Over the past two decades, engagement with North Korea by the United States and the rest of the world has waxed and waned. This vacillation is evident even in the past year. The Six-Party Talks process produced both optimistic progress toward disabling Korea’s nuclear facilities and, more recently, a return to negotiation stagnation and new North Korean threats to resume nuclear weapons development.

Observers considering the broader implications of this seesawing, seemingly interminable crisis for broader East Asian relations may consider two questions. First: Can the Six-Party Talks, which involve the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and the two Koreas, contribute to reducing nuclear threats and enhancing security cooperation in the region more broadly? Second: What can civil society organizations do to facilitate progress in this wider context and to ensure that such progress contributes to human security as well as national security goals?

From a vantage point beyond the day-to-day shifts in negotiating positions, we can see that the answers to these questions are strongly connected. This six-country process can help reduce nuclear threats throughout the region, but only if civil society plays a critical role in the process.

Reducing Nuclear Threats

There are two avenues by which the Six-Party Talks can promote better regional security cooperation. First, the process, whose specific aim is to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, can contribute to reducing nuclear weapons capabilities and nuclear threat reliance in the region more widely. Most directly, a peacefully denuclearized Korean peninsula would reduce proliferation pressures on Japan and other neighboring countries, and could help relax regional dependence on nuclear deterrence by the United States and China.

More ambitiously, a denuclearized Korean peninsula could be a catalyst to the long-sought development of an East Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Such an arrangement would necessarily be more complex than any existing nuclear weapons free zone, because it would have to take into account U.S. nuclear deterrence guarantees to Japan and cover at least a portion of Chinese territory. But even partial progress toward such an objective would reduce nuclear tensions in the region considerably. Such progress is inconceivable absent a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

The second potential avenue for a wider contribution from the Six-Party Talks process is in directly initiating development of security cooperation mechanisms. A specific goal of the Six-Party Talks is the conclusion of a permanent peace settlement for the Korean peninsula, formally ending the over half-century-old state of war and mapping the road to eventual Korean reunification. Progress toward this goal would contribute positively to the generation of a regional security cooperation framework among the principle powers of East Asia. Many models for such a framework already exist. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum already provides an incipient basis for dialogue, albeit with a limited mandate. The Conference for Security Cooperation in Europe offers an example of institutionalized regional security cooperation that might fit particular East Asian needs.

These two paths are related. Just as resolving nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula can facilitate a broader Korean peace settlement, so might reducing nuclear threat reliance in the region contribute to the development of mechanisms for security cooperation among the region’s major powers. Thus, the disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions is linked directly to prospects of region-wide security cooperation through two routes.

The relationship also goes both ways. While it’s long been anticipated and hoped that progress toward resolving Korea-specific issues could contribute positively to progress at the wider regional level, relatively less attention has been paid to the potential for improved regional security cooperation to facilitate solutions on the Korean peninsula. But as the years passed, this second recursive potential has become at least as important as the original, because the Korean nuclear challenge has become qualitatively starker. Compared to the situation a decade ago, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities have advanced considerably. The Pyongyang government now likely controls some four times as much reprocessed plutonium, enough for a half-dozen or more nuclear explosive devices; it’s conducted a nuclear test and withdrew from the NPT with relatively little consequence. The task today isn’t simply to terminate the country’s nuclear weapons development, but to roll back an existing capacity. This latter objective, given historical precedents, will be far more difficult to achieve.

North Korea’s nuclear advancement hasn’t precipitated new nuclear weapons initiatives among its neighbors or dramatically disrupted regional security stability. But the price of “learning to live with” a nuclear North Korea, beyond the lingering possibility of highly disruptive future actions, is to embed nuclear threat reliance even deeper into regional security relations. This is why the potential contribution of progress in reducing nuclear threats and building cooperative security mechanisms at the regional level has become much more important to resolving the Korea-specific nuclear conflicts. Indeed, a peaceful and complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula may now depend upon such wider progress.

Role of Civil Society

Civil society organizations and individuals need to be clear in their own minds where their objectives converge and differ with those of intergovernmental processes. The Six-Party Talks process is a dialogue among governments and necessarily expresses the security priorities of those governments. Most serious discussions of potential wider regional security frameworks taking place between governments or at nongovernmental “Track Two” forums similarly understand the principal parties to be the region’s governments themselves. This approach to the issue defines security outlooks in terms of the relationships of sovereign nation-states. This agenda by definition differs from “human security” defined in terms of the kinds of concerns (human rights, freedom from want, and so on) typically at the heart of civil society objectives.

Progress toward peaceful conflict resolution and cooperative security dialog does, of course, serve human security needs. Peace is usually better for people than war. But this doesn’t mean that civil society and inter-governmental cooperative security agendas are identical. Civil society organizations have instrumental roles to play in defining those differences with precision — governments aren’t going to do so. In marking out those differences, these organizations will thereby establish independent human security goals and clearly differentiate their own nongovernmental roles from that of merely cheerleading the governments.

