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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

A Limited Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia:
A Track-II Initiative

By John E. Endicott

A New Helsinki Process for Northeast Asia?

In Helsinki this past October, in conjunction with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Atlanta, Georgia-based Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy (CISTP) of Georgia Tech jointly sponsored the most recent in a series of meetings focusing on creating a limited nuclear-weapons-free zone (LNWFZ) in Northeast Asia (NEA). Since 1992, the Center has brought together senior security specialists from the diplomatic, military, scientific, business, and peace activist communities from China, Japan, Mongolia, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Russia, the United States, and sometimes the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), to candidly discuss the need for such a regional zone. Meeting over the years in Beijing, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Bordeaux, Moscow, and Helsinki, the group has grown from a core of five individuals to over seventy, including official government observers from most States in the region.

In Helsinki, participants were joined by and received consul from Finnish experts who had taken part in the development and ultimate realization of the CSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe) process. Some of their recommendations will form the basis of discussions to be conducted in April by a small "working group" that will meet in Shanghai with the co-sponsorship of Fudan University to prepare for the next major plenary meeting in Tokyo in October 1999. This paper briefly describes the genesis of this Track II initiative, its development over time, and discusses some of the major problems that must be overcome before it can become a Track I effort.

The Promise of the Early 1990s

Work for a nuclear-free zone in NEA began conceptually within CISTP in 1991, in the midst of significant progress that was occurring between North and South Korea concerning the denuclearization of the Peninsula and related non-aggression accords. President George Bush's decision to consolidate as much as possible the storage of tactical nuclear weapons in the continental US led to breakthroughs in these North-South talks, and ultimately to a declaration by the ROK President that no nuclear weapons remained in South Korea.

Parallel and integral to these development, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced its East Asian Strategic Initiative (EASI) as part of the East Asian Strategy Report for 1991. This Initiative outlined American force reductions in Asia, starting with specific dates for drawdowns in the Philippines, and more general dates for both South Korea and Japan. The perception from the region was that America was preparing to depart. To dampen this notion, and demonstrate that the United States could remain actively engaged in the security of Northeast Asia even though its physical presence was somewhat reduced, CISTP looked for a concept that could keep America engaged in NEA and concurrently provide the foundation for a cooperative security community for the region. In short, it was time to replace the regional security system of confrontation with one based on cooperation and mutual gain. The mechanism chosen was a nuclear-free zone which would bring with it implementing and oversight organizational structures that would require the various States of the area to work together on a regular basis. (1) From the interactions necessary to insure compliance with the agreement a community of trust eventually would arise.

In early 1992 a group of retired military, diplomats, nuclear experts, peace activists, academics, and business people - from China, both Koreas, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, and the United States - met in Beijing to discuss security and economic development in NEA, including the idea for a nuclear-free zone. While the concept received a very good reception from most of the attendees, Participants from the People's Republic of China (PRC), including a Representative of the National People's Congress, were unwilling to discuss it seriously. A year later, however, during a trilateral meeting in Atlanta between representatives from Japan, China and the US, the PRC indicated renewed interest. Interestingly, this change in attitude occurred one week before the DPRK announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) system.

During the remainder of 1993 and 1994, the concept was presented throughout Asia and the United States. By January 1995, the initial feedback encouraged a more detailed examination. Over a five-week period, a panel of five senior security specialists met in Atlanta to discuss the particulars of such a nuclear-weapons-free zone. (2) The discussions produced a major document entitled "Agreement of Principles." The new agreement focused the concept on controlling tactical nuclear weapons and including some territory of all participants - including the US. The Senior Panel traveled to Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and San Francisco to present the updated concept to arms control experts and government officials. Reception was universally positive, but many thought it too difficult to achieve such a zone in an area with three nuclear powers present and great residual animosities from the Cold War, World War II and the colonial era.

Expanding the Senior Panel

In order to test the concept further and widen the number of expert reviewers involved, the Senior Panel was expanded to include five participants from each country (consisting of military, diplomatic, academic, commercial, and nuclear specialists), and in March 1996 this Expanded Senior Panel (ESP) of 25 met in Buenos Aires. Taking advantage of the Argentine and Brazilian system of intrusive inspection of their nuclear facilities, and the fact that Argentina is a member of the Latin America Nuclear-Free Zone, the session became a non-proliferation tutorial. In a sense, the Northeast Asia effort gained insights based on over 25 years of Latin American negotiations in a few days. (3) This experience further highlighted the importance of gaining insights from non-regional actors - a lesson that led to Finnish participation in 1998. The results of the meeting, produced in the form of the Statement of Buenos Aires, lent credibility to the effort.

