear weapons busy modernising and determined to retain them, rather than fulfil their obligation to disarm. This is an inevitable driver of nuclear proliferation.
As former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said:
There are no right hands for the wrong weapons.
No human should have the power to end the world in an afternoon. If nuclear weapons are retained they will eventually be used. The crisis relating to North Korea, for which there is no military solution, highlights again that our luck could run out any day.
The countries that have foresworn biological and chemical weapons now need to do the same for nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a credible pathway to the verified, time-bound elimination of weapons posing the most acute existential threat to people everywhere.
All countries – including North Korea, the US and Australia – should join the treaty.
While North Korea’s reckless behaviour in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has diverted international attention in recent weeks, another crisis-in-the-making should be regarded with equal concern.
What the world does not need right now is another nuclear crisis on top of efforts to build a global consensus to deal with North Korean brinkmanship.
And yet that is what is at risk from a policy tug-of-war in the Trump administration between those who believe Iran is living up to its obligations – however imperfectly – under a 2015 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and those who want to toughen its provisions.
US President Donald Trump has described the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a centrepiece of his predecessor’s foreign policy – as the “worst deal ever”.
Under a Congressional mandate, the administration is obliged to certify the agreement every 90 days. On the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has done this twice, but a festering issue has bubbled to the surface ahead of the next certification deadline on October 15.
Administration hawks are pushing for a renegotiation of the original agreement – something that Iran would almost certainly resist, along with other parties to the deal.
These include, apart from the US, the remaining four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. China and Russia could be expected to be especially resistant.
Any US action to withhold certification or seek to alter the terms of the JCPOA risks prompting an international crisis in which the US would find itself isolated from its natural allies. And all this at a moment when global consensus is required to deal with North Korea.
Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, might be pressuring the US to toughen its stance against Iran more generally, but if the JCPOA became a casualty of these pressures, an even more chaotic Middle East would be a likely result.
Israel’s campaign againstthe JCPOA has been relentless, and in this it finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia in ways that have the potential to shift regional alignments.
In the Arab vernacular: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
In the US, concern about the administration’s commitment to the JCPOA has stirred arms control experts to counsel against steps that would jeopardise an agreement, however flawed, that appears to be working.
Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 (during which the JCPOA was negotiated), warned this week of risks to the agreement.
In a commentary for CNN, Countryman wrote:
The president campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of the “worst deal ever”.
Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.
Countryman noted that just last week the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that all parties to the JCPOA – including Iran – are in “full compliance” with the agreement.
This is the eighth time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working.
This expert assessment is not being challenged directly by members of the administration antipathetic to the agreement, but an attempt appears to be underway to reinterpret the JCPOA to take into account Iran’s behaviour more broadly.
This was never the intention.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave voice to this strand of administration thinking in a speech earlier this month to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in which she questioned Iran’s adherence to the spirit of the agreement. Haley said:
Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it.
Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement in the national interests of the United States.
Haley answered her own question by launching an ad-hominem attack on Iran more generally, including criticism of its continuing development of a ballistic missile capability.
The ballistic missile issue is not dealt with in the JCPOA, rather in a separate UN resolution.
Haley’s suggestion that certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should be shifted to Congress is problematical since that body overwhelmingly opposed the deal when it was negotiated. She told the AEI:
Under the law, if there was such a referral Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-right violations.
This process would almost certainly destabilise the JCPOA.
In an editorial, the New York Times forcefully expressed its misgivings:
If Mr Trump blows up the nuclear deal, then what? None of the original opponents of the deal, in or out of Congress, including Mr Trump, have offered any plausible alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an alternative, a reckless decision to honour a reckless campaign promise invites Iran to pursue an unfettered path to a bomb. And if deals with the United States cannot be trusted, North Korea will have one more reason to keep pursuing its nuclear program.
In all of this one might have sympathy for Tillerson, who has been tasked with seeking to toughen provision of the JCPOA in consultation with America’s allies.
