Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR4 – Small Modular Reactors: The Next Phase for Nuclear Power in the Indo-Pacific?

About

In an effort to understand the rising interest worldwide in so-called “small modular reactors” (SMRs) and their companion “floating nuclear power plants” (FNPPs), the Pacific Forum commissioned three papers on this topic. Written by Victor Nian, the first paper unpacks SMR/FNPP technologies and discusses their applicability in the Indo-Pacific. The second paper, authored by Jor-Shan Choi, examines the safety, security, and safeguards (i.e., the “3S”) considerations associated with SMRs/FNPPs. Finally, penned by Miles Pomper, Ferenc Dalnoki Veress, Dan Zhukov, and Sanjana Gogna, the third paper addresses the potential geopolitical implications of SMR/FNPP deployments in the Indo-Pacific. By looking at these three areas – the technology, the 3S considerations, and geopolitics – the papers seek to provide a comprehensive, albeit preliminary, analysis of the SMR/FNPP question in the Indo-Pacific.

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Table of Contents

Executive Summary
David Santoro & Carl Baker

Chapter 1: Small Modular Reactor Technologies and Floating Nuclear Power Plants in the Indo-Pacific
Victor Nian

Chapter 2: A 3S Analysis of Small Modular Reactors and Floating Nuclear Power Plants
Jor-Shan Choi

Chapter 3: Geopolitics and the Deployment of Small Modular Reactors in South and Southeast Asia
Miles Pomper, Ferenc Dalnoki Veress, Dan Zhukov & Sanjana Gogna

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR 3 – South Korea’s Place in the Indo-Pacific: A Research Showcase for Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellows

About this Volume

Papers by the Pacific Forum’s current and previous Korea Foundation Fellows examine pressing issues facing the Korean Peninsula in the 21st century. These include the Great Power Competition between the US and China, North Korea and nuclear security, critical new technologies, and energy security. These papers by emerging leaders in the Korean Studies field offer fresh perspectives on Korean security issues – both well-known and emerging – useful for watchers of the peninsula both inside and out of Northeast Asia.

Authors of this volume participated in the Pacific Forum’s Korea Foundation Fellowship program between 2019-2022, with the generous support of the Korea Foundation 

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its staff, donors and sponsors.

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Fostering Conversations on Emerging and Enduring Security Challenges | Rob York
  2. Choose to Win: Two Scenarios on Future Weapons and their Implications for Korea, the US, and Asian Security | Seongwon Lee
  3. South Korea’s Role Amid US-China Strategic Competition | Su Hyun Lee
  4. Between Rhetoric and Practice: Yoon Suk Yeol’s Choice for South Korea and the Indo-Pacific | Eun A Jo and Jae Chang
  5. South Korean Semiconductors: The Crux of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Long-Term Strategy toward Technological Leadership | Kangkyu Lee
  6. Exploring the Opportunities for Comprehensive Response to Disinformation in the Indo-Pacific: Cases of the Republic of Korea and the United States | Jong-Hwa Ahn
  7. The Politics of Multilateral Energy Cooperation in Northeast Asia: The Implications for South Korea, Japan, and China | Juyoung Kim

About the Authors

Rob York is Program Director for Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. He is responsible for editing Pacific Forum publications, including the weekly PacNet series, the triannual Comparative Connections journal, and the in-depth Issue & Insights series. Prior to joining Pacific Forum, Rob worked as a production editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. A PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Rob has established himself as a commentator on inter-Korean and Hong Kong affairs, as a regular contributor to NK News and The Daily NK and having been published at The South China Morning PostWar on the Rocks, the Foundation for Economic Education, Korean Studies, and The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, as well as conducting numerous interviews in various media outlets. His research agenda at Pacific Forum includes trade and its relationship with security, media analysis, countering disinformation, and human rights.

Seongwon Lee is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. Previously, he was a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum (2020), deputy director for international cooperation at the Ministry of Unification, and interpretation officer at the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. He earned his BA at Stanford University, MA at University of North Korean Studies, and is currently finalizing his PhD dissertation titled “Future Weapons: An Evolutionary History” at the Graduate School of Future Strategy, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Su Hyun Lee is the 2021-22 resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum. She holds a BA in East Asian International Studies and MA in International Cooperation both from Yonsei University. 

