Korea and Japan: Prospects for Signing the TPNW

Korea and Japan: Prospects for Signing the TPNW

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Korea and Japan: Prospects for Signing the TPNW

By Dong-suk YOO

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the first legally binding multilateral agreement with a goal of nuclear zero: a world free of nuclear weapons. After Honduras ratified the treaty on October 24, 2020, it finally reached the required 50 states parties for its entry into force, and will enter into force on January 22, 2021. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan have been avid proponents of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime, however, neither country has signed the TPNW. The implementation of TPNW will be one of the main points of contention in the upcoming tenth nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. This essay will explore the rationale behind South Korea and Japan’s opposition to the TPNW and will delineate the conditions under which each country will sign the treaty.

South Korea and Japan have many commonalities in the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. Both are state parties to the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of the nonproliferation regime. However, when it comes to the TPNW, their courses of action stray from this trend.

Both South Korea and Japan have been against the TPNW from the start. In 2016, both countries voted against the UNGA resolution that started the “multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for…a world without nuclear weapons” and did not attend the negotiations. Neither Japan nor South Korea voted on its adoption in 2017, and in 2019, they both also voted against a UNGA resolution, which urged “all states that have not yet done so to sign, [and] ratify…the treaty at the earliest possible date.” The two countries have an unwavering position on the TPNW, an anomaly considering their past efforts in other nuclear disarmament negotiations.

Japan’s disapproval in particular is more interesting. Being the only country that has suffered from a nuclear attack, Japan has been at the forefront of eliminating nuclear weapons. This year, during the Memorial Ceremony of the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that “Japan has the unceasing mission of advancing…a world free of nuclear weapons.” Moreover, the Japanese public is in favor of signing the TPNW. According to a public poll conducted by NHN last year, 66% of respondents wanted the government to sign the TPNW. Hibakushas, the atomic bombing survivors, also strongly believe the treaty should be signed.

Why are South Korea and Japan reluctant to sign the TPNW? There are two reasons: the imminent nuclear threat from North Korea and their reliance on U.S. extended nuclear deterrence. First of all, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons outside the NPT regime. It has threatened to use nuclear weapons multiple times, and past efforts to disarm North Korea have failed to produce fruitful results. This threat poses a grave security concern to South Korea and Japan, where U.S. military bases are located and where they are within range of North Korean ballistic missiles. As North Korea’s nuclear weapons program advances to a level where it possesses second-strike capability through successfully developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), it is doubtful that the neighboring countries think the TPNW will have any effect on North Korea. Hence, from this perspective, there is no reason for the two countries to be supportive of the TPNW.

South Korea and Japan rely on U.S. extended nuclear deterrence, making it difficult to sign the TPNW. Extended nuclear deterrence entails that in order to stop an attack from happening and protect the receiver of deterrence, the provider of extended deterrence will threaten to use nuclear weapons against an aggressor. Extended nuclear deterrence, the so-called “nuclear umbrella,” has been the cornerstone of both countries’ national security policy, yet the TPNW and the nuclear umbrella are not compatible with each other. According to TPNW article 1(1)(f), a member state of the TPNW must not receive any assistance to engage in activities prohibited by this treaty, such as use or threaten to use nuclear weapons by another state. When a nuclear weapon state provides a nuclear umbrella, it aims to use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances. Therefore, a state cannot be a member state to the TPNW while under a nuclear umbrella.

Consequently, under which circumstance will South Korea and Japan sign the TPNW? Understanding the rationale behind the opposition to the TPNW, South Korea and Japan will get closer to signing the treaty when the two issues are resolved. First, there has to be significant progress in the North Korean nuclear case. North Korea’s advancement in its nuclear capability will loom above both countries until the threat is reduced. Confidence-building measures between North Korea, the United States, South Korea, and Japan would be the start of a meaningful resolution. However, more importantly, security concerns should be resolved to decrease reliance on the nuclear umbrella. Currently, Russia and China possess nuclear weapons in the region, and their nuclear policies are not as transparent as those of other countries. If the two nuclear weapon states become more transparent in their nuclear policies and start reducing nuclear warheads based on Article 6 of the NPT, South Korea and Japan will have lesser need to be under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Although the TPNW will enter into force in January 2021, under current circumstances, it is unlikely that South Korea and Japan will join the TPNW anytime soon. The looming threat of nuclear use by North Korea and the exclusive nature of Chinese and Russian nuclear policy leaves South Korea and Japan no choice but to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. However, if North Korea follows a path of disarmament and if the adjacent nuclear weapon states reduce nuclear weapons through a multilateral arms control treaty, South Korea and Japan will be closer to signing the TPNW.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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