Tillerson is reportedly arguing for an extension of the freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program beyond the 2025 and 2030 limits specified in the agreement. Those discussions will continue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week when foreign ministers of the JCPOA signatories have been asked to convene to discuss the issue.
Indications are that the US will have some difficulty persuading the representatives of China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany to revisit the JCPOA.
One option being canvassed by the US is for a separate set of agreements that would seek both to limit Iran’s missile development, and extend the “sunset” provisions on its nuclear enrichment program.
New French president Emmanuel Macron has expressed lukewarm support, but it seems unlikely Germany’s Angela Merkel would fall into line if such a step risked the overall agreement struck after two years of painstaking negotiations.
Indeed, this week Merkel proposed talks on the North Korea crisis along lines of the negotiations with Iran:
I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that.
From an Australian perspective, no purpose would be served at a moment when it wants the focus to remain on North Korea by a separate crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Australia might be “joined at the hip” to the US, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words, but when it comes to an issue like America’s threats to blow up the JCPOA, Australia would be advised to endure a bit of separation anxiety.
North Korea’s apparent nuclear detonation on September 3 has drawn our attention to a remarkable international organisation that helps detect and identify nuclear tests.
For the Vienna-based Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the latest North Korean explosion was easy to detect and locate. With a seismic magnitude of 6.1 and a blast yield of 160 kilotons (Hiroshima was around 15), the purported hydrogen bomb test mimicked a major earthquake. It was quickly sourced to North Korea’s nuclear test site.
Confirming that the event was definitely a nuclear test, as opposed to another type of explosion or an earthquake, is trickier.
For that we rely on detection of short-lived radioactive isotopes that may leak from the test site, notably the noble gas xenon. The CTBTO has not yet announced such a finding, although South Korean monitors have reportedly detected xenon-133.
Other potential sources of the gas must be eliminated before a definitive conclusion can be reached.
In the past, such fallout has usually been discerned after a North Korean test, but not always. Much depends on whether the cavity created by the test leaks or collapses.
Nuclear test ban treaty
The CTBTO’s International Monitoring System, which detected the North Korean test, is designed to verify compliance with the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear tests in all environments for all time.
The International Monitoring System comprises 321 monitoring systems worldwide, using four technologies:
- seismic – to detect tests under ground
- radionuclide detection – to detect breakdown products
- hydroacoustic – to detect tests under water, and
- infrasound – for atmospheric tests.
The CTBTO’s international monitoring system is sensitive enough to detect underground nuclear tests below one kiloton.
Construction of the system began in 1996 and is now 90% complete.
Australia hosts six seismic, two infrasound and one hydroacoustic station, including a large seismic array and infrasound station at Warramunga in the Northern Territory.
Data from the International Monitoring System is transmitted to Vienna via a global communications satellite network, mostly in real time, where it is compiled, analysed and distributed to member states. Sixteen laboratories are available for analysing radioactive fallout.
The treaty also provides for on-site inspections to confirm that a nuclear test has been conducted. The system is funded by member states according to the usual United Nations formula based on national GDP.
A difficult, important achievement
As a member of the Australian delegation, I observed the complex preparatory scientific talks on the system at the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva in the early 1980s. It is a miracle of statecraft and science that this collaborative international infrastructure has actually come into being.
The scientists did not get everything they wanted due to political and financial constraints. Some errors were made in the rush to complete the technical specifications. Installation of some of the stations in remote and inaccessible areas has proved daunting.
The hydroacoustic system, for instance, passed a significant milestone in June when the final station was completed, on France’s Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.
After 20 years of planning and construction and the investment of millions of dollars, not only is the International Monitoring System almost complete, but it is functioning far better than its designers anticipated.
It also has unexpected side benefits, such as providing early warning of tsunamis and detecting nuclear disasters. The network successfully detected the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and tracked radioactive plumes from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Nuclear test ban treaty
The test ban treaty itself is not in such good shape. More than two decades after it was opened for signature it is still not in force, rendering the CTBTO only “provisional”. This is due to the requirement that all 44 states with a significant nuclear capacity must ratify it.
