Following the latest heightened, bellicose threats from North Korea, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a new round of sanctions on the already isolated country, aimed primarily at starving their growing missile program.
However, increased sanctions are unlikely to create a positive change in North Korean conduct. Their perception is based on both weaknesses and fears, both real and exaggerated. While North Korea is not an existential threat to the United States, the reverse is not true; Pyongyang responds accordingly.
If North Korea is as irrational as characterized, then we should be concerned and find a way out of the current conundrum, quickly. The claim that they only become a nuclear threat once they have a long-range missile capacity is not very assuring. A tugboat in the harbor of any city, particularly one with a major financial center, could do enormous global damage.
The situation on the Korean peninsula highlights the urgency of pursuing non-discriminatory, cooperative approaches to the global nuclear challenges.
Firstly, their increasingly successful nuclear tests and the way in which nuclear weapons are "used" to threaten and cajole underscore the urgency of pursuing the universal elimination of nuclear weapons as an international priority. The possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any country only undermines efforts to stem proliferation and move toward elimination. One such step in the right direction could be for the United States to declare a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.
Another obvious step towards a cooperative approach to disarmament and security would be the universal ratification of the already negotiated treaty prohibiting nuclear tests, a global covenant that is impressively verified through a worldwide International Monitoring System that can detect even small nuclear tests, anywhere on the planet. Keep in mind that North Korea has conducted three tests -- less than the fingers on one hand -- while their existential enemies have conducted upwards of two thousand. We need one standard for all -- nuclear weapons are unworthy of civilization and no country should be brandishing them.
Secondly, talks at all levels should be pursued -- direct, indirect, multilateral. North Korea must be assured that neither the United States or our allies have any intention to attack it. This is not rewarding bad conduct but pursuing a course of conduct designed to change it. This assurance could come in the form of a comprehensive peace agreement to replace the entirely insufficient 1953 Armistice Agreement. A cease-fire, after all, is not a sufficient end to the Korean War.
Thirdly, a mutual cessation of provocative military exercises would immediately ratchet down tensions. We know that our ships, missiles, air forces, submarines, and troop deployments could destroy North Korea rapidly. We do not need military exercises to demonstrate that we are poised and ready to deter aggression.
And lastly, proposals for a Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone encompassing both North and South Korea and Japan, replete with security assurances from nuclear-armed China, Russia, and the United States, should be advanced, on the parliamentary and diplomatic levels. This sort of rational approach has already succeeded in Latin America, Central Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, and South Asia, including thereby over 112 countries in nuclear weapon-free zones. Parliaments in Japan and South Korea, as well as civil society groups and some diplomats, have been exploring this proposal and should continue to do so.
Sanctions have failed to change Pyongyang's behavior, position, or rhetoric. More of the same will similarly fail. It is time for a new approach, a comprehensive approach that doesn't simply aim to "defuse" the crisis du jour, but rather to build a sustainable security, for Asia and the world.