The need for articulating such an independent voice is sharper with respect to nuclear weapons issues than many others, precisely because nuclear issues are all too often regarded as exclusively the domain of governments, even among observers otherwise sympathetic to human security outlooks. Governments guard jealously their prerogatives over information and control of nuclear capabilities, and most civil agents recognize that the imperative of safety complicates the democratic control of nuclear weapons in ways absent from most other social and human security concerns.

But this doesn’t mean that the role of civil society in nuclear decision-making must be “limited.” Government isn’t the simple anchor of stability in a tempestuous sea of public opinion that realists imagine. Forces of ideology, nationalism, and xenophobia too easily capture popular moods, now as much as ever. But government acquires its enduring capacities for prudence and foresight through the tempering influence of vibrant civil society. And only genuine empowerment allows an undifferentiated mass to become civil society. Hence, for the global governance of nuclear questions, the roles for civil society participation must be expanded rather than limited — but must also be shaped with as much care as stewardship of nuclear knowledge itself demands.

With respect to the Six-Party Talks, however, most civil society organizations would be well served to restrain tying their objectives and activities too closely to the vagaries of progress in that process. This isn’t because intimate public attention is deleterious to the inter-governmental process, but because it can distract such organizations from their more fundamental and distinct objectives.

Individuals and organizations often take significant progress in this process as a light at the end of the tunnel and source of motivation. These same individuals and organizations often react to setbacks with trenchant disappointment and/or stiff criticisms of the deficiencies of the governments. Too frequently, these tendencies are overreactions. The vacillating pattern of progress and regress in the negotiation process is part of the process itself. As much as we might hope for, or even aspire to, achievement of a “grand solution” in the near term, we ought not to take every step forward as an incipient realization of an end to Korean nuclear tensions, nor take every step back as auguring an imminent onset of war.

More importantly, opportunities and obstacles in the pursuit of civil society objectives are anyway independent of whatever the current disposition of the Six-Party Talks happens to be. Indeed, because progress toward broader regional cooperative security may now be a necessary catalyst rather than merely a hoped-for consequence of Korean peninsula denuclearization, setbacks on the Korea-specific issues may now actually present stronger opportunities — and stronger needs — for civil society to pursue objectives at the broader levels. By delineating where their human security agendas diverge from the aims of the governments, civil society organizations can establish their goals, and measure success, independent of the outcomes of the intergovernmental processes.

The Pacific Freeze

The Pacific Freeze initiative is a good example of civil society activism responsive to the unique requirements of positive public participation on nuclear weapons-related issues. This initiative’s goal of freezing military spending by all Asia-Pacific governments takes seriously all facets of the security dynamics of the region. At the same time, the focus on spending on military capabilities itself, rather than on just the uses for which these capabilities are employed, is a distinct step away from viewing regional security needs through a strictly sovereign state lens. Most governments, even while welcoming the benefits of cooperative security mechanisms, would nevertheless maintain the need for adequate levels of military spending as a hedge against future threat contingencies. Appreciating and relieving the burden that arms spending places on individuals, centrally but not solely in terms of individual insecurity, is only possible from a holistic perspective independent of that of any given state.

The emergence of a cooperative security structure in the region would obviously greatly facilitate these kinds of systemic reductions in military spending levels. The promotion of progress toward such a cooperative security structure can be a tangible near-term goal of this initiative, even if a region-wide freeze on all military spending remains a more distant aspiration. Because of the deep connection between building cooperative security mechanisms and reducing nuclear weapons reliance in East Asia, the call to freeze Asia-Pacific military spending also serves as a powerful but prudent instrument for civil society promotion of regional denuclearization.

The Pacific Freeze’s focus on military spending makes governmental behavior the principal object of attention, and so relates to the human security agenda differently than some other civil society efforts. But this distinction simply illustrates that the goals of civil society organizations vary — sometimes fundamentally. Different types of organizations — religious, humanitarian, technical assistance, functional/expert, etc. — often don’t even agree on the priorities of the problems, let alone the direction of solutions. But there’s also an essential virtue to such divisions. The open contest of ideas and proposals strengthens everyone’s understandings, bolsters the foundations for action, and provides invaluable corrective to governmental myopia. The human security tent is large; any outlook manifesting a cosmopolitan concern for the welfare of individuals can find a place within it. The multitude of voices, though sometimes cacophonous, can resolve into a resonance that much louder, and that much harder for governments to ignore.

Civil society individuals and organizations have a vital role to play in promoting denuclearization and peace in Korea and in the Asia Pacific region more widely. That role can only be fulfilled by focusing less on today’s headlines and more on tomorrow’s visions.

Wade Huntley is the Director of the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia, and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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