Currently 183 states have signed, and 162 have ratified. But 8 of the 44 with a nuclear capacity have still not ratified: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and the United States. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US have at least signed. China says it is awaiting US ratification before it moves.
After a flawed lobbying effort, President Bill Clinton’s administration failed to secure Senate approval for US ratification in 1999. The treaty has not been resubmitted since, despite President Barack Obama’s undertaking that he would try.
Given President Donald Trump’s apparent focus on emphasising American military prowess, it seems unlikely that he will favour ratification of the treaty.
More immediately threatening is the return of periodic Republican attempts to defund the CTBTO. These are usually beaten back on the grounds that the US benefits greatly from the worldwide monitoring that only a global system can provide, notwithstanding impressive US national capabilities.
As it has in the past, the Australian government should make representations in Washington in support of CTBT ratification and preservation of funding for the system.
Paradoxically though, even if the other seven holdouts ratify, the one country that continues to conduct nuclear tests into the 21st century, North Korea, can stymie entry into force forever. Its accession to the CTBT should be part of any negotiation with North Korea on its nuclear program.
The good news is that the global monitoring system continues to go from strength to strength, providing reassurance that all nuclear tests, including those less brazen than North Korea’s, will be caught.
The CTBTO’s verification system provides hope that science can quietly triumph while political solutions elude us.
On Sunday, North Korea claimed it had completed its sixth nuclear test – a hydrogen bomb.
This test was performed underground by the notoriously secretive regime. So, how can the international community know the state news agency was telling the truth?
Nuclear weapons either produce energy through nuclear fission (fission bombs) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs). In both cases, nuclear reactions with neutrons cause the uranium or plutonium fuel to fission into two smaller nuclei, called fission fragments. These fragments are radioactive, and can be detected by their characteristic decay radiation.
If we detect these fission fragments, we know that a nuclear explosion occurred. And that’s where “sniffer” planes come in.
Enter ‘sniffer’ planes
Since 1947, the United States Air Force has operated a nuclear explosions detection unit.
The current fleet uses the WC-135 Constant Phoenix. The aircraft fly through clouds of radioactive debris to collect air samples and catch dust. By measuring their decay, fission fragments can be detected in minute quantities.
The crew are kept safe using filters to scrub cabin air. Radiation levels are monitored using personal measuring devices for each crew member.
On the ground, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) operates 80 ground-based monitoring stations across the globe that constantly monitor the air for fission products that have dispersed through the atmosphere.
What can fission fragments tell us?
When a nuclear test occurs underground, the fission fragments are trapped except for noble gasses.
Because noble gasses don’t react chemically (except in extreme cases), they diffuse through the rock and eventually escape, ready to be detected.
In particular, some radioactive isotopes of the chemical element xenon are useful due to the fact these isotopes of xenon don’t appear in the atmosphere naturally, have decay times that are neither too long nor too short, and are produced in large quantities in a nuclear explosion. If you see these isotopes, you know a nuclear test occurred.
Something happened during this test that has people excited — there was an additional magnitude 4.1 tremor around eight minutes after the initial tremor, according to the United States Geological Survey. Among other things, this may indicate that the tunnel containing the bomb collapsed. If this happened, then other fission products and other radioactive isotopes could escape as dust particles.
This might have been accidental or deliberate (to provide proof to international viewers), but in either case, we may learn a lot, depending on how fast the sniffer planes arrived and how much dust was released.
For example, by looking at the probability of seeing fission fragments with different masses, the composition of the fission fuel could be determined. We could also learn about the composition of the rest of the bomb. These facts are things that nuclear states keep very secret.
Crucially, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, we could suggest whether or not the bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.
What can’t they tell us?
The amount of information a sniffer plane can determine depends on how much material was released from the test site, how quickly it was released (due to nuclear decay) and how rapidly the sniffer plane got into place.
