Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Denuclearization

In a speech delivered at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday, President Obama outlined many of his global ambitions for his second term. Among those was a renewed global push for nuclear disarmament:

“President Obama plans to use a speech in Berlin on Wednesday to outline plans for further reductions in the American nuclear arsenal if Russia agrees to pare back its weapons at the same time, administration officials said Tuesday.”

“Mr. Obama will propose trimming the number of strategic warheads that each of the two big nuclear powers still maintains by up to a third, taking them below the 1,550 permitted in the treaty he signed with Russia in his first term, a senior administration official said. That would leave each country with just over 1,000 weapons.”

“Mr. Obama will also declare that he will work with NATO allies to develop proposals for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the existing treaty. Russia, which has far more tactical nuclear weapons deployed than the United States and Europe do, has firmly resisted such cuts. There are fears that its tactical weapons are in parts of Russia where they risk being seized by terrorist groups.”
“The president, who once talked about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, faces enormous obstacles to any further reductions, both in Moscow and in Washington. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded further concessions on missile defense before entertaining deeper nuclear cuts, and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would resist any treaty that went beyond the New Start pact ratified in 2010.”

Despite obstacles, it is heartening to see President Obama placing nuclear disarmament on his second term agenda. It is important if the U.S. seeks legitimacy in talks with Iran and North Korea; both countries, in a recent change of tone, seem ready to begin talks with the U.S.

North Korea:

“North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission announced on Sunday that Pyongyang was ready to hold ‘broad and in-depth discussions’ with the US on a range of issues, including the building of ’a world without nuclear weapons.’”

“The country warned, however, that talks cannot take place if the US continues to set preconditions for direct dialogue. Washington has repeatedly said that North Korea must take concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations can take place.”

“The Obama administration said Sunday it was receptive to North Korea’s proposal for high-level talks, but wanted “credible negotiations” that would lead to a nuclear-free North.”

“National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement: ‘Our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world,’ including UN resolutions, and ‘ultimately result in denuclearization.’”

The U.S., preempting an obvious North Korean objection of America’s vast nuclear program, is taking the first step towards realizing a “world without nuclear weapons”. The issue remains whether Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea can be a credible negotiating partner.

China will have a key role to play in such negotiations, which it is hopefully ready to do after Presidents Obama and Xi summit meeting in early June. There are reasons to be optimistic, China has signed onto UN sanctions against North Korean in response to nuclear testing, frozen North Korean assets in major Chinese banks, and generally taking a much firmer tone than usual on the issue of North Korean denuclearization.

Iran:

“The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president creates an opportunity to move forward on a negotiated agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to begin to repair three decades of hostility with the United States.”

“During his first news conference on Monday, Mr. Rowhani promised to “follow the path of moderation” and allow greater openness over the nuclear program. But he also restated Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment as the United Nations Security Council has demanded.”

“Iran is ready to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a key demand of world powers at talks over its disputed nuclear program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

In return, the Persian Gulf nation must be offered “weighty reciprocal steps,” including a gradual lifting of unilateral and United Nations sanctions, Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwaiti news service Kuna posted today on the Foreign Ministry’s website.”

“‘This could become a breakthrough agreement that could largely remove the tension surrounding the existing problems, including concern about enrichment rising to weapons level,’ he said. ‘It would be unforgivable not to use this opportunity.’”

“Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said that while his country would consider the step of suspending enrichment at 20 percent levels, ‘we must know upon what foundations it rests.’ Recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful use under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would move the talks forward, he said.”

The interesting issue here is Iran’s continued insistence that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful means. As an American of Jewish decent, I have many reservations about legitimizing the nuclear capacity of a nation that has a history of promoting both anti-Western and anti-Israeli values.

However, the development economist and human rights advocate in me agrees with Mr. Jalili than Iran has a “right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes”. The fact that it is expressly stipulated in the NPT gives legal backing to the human rights implications of nuclear capability.

Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy and medical isotopes. Is it not the right for Iran’s citizens to have access to cheaper electricity and advances in medical care as the nation modernizes, unlocking resources for further modernization?

Further complicating matters is that nuclear energy has virtually zero GHG emissions; it is hypocritical to promote sustainable development (as Obama has done and continues to do) and at the same time disallow Iran from using nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is part of a “comprehensive energy portfolio” needed to combat climate change.

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes. 

What do my readers think? Are nuclear capabilities a “right”? Can either Iran or NK (or both) be credible negotiating partners? Does nuclear energy have a role to play n combating climate change? Global denuclearization is the definition of a long-term normative goal, but we must start somewhere. To paraphrase Voltaire, we should not let perfection impede progress.


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Conflict Watch: Nuclear North Korea

There was a bit of optimism when North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power follow his father’s (Kim Jong-il) death late in 2011. Those hopes have all but faded from memory, as it has become abundantly clear that Kim Jong-un is no more of a friend to the West than his father was. Kim Jong-un’s rule has been marked with the same lack of transparency, human rights violations, and anti-western rhetoric that came to define his father’s rule.