In October that same year, the ESP convened in Bordeaux, France. With the increased credibility from Buenos Aires, the group was joined by a number of Official Observers from all the nations involved, the next step on the path toward a Track-I, or official, status for the concept. The meeting developed what came to be called the "Bordeaux Protocol" that outlined the next steps for advancing the concept. Most importantly, the concept moved toward institutionalization and codification of the relationships when the ESP established an Interim Secretariat of the LNWFZ-NEA. (4) Through this action, the participants made a bold statement about the long-term commitment they were making.

In October 1997, the newly created Interim Secretariat brought together the Expanded Senior Panel in Moscow where the concept received a boost in the form of two specific proposals: the notion of a League for Non-Nuclear States for Northeast Asia, and a Pilot Program involving the nuclear States so that China, Russia and the US could allow a small percentage of tactical nuclear weapons to come under the regional control of an LNWFZ-NEA Agency. The idea of having an inspection regime with representatives of all members of the region remains at the heart of the entire concept: through frequent opportunities to work together on security issues, it is argued that a cooperative security community could begin to take form in Northeast Asia.

It is worth noting the important distinction between the ongoing efforts of the LNWFZ-NEA and other conferences, roundtables and discussions. As the participants had been focused on a specific concept for a long period of time, the Moscow conference provided an opportunity to present unique and creative proposals for detailed discussion. Most importantly, the ongoing focused discussions meant that proposals were not left as orphans upon the closure of the meeting. They were nurtured and discussed after Moscow. Arriving at the next meeting in Helsinki, the proposals were reinvigorated with new proposals for providing a positive environment for growth.

Finland Steps to the Front

In October 1998, in conjunction with the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, the Expanded Senior panel, in its largest meeting ever, met in Helsinki to be critiqued by Finnish experts and discuss next steps. One of the significant absentees since 1992 has been North Korea; all members at the Helsinki meeting re-emphasized the common desire to have the DPRK participate. The special circumstances of Helsinki, having embassies from the ROK and the DPRK, permitted frequent contact between the Finnish participants and local DPRK representatives.

In a post-meeting briefing of the conference to North Korean officials in Helsinki, it became clear that DPRK interest in rejoining the process (potentially at the Shanghai meeting) is growing. Later, contact with high officials of the DPRK through the Mongolian Team Leader indicated that the Chairman of the Interim Secretariat of the LNWFZ may be invited to Pyongyang during the first part of 1999 to brief appropriate individuals and invite their active participation.

The other substantive contribution of the Helsinki forum was the examination of the concept of "baskets" to organize and prioritize the research and deliberations of the ESP. Successfully used in the CSCE process, the ESP looked favourably on three candidate "baskets": the LNWFZ, Supplementary Security Measures, and Economic Incentives. Again, the experience of non-regional actors proved important as the lessons of the Helsinki Process found their way into the LNWFZ-NEA.

While no nation in NEA has as yet officially endorsed the LNWFZ concept, the Helsinki meeting endorsed a program to have a technical meeting in Shanghai in April of 1999, and a meeting of the entire plenary group in Tokyo in October 1999. Invitations to meet in Beijing in 2000 and the Republic of Korea in 2001 are also in the planning stages. As the meetings now start to have regular Asian venues, it is hoped that the work will move from informal and unofficial (Track II) to formal and official (Track I). Having the meetings in close proximity to national governments will permit greater "walk in" involvement by senior bureaucrats who need to be exposed to the dialogue and members of the Senior Panel.

Obstacles to Progress

The United States officially still holds to nuclear-free zone policies made at the dawn of such concepts. Its seven criteria for such zones may be inconsistent with the dynamic international system of the 21st Century. These criteria are:

  • the initiative for the creation of the zone should come from the States in the region concerned
  • all States whose participation is deemed important should participate in the zone
  • the zone arrangement should provide for adequate verification of compliance with its provisions
  • the establishment of the zone should not disturb existing security arrangements to the detriment of regional and international security or otherwise abridge the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense guaranteed in the UN Charter
  • the zone arrangement should effectively prohibit its parties from developing or otherwise possessing any nuclear device for whatever purpose
  • the establishment of the zone should not affect the existing rights of its parties under international law to grant or deny other States transit privileges within their respective land territory, internal waters and airspace to nuclear-powered and nuclear-capable ships and aircraft of non-party nations, including port calls and overflights
  • the zone arrangement should not seek to impose restrictions on the exercise of rights recognized under international law, particularly the high seas freedom of navigation and overflight, the right of innocent passage of territorial and archipelagic seas, the right of transit passage of international straits, and the right of archipelagic sea lanes passage of archipelagic waters. (5)
US arms control officials, especially in light of the South Asian nuclear tests in May 1998, should re-examine the role that could be played by regional nuclear-free zones. The US has eliminated itself as a serious player in some regional non-proliferation concepts by restricting US participation in the policy formulation, excluding US territory from such concepts, and excluding itself from limited steps toward non-proliferation that may not include a total ban on all weapons and weapons capability. One could even say that the current policy prohibits the US from adequately fulfilling its obligations under the NPT to be an active participant in the total non-proliferation effort.

