[Herald Interview] ‘China, Russia must act now to forestall regional proliferation’

By Joel Lee

“The ugly picture of a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia, with South Korea and Japan trying to develop nuclear weapons, is precisely why a persuasive case should be made to China and Russia to use their strategic leverage to stop North Korea.”

  • Published : Jul 24, 2017 - 17:41
  • Updated : Jul 26, 2017 - 10:43
With no sight of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities coming to a halt, the international community should warn China and Russia to “act now” to rein in Pyongyang’s ambitions and prevent similar proliferations across Northeast Asia, according to a prominent international relations scholar.

“The ugly picture of a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia, with South Korea and Japan trying to develop nuclear weapons, is precisely why a persuasive case should be made to China and Russia to use their strategic leverage to stop North Korea,” John Ikenberry told The Korea Herald.

This scenario is “not the world we want to find ourselves in,” he added, forecasting a world order “of greater instability, threats, risks and chances of miscalculation.”

“Once we are there we are back to containment and deterrence, the start of another cold war,” he said.

Professor John Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and teaches at Kyung Hee University in Seoul every summer. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is a renowned theorist of international relations and United States’ foreign policy, having served on the US State Department policy planning staff in the early 1990s.

The professor also teaches at Kyung Hee University in Seoul each summer as a global eminence scholar. This interview, touching on bilateral security, economic and environmental issues, took place following a lecture at the East Asia Foundation on July 12.

Despite the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in declaring its commitment to the international nonproliferation regime, support of Seoul going nuclear to achieve a “balance of terror” against Pyongyang has gained traction in recent years.

Notwithstanding the global nonproliferation regime and foreign policy challenges, Seoul could seek the option of developing its own nukes, or bringing back US tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn from the peninsula after the two Koreas declared a joint statement on denuclearization in 1991.

Noting that harnessing the cooperation of China and Russia is key to defanging the North, Ikenberry argued that lowering the bar for denuclearization talks may be the lesser of evils now, considering the breakthroughs Pyongyang has made in its capabilities to strike nations with its growing atomic arsenal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose at the opening day of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 07 July 2017. The G20 Summit is an international forum for governments from 20 major economies. (EPA/FRIEDEMANN VOGEL)

Pyongyang successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, which experts have analyzed as capable of reaching Alaska, thus representing a new escalation of threat to the world.

“One way to harness the cooperation of China and Russia would be to acknowledge their position, including the proposal for ‘a freeze for a freeze’ deal,” he suggested, referring to the overture made by Beijing and Moscow following the latest ICBM test. The two countries proposed that Pyongyang declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while Washington and Seoul refrain from large-scale military exercises.

“In some sense the proposal may be morally and politically untenable, but some kind of a variation of that proposal -- a freeze on the part of North Korea for some kind of a gesture by the US and South Korea to step back from their most coercive military exercises -- could be a place to start,” according to Ikenberry.

The scholar stressed that bringing on board China and Russia “as constructive partners” was paramount, as they have the most powerful grip on the communist nation in terms of diplomacy, trade and energy support.

Pointing to the now defunct six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing Pyongyang, Ikenberry said the “G5” nations of South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan should put up a “united front” against the North, albeit compromised along the lines of reciprocal reduction.

“The G5 could present a strategy entailing the freeze-for-a-freeze deal, involving a gesture of restraint that would be reciprocated by North Korea through inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in a truly credible way,” he claimed, underscoring that the proposal does not mean the end of bilateral military exercises, but some form of a moderation. 

Professor John Ikenberry (left) and Dr. Moon Chung-in, distinguished professor emeritus at Yonsei University Songdo Campus who has been tapped as the new administration’s special adviser on foreign affairs, at a seminar at the East Asia Foundation in Seoul on July 12 (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

“The strategy would be a package of deterrence, containment, pressure and diplomacy that leverages the unanimous feelings among regional players -- including China and Russia -- that the Korean Peninsula ultimately has to be denuclearized,” he explicated. “If that fails, then it makes our position to contain, deter and pressure North Korea all the more credible.”

Turning to the bilateral alliance between Washington and Seoul, the academic said the two sides need to foster a “tight alliance,” going beyond harmonizing their policies to strengthening and protecting their partnership “in its fullness.”

