More Background

Background to a Korea-Japan Nuclear Weapon Free Zone

A Korea-Japan Nuclear Weapon Free Zone could help resolve a number of linked and intractable security issues in Northeast Asia. These include:

  • The need to respond to North Korea’s nuclear breakout without undermining the nuclear abolition policy announced by President Obama;
  • The need for Japan and Korea to deepen their non-nuclear commitments to more deeply ingrained “forever” status without hedging; and
  • The need for Japan-Korean cooperation to lay the foundations for a comprehensive security mechanism and long-term regional security institution, including through a cooperative nuclear fuel cycle and space access activities.

Why now?

President Obama’s Global Abolition policy accelerates the trend toward removing the nuclear threat from international affairs. This trend includes greater self-imposed and legal constraint on nuclear weapons by nuclear weapons states, increasing effort to control nuclear proliferation by states and non-state actors, and expanding territorial exclusion of nuclear weapons.

Like Pakistan and India in South Asia, Israel and potentially Iran in the Middle East, North Korea runs contrary to this global trend. It presents a new and unruly challenge to the nuclear status quo in the region built on a Cold War system of nuclear threat between the three nuclear weapons states in the region combined with American nuclear extended deterrence to Korea, Japan and Taiwan. No less than four American administrations have failed to reverse North Korea’s nuclear breakout since 1991. The Six Party Talks starting in 2003 were also unable to break the US-DPRK gridlock. Thus, a long-standing and rigid regional structure built around nuclear threat has proven impotent to restrain the DPRK.  Moreover, American nuclear extended deterrence may have driven rather than reduced DPRK proliferation propensity.

The threat of further proliferation in the Asia-Pacific region is real in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The primary American response—a recommitment to nuclear extended deterrence to reassure its allies and to deter the DPRK—accelerates rather than slows this trend.15  Currently, the United States is attempting to block the DPRK from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, but has no strategy to achieve this goal, nor to construct an interim multilateral security framework beyond ad hoc security and crisis management. Thus, the DPRK (along with Iran and the unacknowledged NWSs, Israel, India, and Pakistan) stands squarely in the way of Obama’s Nuclear Abolition policy goal by reactivating nuclear extended deterrence and thereby increasing rather than reducing further the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs.

One alternative to nuclear extended deterrence is a regional security framework to manage regional insecurities and to construct cooperative security outcomes. Some policymakers even suggested that a great power concert combined with small power coalitions would flow from the cooperative effort needed to denuclearize North Korea.  A Northeast Asia Peace And Security Mechanism Working Group was established at the Six Party Talks to explore this option. Now that these talks have collapsed, the prospects for a comprehensive and inclusive regional security institution are bleak. Likewise, inter-Korean relations run hot-cold, and the Korean standoff seems more irresolvable than ever.

It is timely, therefore, to examine other paths less taken but nonetheless conceivable in this region. Such strategies would be less ambitious than great power concerts or complex security architectures modeled after the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, let alone a union such as the European Union or looser integrations existing in the Americas. A Korea-Japan Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (KJNWFZ) is one such limited but realistic possibility.