Other important obstacles are:

  • the historic animosities and the residue from the Cold War
  • the diverse political and economic systems
  • the presence of declared nuclear powers (three of the five P-5 powers are involved)
  • the constantly shifting political, economic, and security landscape of the region
Lastly, any effort that treads onto uncharted waters often finds that the devil is in the details, and a nuclear weapons control regime in Northeast Asia is no exception. Still, although the reduction of nuclear weapons is of vital interest to all States, the development of trust and the notion of cooperative security in Northeast Asia is the most important by-product of the LNWFZ-NEA process. The process of nuclear arms control and reduction can create a working cooperative security community.

A Question of Timing?

The 21st Century will find a complex group of relationships in the region. Arms control leaders in the US and Asia can wait until international conditions are right (actually, perfect) to create a LNWFZ-NEA, and then move on to find appropriate confidence building measures. But an old Russian proverb states that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." Leaders should take risks to build a foundation of trust that will revolutionize relations among the nations of Northeast Asia. International politics are still in a state of transition where there is the possibility of influencing the shape of the international system for the duration of the 21st Century. Today's leaders have the obligation to pursue regional security and cooperation concepts - and any mechanism which might add to them - even though the conditions are not perfect.

New models and new institutions for our international system must be developed for a new century. Non-Proliferation can play a role in building a more secure world, but what role - and how altered it is from the role of non-proliferation in the 1960s - has yet to be determined. The most important factor will be a willingness to think "outside the box" while keeping the needs of national security paramount. Within the overall context of non-proliferation, nuclear-free zones are only one concept. They are not a magic elixir that will turn all relations into positive ones.

It is important to recognize the model of Europe, where constant interaction with other States in the region through institutions that foster routine contacts at the operational level have led to a realization that mutual benefit and trust evolves from the most basic inter-State relationships. Building a security community does not occur overnight, yet the reluctance of leaders to take the first steps ensures that it will never happen. If the people of Asia and America are to enjoy the benefits of a peaceful and prosperous 21st Century, initial steps must be taken soon.


Events since May 1998 have awakened responsible members of the international community to the need for basic reform of the nuclear non-proliferation order. Science and developed technologies do not easily fit back into the bottle once released. The international system, in its current state, does not have the will, capacity, nor the moral standing to force all proliferators of nuclear weapons to stop their threatening activities. However, it may have the capacity to deal with the causes of proliferation in many cases. It is in this area that the concept of cooperative security regimes and supporting nuclear-free zones must be given a closer look. Perhaps, over time, causes of insecurity can be addressed, thereby reducing the attractiveness of the nuclear option. In the near term, the creation of institutions to help regularize relationships and to produce an environment to overcome centuries of mistrust may help. A system of viable nuclear-free zones may be part of that picture.

Notes and References

1. The original concept called for the removal of all nuclear weapons from a 1,200 NM circle centered on the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The concept has undergone significant adjustments over its seven-year life.

2. Members of what became known as the "Senior Panel" included: General Kim Jae-chang, the former Vice Chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff; Lt. General Toshiyuki Shikata, former Commander of the 7th Division in Japan and the Vice President of the Japanese Defense Academy; Major General V. Bunin, former Senior Planner of the Red Army and East Asian Specialist; Dr. Yan Xuetong, Deputy Director of the Chinese Institute for Contemporary Foreign Affairs; and the author, Dr. Endicott, former Associate Dean of the National War College and Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University.

3. The Latin American Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone began in 1967, with the final treaty specifications and agreement not occurring until the 1990s.

4. The Expanded Senior Panel determined that the Interim Secretariat would be temporarily housed at the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy at Georgia Tech, and would be headed by a Chairman, the author of this article, until an official agency could be housed within the region.

5. The criteria mentioned here come from a list submitted to the Interim Secretariat by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

John E. Endicott, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy, and Professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, at the Georgia Institute of Technology

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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