But fission fragment measurements probably can’t tell us whether the bomb tested was small enough to fit on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). After all, it’s easy enough for North Korea to show a casing in a staged photograph and blow up something else.
Whether or not North Korea has a thermonuclear device that is capable of being mounted to an ICBM is a question weighing heavily on the minds of the international community.
Sniffer planes and the CTBTO network will be wringing all of the data they can out of the debris in the atmosphere to help the world understand the nuclear threat from North Korea.
Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.
While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.
Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.
On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.
North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.
Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.
The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.
If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.
Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.
Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.
As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.
Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.
The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.
And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.
Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.
This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.
How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.
All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.
Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.
Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.
The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.
The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.
But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.
For more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test confirms it is very close to perfecting a miniaturised warhead for deployment on its missile delivery systems. The 6.3 magnitude seismographic reading registered by the test blast is approximately ten times more powerful than that recorded from its nuclear test in September 2016.
There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which US power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test. Let’s walk through the possible scenarios.
If the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.
US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis responded to the latest test with a threat of an “effective and overwhelming military response”. This is the kind of rhetorical overreach that is undermining US regional standing under the Trump administration.
There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.
The US loses in any war scenario, even though its combined military forces with South Korea would inevitably win such a conflict.
Further reading: Attacking North Korea: surely Donald Trump couldn’t be that foolish
If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gifts China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia.
America’s northeast Asian alliances, particularly with South Korea, will be challenged regardless of what Donald Trump does next.
North Korea’s nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles increase the risk to the US of defending South Korea and Japan in the event of war. This undermines their governments’ faith in America’s security guarantee. It does not help that the Trump administration has been slow to fill the ambassadorial roles to South Korea and Japan.
Any military action that leads to an escalation to war risks a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, and missile strikes on other targets in South Korea, Japan and further afield.
North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. US alliances with South Korea and Japan would come under great stress if they were attacked, given that those alliances are in place to prevent such an occurrence.
If sanctions continue to be ineffectual, North Korea completes its end-run to having a deployable nuclear weapons capability.
This outcome undermines the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons development weakens this system by serving as an example to other would-be proliferators that they can develop nuclear weapons without any meaningful consequences – the ineffectual economic sanctions regime notwithstanding.
This outcome will also demonstrate that the US cannot prevent a determined nuclear proliferator from undermining its nuclear hegemony.
Nuclear monopoly, underpinned by the limit on the number of countries with nuclear weapons built into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is one of the pillars underpinning US global power. The “nuclear shadow” cast by countries with nuclear weapons provides them with greater leverage in dealing with the US and narrows America’s menu of choice for exercising power.
Trade war with China
If the US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.
Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. This is a not-so-veiled message to China, North Korea’s largest trade partner.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doubled down on this proposition. He claimed his department was working on a sanctions package that would strangle “all trade and other business” with North Korea.
There have also been calls to urge China to embargo crude oil deliveries to North Korea to further squeeze the Kim regime.
However, the US consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US$463 billion worth of goods. As Hillary Clinton pointed out while secretary of state, China has enormous leverage over the US as its largest creditor.
Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea.
In the unlikely event that the US negotiates a nuclear freeze with North Korea, it simply kicks the can down the road.
When we strip back the ritualised tough talk that regional leaders routinely articulate after North Korean provocations, and the inane repetition of the meme that diplomacy equates to “appeasement”, talking to North Korea may be the least-worst option forward.
The Kim regime may agree to a nuclear weapons development and production freeze, or a missile testing moratorium to buy time.
But given the importance of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development) to his domestic legitimacy, and North Korea’s long history of coercive bargaining tactics in which it engineers crises to obtain concessions in exchange for de-escalation, this could only be a postponement of North Korea’s inevitable proliferation success.
The problem with the negotiation gambit is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway. and domestic political legitimacy.
A peace agreement
If the US sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged – and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate.
