The World Is Going Backwards On Nuclear Proliferation – This Is Not a Mistake We Can Afford To Make

The Munich Security Conference, which opens on Friday, could not be more timely. For the first time in its history, the international gathering of top diplomats and policy makers will tackle the escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula, currently one of the greatest foreign policy challenges for the new United States administration, and a threat to global peace and security.

The United States has historically taken a firm lead on managing threats from Pyongyang, and the presence of US vice president Mike Pence and defence secretary James Mattis in Munich positions them as the barometer to gauge how Kim Jong-un’s nuclear programme can be halted before it is too late.

Just last week, we were reminded again of how vulnerable the world is to nuclear catastrophe. North Korea showed its disregard of UN security resolutions once again by firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile towards the Sea of Japan, its sixth nuclear test.

We may be about to witness an escalation from this initial provocation early next month when the United States Armed Forces begins its annual joint military drill with the South Korean Armed Forces. North Korea has always regarded these exercises as a dress rehearsal for an invasion from the West, and has warned it is ready to take ‘an extremely stern counter-measure.’

While experts doubt North Korea’s claim that it is in the final stages of developing a weapon capable of reaching the United States, the consequences of any strike against South Korea or Japan would not be limited to those countries. The use of a nuclear weapon would have a catastrophic and long-lasting effect, as was vividly experienced after Hiroshima.

Defending ourselves from new dangers that are presented by North Korea requires new thinking and fresh strategies. But if we are to finally to free humanity once and for all from the spectre of mutually assured destruction, then serious multilateral negotiations should be aimed at ultimately achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

That will not happen until the US and Russia moderate their rhetoric and take the reduction of their nuclear arsenals seriously.

I am sorry to say that we find ourselves in an environment where there is not only a protracted deadlock in arms control negotiations but a disturbing willingness to increase reliance on nuclear weapons to guarantee national security. At the Munich Security Conference we must reiterate the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking, on which the resolution of the North Korea crisis depend.Failure by the US to engage with the international community only makes the world a more dangerous place, and this includes the security of the United States.

Firstly, the UN Security Council Resolutions applied to North Korea must be strictly implemented by all parties. Key to this is investigating claims that North Korea has been proliferating weapons technology to other rogue states, and has supplied missile technology that allowed Iran to carry out recent missile tests.

The dialogue on North Korean nuclear arms and missiles programmes should also be resumed without delay in a workable format with the goal of preventing further nuclear and long-range missile tests by PDRK as the first phase of the long-term process aimed at a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

Looking beyond North Korea, reaching a complete ban on possession will necessarily be a complex and protracted process, but there is no obvious reason why such a negotiating process should not commence now. A realistic road map might start with a Convention banning any first use of nuclear weapons.

As President of the Luxembourg Forum, it is alarming to witness the deterioration of the pledges that were made at Reykjavik over 30 years ago and which experts have dedicated years to maintain. The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union historically provided a powerful start to a period of great achievement in nuclear disarmament. Today, it is under growing threat due to unresolved US and Russian mutual accusations of non-compliance.

Although the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is being implemented properly, continuity in strategic arms control dialogue has been lost for the first time in more than forty years.

Apart from the successful conclusion of the deal on the Iranian nuclear programme of 2015, there has been no further progress on enhancing the nuclear non-proliferation system and regimes. The 2000 US-Russia agreement on plutonium disposition has been suspended, as has the programme of scientific collaboration on nuclear energy, thus terminating the last vestiges of a quarter century-long broad cooperation on safety and safe elimination of nuclear weapons and materials.

The deplorable reality is that none of these issues are presently receiving serious attention from decision makers and public opinion.

When he addresses the Munich conference on Friday, Mike Pence would do well to provide reassurance that the administration recognizes the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. The best way to do this is to reaffirm principles set down after the Cold War - that nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won.

The Luxembourg Forum is one of the largest NGOs in its field, bringing together experts on nuclear weapons non-proliferation and arms reduction and limitation.