Kim Jong-un has been arguably even more aggressive than his father when it comes to shows of military power. Despite warnings against further nuclear testing (after 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests drew economic sanctions from the UN), Kim Jong-un authorized and conducted a third nuclear test on February 12th, 2013.

The third test has drawn the attention of the international community. Even North Korea’s largest ally, China, has condemned such tests. Kim Jong-un seems undeterred, and has vowed for further nuclear test strikes and other shows of military power in the future unless UN sanctions are suspended.

The international community is not caving the King Jong-un’s demands to stop sanctions against North Korean. To the contrary, yesterday it was reported that the U.S., China, and the U.N. had “struck a tentative deal on a draft U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution that would punish North Korea for its third nuclear test, which it conducted last month.” These sanctions are expected to be a strengthening of previously imposed sanctions following the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

North Korea has replied to such threats, unsurprisingly, with more aggressive military rhetoric:

 “‘We will completely nullify the Korean armistice,’ the North’s KCNA news agency said, quoting the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command spokesman.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

‘We will be suspending the activities of the KPA representative office at Panmunjom (truce village) that had been tentatively operated by our army as the negotiating body to establish a peace regime on the Korean peninsula,’ KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying.

‘Related to that, we will be making the decision in parallel to cut off the Panmunjom DPRK-U.S. military hotline.’”

While the hotline has never been used during times of diplomatic tension, it’s suspension is a symbolic move to cut off communication with the United States. By cutting off communication, Kim Jong-un is making it clear that he has no intentions of negotiating a nuclear disarmament with the United States or the “Western world”. (The U.S. is currently working on similar negotiations with Iran as well, who at least on the surface appears to be a more willing negotiating partner than North Korea).

Less symbolic, and more overtly aggressive, is the claim that North Korea will nullify the Korean armistice in response to more severe UNSC sanctions. If the armistice is nullified, North and South Korea would technically be at war, meaning that even the smallest act of aggression by either side could explode into all-out war on the Korean peninsula. The Korean peninsula is currently a “powder-keg”, but even more alarmingly, it is a “nuclear powder-keg”.

Such a war would have serious geopolitical implications, as the U.S. is an ally of South Korea while China is an ally of North Korea.

China has, so far, played the role the international community would hope it plays in the current Korea situation. By openly condemning North Korean nuclear tests, and apparently agreeing to stricter sanctions against North Korea, China has signaled it is willing to put pressure on its ally to ensure regional stability.

The issue with China, as always, is can we take China at its word? China’s own lack of transparency continues to hinder its own accession as a true world power, while simultaneously depressing the standard of living for the average Chinese citizen. China has talked the talk, but will it walk the walk? Will China really remain tough on North Korea, or is it simply telling both sides what they want to hear?

China has openly defended tyrannical dictators, such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, on grounds of “national sovereignty”. While this does not amount to a lack of transparency (as China along with Russia have openly vetoed UNSC intervention in the Syrian civil war), it does show that Chinese leaders allow themselves a certain amount of moral flexibility when deciding who to align themselves with.

China’s lack of transparency, and history of supporting questionable leaders (in the spirit of fairness, the U.S. has backed some questionable leaders in the past as well), casts doubt on whether China means what it says regarding North Korea. Chinese weaponry was recently found on board an Iranian ship; if China is supplying Iran weapons, then China is directly responsible for subverting UNSC sanctions against Iran. If this is the case, why should we believe that China will remain true to its word on sanctions against North Korea? (Not to mention that Iran has become a known supplier of arms to African and Middle-Eastern conflicts, meaning China could be playing a prominent if indirect role in regional instability in these volatile regions).

Perhaps China is for real in its condemnation and proposed sanctions against North Korea. Perhaps the idea of a nuclear power so close to China’s own borders has prompted China to take a tough stance against North Korea in order to protect regional stability as well as its own national security interests.

One thing is certain—the U.S. and the “Western world” need China to take a leading role in demilitarizing North Korea. China, as an ally to North Korea, has the means to influence Kim Jong-un’s decisions in a way that Western powers cannot.

China is at a bit of a crossroads itself. With new leaders coming into power, there is hope for greater transparency, economic reform, and a more responsible foreign policy that could help China gain legitimacy in the international community. China is not North Korea; its economic growth is much more dependent on international trade and therefore global security. China has signaled it will increase its military capabilities going forward; hopefully it will use its military and diplomatic position to promote global security along with its own interests.

The lack of transparency by The People’s Republic of China has made its words cheap—we must see through China’s actions that it is serious in its stance against a nuclear North Korea. China’s opponents will point to subversion of the Iranian sanctions as a reason that China cannot be trusted as a world power. Tension in North Korea provides China with an opportunity to change its image and position in the world.  How China performs in de-militarizing North Korea will go a long way in determining its role in the international community going forward.

In a recurring theme here at Normative Narratives, we will continue to discuss Chinese-American relations. Is China a friend or foe?–time will tell.

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