Editorial: Non-nuclear weapon states meet amid growing tensions in East Asia

On April 9, the ministerial meeting of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), comprised of ten non-nuclear weapon states, was held in the Netherlands amid escalating tensions in East Asia over North Korean ballistic missiles. Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, attended the meeting as the representative of Japan. The meeting adopted a joint statement strongly urging North Korea, which has willfully pursued its nuclear development program and repeatedly engaged in provocations, to refrain from further actions which could escalate tensions.

Putting international pressure on North Korea, through all available means, is essential. The united stance of the ten nations in urging North Korea to comply with resolutions adopted at the United Nations Security Council is only natural.

Spearheaded by Japan and Australia, the NPDI was launched three years ago with the goal of helping to reinforce the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

The sixth ministerial meeting was held to coordinate proposals designed to be submitted at the Second Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which will take place soon. The next ministerial meeting will be held in Hiroshima in the spring of 2014.

Currently, the NPT is the only existing multilateral agreement concerning nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. At the same time, much has been made of the limitations and challenges of the treaty. The nuclear ambitions of North Korea are a grave example. No matter how strenuously the NPDI calls for reinforcing the NPT regime, the sad reality is that the international community is unable to stop North Korea from pursuing its nuclear development program.

The reason the international community is viewing the progress of North Korea’s ballistic missiles so seriously is because that nation’s threats could grow at one stroke if it can succeed in reducing the size of its warheads.

After advancing, furtively, with its nuclear ambitions, North Korea then declared that it was withdrawing from the NPT. In this way, it has taken advantage of the treaty’s contradictions, whereby participating nations have access to technology for the peaceful use of nuclear power, but can then withdraw from the treaty unilaterally. The treaty includes no specific provisions hindering such a withdrawal, a point that has been a continuing source of concern among the members of the international community.

In addition, the “unequal nature” of the NPT permits the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom to maintain their nuclear arsenals. The nations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and others have expressed growing frustration over this aspect of the treaty, pressing these five nations to make drastic reductions to their nuclear arms.

In a sense, the NPDI is poised to play a role between the nuclear weapon states and NAM. That stance could be interpreted as a realistic path forward. However, the NPDI must direct its attention to broader efforts than merely pursuing reinforcement of the NPT itself.

Meanwhile, other like-minded groups of nations have become more active on the international stage.

Last fall, Switzerland, Norway, and other nations issued a statement at the United Nations General Assembly which highlighted the “inhumanity” of nuclear weapons and called for efforts to make nuclear weapons “illegal” under international law. More than 30 nations signed the statement to express their support, an indication that the international community is seeking a new way forward that, while acknowledging the role of the NPT, includes the goal of concluding a nuclear weapons convention that would unconditionally ban these arms.

The Japanese government, though, declined to sign the statement. It expressed reluctance to the idea of banning nuclear weapons outright, believing that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is needed for the nation’s security. People in and out of Japan, including A-bomb survivors, have naturally reacted with criticism and disappointment to the Japanese stance.

Foreign Minister Kishida has stated that he would like to make the NPDI gathering in Hiroshima “the starting point for a world without nuclear weapons.” Japan, in order to strengthen its ability to convey messages as the A-bombed nation, must pursue a broader agenda. As a matter of course, Japan should review its continuing reliance on the nuclear umbrella.

Mexico, an NPDI nation, is also a leader in the movement to make nuclear arms illegal. Japan’s role must not remain simply one of shoring up the NPT regime and applauding itself for this effort.

(Originally published on April 11, 2013)