North Korea’s test-firing of a short-range missile heightens and underlines the dangers of a world in which nuclear arms are spreading.
The news media treats the North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a story of a bad actor threatening international security, giving it the sort of attention rarely given to calls for constructive action to eliminate the danger of nuclear weapons. In particular, the frayed Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is seldom mentioned, nor the obligation contained in the treaty for the nuclear powers, including the United States, to eliminate nuclear stockpiles.
The contrast hits home in Hiroshima, Japan, the first city attacked with an atomic bomb. Just eight days before the North Korean test, the city’s daily newspaper, the Chugoku Shimbun, released an appeal from 17 Nobel Peace Prize laureates for citizens and governments to act for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Outside of Japan, the laureates’ Hiroshima-Nagasaki Declaration has received almost no media attention.
When North Korea held its nuclear test, however, Hiroshima immediately became a media stage, and legitimately so: Citizens gathered in an outdoor protest. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a clock tracking the number of days since the world’s last nuclear test, which had been approaching 1,000, went back to one. Reporters sought out aging survivors for their comments. Suzuko Numata, an 85-year-old interviewed by Japan’s Mainichi newspaper from her bed at a home for the elderly, raised the real issue looming behind the North Korean test: a world in which nuclear weapons continue to be seen by some nations as something to be sought rather than as a threat to all humans.
Just days before the Nobel Prize winners’ declaration, one of the signers, International Atomic Energy Authority head Mohamed ElBaradei, told the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper that existing agreements on nonproliferation are out of date and that he fears big growth in the number of nuclear powers. The story received at best limited attention, despite ElBaradei’s prominence and expertise.
Then, there are the admirable efforts of some of the most prominent former U.S. national security leaders to generate momentum for a non-nuclear world. The group includes former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn. They did get space on the Wall Street Journal to write about their ideas, twice. Until recently, however, one was more likely to come across any details of their undertaking in a progressive magazine like YES! than in the main news media. But, as Shultz told YES! Magazine’s editor Sarah van Gelder for the summer 2008 edition, his group was engaging with leaders from all of the nuclear powers, including officially unacknowledged possessor Israel.
Shultz said, “The Nonproliferation Treaty in Article 6 says that those who don’t have nuclear weapons will have access to nuclear power technology and they won’t try to get nuclear weapons, and those who do have nuclear weapons will phase down their importance eventually to zero. People are looking for governments to live up to that treaty.”
More recently, though, the group received considerable media attention, because they met with President Barack Obama in the White House to endorse the vision for a nuclear-free world he unveiled in Prague earlier this spring. By speaking out, Obama has begun to make nonproliferation a more appealing story to a wider spectrum of the media.
Certainly, the Nobel Peace Prize groups’s spearhead Mairead Maguire, ElBaradei, the Dalai Lama, Muhammad Yunus, and the rest of their group hope Obama can begin to make a difference. The head of Chugoku Shimbun’s Hiroshima Peace Media Center, Akira Tashiro, wrote the appeal, which was revised before publication to take account of Obama’s speech in Prague.
The appeal’s timing was designed to fall a year ahead of a U.N. conference to review the treaty, including the duty of nuclear states to work towards disarmament. The 2005 review failed to produced substantive agreement, but observers say that the presence of the Obama administration has improved the atmosphere at a just-completed preparatory conference for 2010.
For the treaty’s future, North Korea, Iran, or other states with nuclear ambitions are no more than half the problem. The Nobel laureates’ Hiroshima-Nagasaki Declaration says, “We are deeply troubled by this threat of proliferation to non-nuclear weapon states, but equally concerned at the faltering will of the nuclear powers to move forward in their obligation to disarm their own nations of these dreadful weapons.”
In the same YES! edition as the Shultz interview, author Jonathan Schell wrote of the potential for a safer world if the nuclear powers would bargain to give up their bombs in exchange for enforceable promises by others to stay out of the nuclear business.
In sorting through the likely reasons behind North Korea’s nuclear test this week, David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, came to a related point: “North Korea’s nuclear testing is a manifestation of a deeper problem in the international system, that of continuing to have a small group of countries possess and implicitly threaten the use of nuclear weapons for deterrence or any other reason.”
In an interview, Tashiro said he hoped that Americans would support nuclear disarmament on the grounds—expressed by Shultz, Kissinger, and others—of the threat created by proliferation and the potential for terrorists to acquire nuclear materials. But, to come to that conclusion, Americans need more information on the issue than they usually receive.
Even with Obama talking about ending nuclear weapons, he and other nations’ leaders will need the support of an informed, engaged public if they are to create meaningful progress toward nuclear disarmament. In their conclusion, the declaration signers say, “As Nobel Peace laureates, we call on the citizens of the world to press their leaders to grasp the peril of inaction and summon the political will to advance toward nuclear disarmament and abolition.” That idea resonates in Hiroshima, a city that tries to make a better future out of horrible suffering. Perhaps as the world comes to terms with the dangerous possibilities of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran, the obligations of the current nuclear power to work towards abolition will get the attention required for action.
Joe Copeland wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Joe, who is part of the online news startup , is a visiting researcher at the Hiroshima Peace Institute on a Fulbright grant for journalists. While in Japan, he has a blog at . The views are his own.
A Powerful Peace, by Jonathan Shell
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