Another avenue for negotiations to progress may arise once North Korea has perfected and deployed its nuclear weapons capability.
At this time, North Korea may call on the US to negotiate a security guarantee and a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which remains technically alive since the 1953 Armistice Agreement.
But why would North Korea want to engage in such negotiations? It will have greater leverage in these negotiations when backed by a nuclear deterrent.
Yet such an agreement might be the least worrying option available to the Trump administration, given the unpalatability of other options. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea.
A marker of US decline
There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength.
Could current events on the Korean Peninsula represent America’s “Suez Crisis” moment? In 1956, Britain over-reached in its attempt to maintain a post-war imperial toehold in Egypt, exposing the chasm between its imperial pretensions of a bygone era and its actual power in the aftermath of the second world war.
The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s US is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of US decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.
For more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.
Here’s the script accompanied by a lot of bombast, signifying not much.
North Korea launches another missile – its 18th for the year and 80th since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011. This time it travels over Japan itself.
The “international community” expresses outrage. Australia echoes these imprecations – at a distance.
Meanwhile, US-South Korean war games proceed, according to schedule, on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea ignores the threats, and prepares for its next missile launch.
Clearly, a “fire and fury” strategy is not working. The question then becomes: what are the alternatives?
Back in July, the Council on Foreign Relations provided a useful primer. In that post, the author referred to a proposal by Chinese delegates to a US–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington in June in which they advanced a two-step strategy based on previous remarks by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.
First, the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises (the twice-yearly ones now in progress) in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile development and testing.
Second, China would monitor North Korean compliance. Should North Korea infringe on such an agreement China would withhold economic benefits and security assurances.
In other words, China would have skin in the game – and perhaps, more to the point, risk losing diplomatic face if such a process faltered.
The above approach is not dissimilar from the one the Obama administration adopted in negotiations with Iran over a freeze on its nuclear program.
There was no single “big brother” standing in the wings to exert pressure on Iran. However, the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany contributed to a satisfactory – far from perfect – outcome. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program and subject itself to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has belittled the plan to such an extent that this makes it more difficult to arrive at a similar solution to the North Korean crisis.
Donald Trump himself has described the Iran agreement as the “the dumbest deal … in the history of deal-making”. This criticism is echoed by administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – although the US continues to certify Iran’s compliance each 90 days. Such is the febrile nature of American diplomacy these days.
As things stand, no amount of huffing and puffing by the Trump administration or its allies seems to have much effect on North Korea. The rogue state appears intent on engaging in a game of brinkmanship on an almost-weekly basis, thumbing its nose at round after round of UN sanctions and other measures designed to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.
China has backed the latest round of sanctions and applied some of its own, but it is caught between its perceived obligations as a responsible international stakeholder and its more immediate concerns about stability on the Korean peninsula.
China displays legitimate anxiety about a conflict between the two Koreas spiralling out of control, destabilising East Asia in the process and, no doubt, causing a tidal wave of refugees to cross into China itself.
From China’s perspective, maintaining relative calm on the Korean peninsula is a number-one priority. This leaves aside other considerations like its usefulness to China of a divided Korea as a buffer against a US-Japanese-South Korean security bloc in East Asia.
These are all complex calculations made more so by Kim’s personality. Perhaps even more than his father and grandfather, he appears willing to push the limits of what the rest of the world – including China – might tolerate.
The Kim personality contributes to understandable alarm about risks involved in a game of bluff on the Korean peninsula, given the near-certainty of the annihilation of thousands if conflict erupted. There is no more potentially destructive and volatile corner of the world.
Among challenges for the international community in its dealings with North Korea is that country’s apparent imperviousness to sanctions – or, at least, its ability to withstand what are now four rounds of UN sanctions resolutions since 2006.
The Council on Foreign Relations writer makes the point that unlike oil-dependent Iran – which yielded eventually to international pressures, including sanctions against imports of Iranian crude – North Korea remains adept at exploiting loopholes in a sanctions regime. It lives with its isolation.