“This means that the alliance is not merely about military and defense, but a partnership cutting across security, politics and economics,” the professor said. “When Donald Trump’s administration considers issues of burden-sharing, transfer of operational control, trade balances and et cetera with Seoul, it should keep this in mind and think in holistic terms. In the long run the alliance is not a narrow deal-making, but a relationship that has been invested in for over six decades.”

Regarding the Trump administration’s call for renegotiating the 5-year-old free trade agreement with Seoul, which it has blamed for increasing the US’ trade deficit -- $17.6 billion last year compared to $7.7 billion in 2012 when the deal took effect -- Ikenberry said he found the argument “very puzzling.”

“The ‘America First’ approach to the international trading system is self-destructive and less based on a hard economic analysis than a nationalistic ideology,” he expounded.

“I would hope the bilateral trade discussion would take into consideration the broader implications of multilateral trade, allowing both sides to win by creating more growth and jobs. Obviously there are always winners and losers, but the entire logic of trade agreement is that it lifts all boats in the aggregate.”

Specific amendments and upgrades to the accord can be made toward further liberalization, removal of nontariff barriers and enhanced environmental and labor standards, he added. 

In this April 15, 2017 photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo)
In this April 15, 2017 photo, a submarine-launched ballistic missile is displayed in Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo)

Ikenberry also touched on curbing climate change and other environmental politics.

The Trump administration’s decision in early June to pull out of the Paris climate agreement was its “biggest mistake,” the academic underlined, both on the levels of policy as well as moral credibility of the US to lead the world. “It’s a self-inflicted wound,” he said, adding Washington would cede its global economic and moral leadership to other countries such as China, at a time when the world economy is moving in the direction of green growth.

“It is a moral failure to misalign the US with where the world is going and needs to go, as well as a failure to make good on a long tradition of American efforts to lead and forge a path of progressive change around the globe,” he said.

However, as America’s states and cities have substantially more authority than the federal government to deal with carbon pollution -- in areas like vehicle standards, electric utilities, renewable energy, energy efficiency standards, urban planning and smart transportation, environmentally friendly energy codes for buildings and financing for green energy investment -- there is ground for optimism, according to Ikenberry.

Former US President Barack Obama, who lent full support to the 195-nation climate accord, said: “Even in the absence of American leadership ... I’m confident that our states, cities and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”

Referring to US political theorist Benjamin Barber’s book, “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities,” Ikenberry asserted the global leadership of tomorrow will come from cities managed by mayors, councilors and citizens who understand the direct causal relationship between their actions and consequences. 

This file photo taken on June 1, 2017 shows American President Donald Trump announcing his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accords in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. (YONHAP PHOTO)

California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, responds to a question while testifying in support of Assembly Bill 398, by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, one of two bills to extend state's cap and trade program, during a hearing of the Senate Environmental Quality committee, Thursday, July 13, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo)

“They see the results of their policy initiative directly on the ground, whereas it takes much longer at the federal level, where the process is foggy and murky,” the professor said. “Cities and states playing bigger roles is already happening in the US, at least in terms of exchanging information among stakeholders,” he added, citing California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to host a global climate summit in San Francisco in fall next year. The event will bring together state leaders, local authorities, nongovernmental organizations, corporate executives and environmental activists to discuss sustainable urban and regional development and combatting global warming.

As demonstrated by the popular support for last year’s US presidential candidate for the Democratic Party Bernie Sanders, the desire for political change in the US is growing, integrally tied to green consciousness, according to the pundit.

“The green consciousness is a major force in the US, particularly in university campuses,” he said, adding that it was enthusiastically endorsed by young people. “With the Antarctic ice shelf cracking off and Arctic ice cap melting, there is a sense that climate change is not abstract anymore. It’s real, here and now.”

Excoriating the Republican Party for its oft-repeated skepticism and denial of global warming, Ikenberry underscored that “a truly bipartisan effort at tackling climate change will be possible only when Republicans realize that a responsible climate action is not antithetical to good economic policymaking and growth.”

“I hope they realize that an enlightened climate policy can be good for the economy and put it in an internationally competitive position going forward,” he opined.

By Joel Lee (