North Korea conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon in 2006. Since then, it has conducted five additional tests. The latest, in September 2017, was widely believed to be a hydrogen bomb, which is far more powerful than a conventional nuclear device. The test also indicated that Pyongyang's nuclear program had reached a new level of technical sophistication.
Additionally, North Korea has conducted dozens of missile tests in recent years, leading to fears that they could eventually arm these missiles with nuclear warheads which could reach the US mainland.
This nuclear threat is at the center of talks between the US and North Korea being held this week in Hanoi, Vietnam. However, earlier this month, the US dropped out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, a Cold War-era arms control agreement signed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1988.
The Trump administration said it abandoned the treaty due to Russia's noncompliance. Moscow soon followed suit. As the US is asking North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, critics point out that Washington is setting a dangerous precedent by abandoning arms control agreements.
DW spoke with Akira Kawasaki from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) about obstacles to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the danger of countries withdrawing from nuclear arms control agreements.
Read more: ICAN receives 2017 Nobel Peace Prize
ICAN submitted a proposal to North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan and China that outlines how to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The organization is also working closely with the Vietnamese government and is monitoring the progress of the Hanoi summit.
DW: What are your expectations for the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi?
Akira Kawasaki: Comprehensive and detailed steps for disarmament need to be agreed upon. Last June in Singapore, we agreed upon a great goal — the denuclearization the Korean Peninsula. That was good, but no concrete steps were agreed upon and no real progress was made. We hope that a concrete package of actions for nuclear disarmament is proposed.
What would this package look like?
Our proposal starts with the clear recognition of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. That needs to be the starting point, because these weapons pose a serious threat to all people, not only within Korea, but around the world. The leaders need to recognize the nature of nuclear weapons. Based on that, we advocate for an international law-based approach to complete denuclearization.
We cannot rely on bilateral agreements between very unpredictable leaders of certain countries. Rather, comprehensive and universal laws need to be applied. For example, we have the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted two years ago and earned ICAN the Nobel Peace Prize.
This provides a comprehensive pathway for states that have nuclear weapons to dismantle all their weapons, discontinue related programs and allow for international verification. It needs to be applied to the Korean Peninsula as well.
Recently, Russia and the US decided to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. How could this affect denuclearization talks?
We are very concerned about the US and Russia's attitudes toward nuclear disarmament. Earlier this month, the US declared it would withdraw from the INF, and Russia simply followed suit. It is becoming clear that these nuclear-armed states are not fulfilling their obligations toward disarmament.
On the one hand, these nuclear powers are destroying the disarmament regime and starting a new nuclear arms race. On the other hand, they are demanding that North Korea disarm. This kind of deal will not work. That is why we are calling for a universal approach that applies to all nations.
What is China's role in the Hanoi talks between the US and North Korea?
Once a nuclear disarmament agreement is made between North Korea and the US, the next step would be regional nuclear disarmament talks engaging China and Russia. Instead of only talking about disarming North Korea, we also need to talk about the general disarmament of nuclear weapons.
Russia and China possess nuclear weapons in this region, and the US also has a stake because of its military's presence in South Korea and Japan. So, all of these countries need to be at the table to have real talks on nuclear disarmament.
What do you think of the larger implications the summit could have on the region? How will it impact Asia?
There are several elements to this question. A peace process on the Korean Peninsula will have a big impact on northeast Asia, especially when the US and North Korea sign a peace declaration or a peace treaty. It will also have a positive impact on regional security. Whether they can sign such a treaty and end the Korean War is an important point.
We also need to highlight the role of Vietnam and Singapore in the series of talks. These ASEAN nations have an important role in engaging North Korea and the US. If China engages more in nuclear disarmament talks, I really hope it will have a good impact on South Asia, including India and Pakistan.
Akira Kawasaki is a member of the international steering committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organizations. ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its contribution to the establishment of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.