Each new round of missile tests, accompanied by further evidence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, should be prompting a searching review of options beyond hyperbolic threats detached from reality.
What’s required is a new approach that would draw on experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China would be a critical component of such a diplomatic offensive whose aim would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and place limits on its missile development.
The point is that where North Korea is concerned there are no easy options, simply ones that are less bad. Policymakers in the US and among its allies, including principally Japan and South Korea, should be resisting the temptation to grandstand.
The existing approach is not working. A military option does not exist, except in the minds of less rational players.
In any solution, China remains the gatekeeper.
While much of the world’s attention was focused last week on the G20 meeting in Hamburg, and Donald Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, a historic decision took place at the United Nations (UN) in New York.
On Friday, 122 countries voted in favour of the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”.
Nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction without a treaty banning them, despite the fact that they are potentially the most
potent of all weapons. Biological weapons were banned in 1975 and
chemical weapons in 1992.
This new treaty sets the international norm that nuclear weapons are no longer morally acceptable. This is the first step along the road to their eventual elimination from our planet, although the issue of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remains unresolved.
Earlier this year, thousands of scientists including 30 Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter calling for nuclear weapons to be banned. I was one of the signees, and am pleased to see an outcome linked to this call so swiftly and resolutely answered.
More broadly, the nuclear weapon treaty offers hope for formal negotiations about lethal autonomous weapons (otherwise known as killer robots) due to start in the UN in November. Nineteen countries have already called for a pre-emptive ban on such weapons, fearing they will be the next weapon of mass destruction that man will invent.
An arms race is underway to develop autonomous weapons, in every theatre of war. In the air, for instance, BAE Systems is prototyping their Taranis drone. On the sea, the US Navy has launched their first autonomnous ship, the Sea Hunter. And under the sea, Boeing has a working version of a 15 metre long Echo Voyager autonomous submarine.
New treaty, new hope
The nuclear weapons treaty is an important step towards delegitimising nuclear weapons, and puts strong moral pressure on the nuclear states like the US, the UK and Russia to reduce and eventually to eliminate such weapons from their arsenals. The treaty also obliges states to support victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, and to address environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons.
It has to be noted that the talks at the UN and subsequent vote on the treaty were boycotted by all the nuclear states, as well as by a number of other countries. Australia has played a leading role in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and other disarmament talks. Disappointingly Australia was one of these countries boycotting last week’s talks. In contrast, New Zealand played a leading role with their ambassador being one of the Vice-Presidents of the talks.
Whilst 122 countries voted for the treaty, one country (the Netherlands) voted against, and one (Singapore) abstained from the vote.
The treaty will open for signature by states at the United Nations in New York on September 20, 2017. It will then come into force once 50 states have signed.
Even though major states have boycotted previous disarmament treaties, this has not prevented the treaties having effect. The US, for instance, has never signed the 1999 accord on anti-personnel landmines, wishing to support South Korea’s use of such mines in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea. Nevertheless, the US follows the accord outside of the DMZ.
Given that 122 countries voted for the nuclear prohibition treaty, it is likely that 50 states will sign the treaty in short order, and that it will then come into force. And, as seen with the landmine accord, this will increase pressure on nuclear states like the US and Russia to reduce and perhaps even eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.
The vote also raises hope on the issue of killer robots. Two years ago, I and thousands of my colleagues signed an open letter calling for a ban on killer robots. This pushed the issue up the agenda at the UN and helped get 123 nations to vote last December at the UN in Geneva for the commencement of formal talks.
The UN moves a little slowly at times. Nuclear disarmament is the longest sought objective of the UN, dating back to the very first resolution adopted by the General Assembly in January 1946 shortly after nuclear bombs had been used by the US for the first time. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful moment in a time when hope is in short supply.
The UN does move in the right direction and countries can come together and act in our common interest. Bravo.