Eun A Jo is a PhD candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University and an incoming 2022-2023 predoctoral fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University. She is interested in political narratives, memory, and the domestic politics of international relations, with a focus on East Asia. Her dissertation, “Narrating Enemies in World Politics,” explores how post-conflict states narrate their former enemies and what implications these narratives hold for policies of peace and reconciliation. To this end, she compares the narrative trajectories of postcolonial, postwar, and post-authoritarian Taiwan and South Korea, using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework and a mixed-method research design. A paper from this research, titled “Pasts that Bind,” is forthcoming in International Organization.

Jae Chang is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Government and China & Asia-Pacific Studies. His primary research interests are Northeast Asian multilateralism and the role of identity politics in international relations. Additionally, he is interested in the impact of South Korean pop culture, especially in Korea’s partnership with Netflix.

Kangkyu Lee is a research fellow with the Humane AI Initiative at the East-West Center. He is also a consultant in Korean and Japanese affairs for Blackpeak. He is an incoming PhD student in International Affairs, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and was formerly (2020-21) a resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum where he researched the implications of AI and other frontier technologies on international relations and global security.

Jong-Hwa Ahn is an expert in international security and strategic planning. Recently, he worked for the United Nations on policy planning and is currently a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow for media and journalism. At Pacific Forum, he was a Korea Foundation Fellow for foreign policy and regional strategy and, as an army officer in the Republic of Korea, he served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. He also worked on public diplomacy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Korea Institute of Sport Science and received his Master’s in International Peace and Security from Korea University.

Juyoung Kim is a non-resident Korea Foundation fellow at Pacific Forum, where her research focused on the politics of multilateral energy cooperation in Northeast Asia. She has nearly five years of policy research experience in several think tanks in South Korea including the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Future Resources Institute and East Asia Institute and her research interest in natural resource governance, the geopolitics of energy and multilateral energy cooperation has evolved gradually from her work experiences. Juyoung recently defended her PhD thesis on the politics of governing Mozambique’s LNG industry at King’s College London, and she received her MSc in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

PacNet #30 – Australia’s election: Quad continuity and climate alignment, with nuclear disagreements

Sworn-in as Australia’s new prime minister, within hours Anthony Albanese was flying to Japan for the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”).

An accident of timing—the May 24 summit following Australia’s May 21 election—offered the leader of the Australian Labor Party plenty of flying-start symbolism.

Departing Canberra for Tokyo, Albanese said the “message to the world” was that Australia had a new government that would lift policy on climate change, while emphasizing foreign policy continuity and the value of “friendships and long-time alliances.”

The Quad

Labor’s attitude to the Quad today (version 2.0) differs markedly from its rejection of the first version of the Quad.

Back in 2008, the Rudd Labor government walked away from Quad 1.0 because ties with Japan or India could endanger its relationship with China, as Kevin Rudd argued: “Australia would run the risk of being left high and dry as a result of future foreign policy departures in Tokyo or Delhi.”

Labor has gone from negative to positive about the Quad, reflecting the shift from positive to negative in Australia’s view of China. When Quad 2.0 was created in 2017, Labor matched the Liberal-National Coalition government’s enthusiasm for the reborn grouping.

Albanese, a minister in the government that sank Quad 1.0, told the Tokyo summit that his government’s priorities aligned with the Quad agenda: “I acknowledge all that the Quad has achieved. Standing together for a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific region. And working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, including climate change and the security of our region. My government is committed to working with your countries and we are committed to the Quad.”

AUKUS

Labor’s policy states that it will aim at “maximi[zing] the potential of the important, bipartisan AUKUS agreement.” The language is a nod to the greatest defence achievement of the outgoing prime minister, Scott Morrison—the deal with the US and UK to build an Australian nuclear-powered submarine.

A Canberra jest is that while China was stunned by AUKUS, the most amazed people were in the US Navy. The US Navy line had always been that Australia should not bother asking for a nuclear sub, because the answer would be an emphatic refusal. As China sparked the rebirth of the Quad, so Beijing helped Washington change its mind about sharing submarine technology.

The Biden administration insisted it would go ahead with AUKUS only if Labor gave it solid backing. But Morrison waited four-and-a-half months before informing Labor. During the campaign, Albanese condemned Morrison for seeking political advantage by telling Labor about AUKUS the day before it was announced.

“It is extraordinary that the prime minister broke that faith and trust with our most important ally by not briefing Australian Labor on these issues,” Albanese said.

Morrison replied that he’d maintained full secrecy and did not want to give Labor the chance to leak details of the negotiations.

Now, Labor’s job is to make AUKUS work.

Changed China

Changes in China, and in Australian views toward China, have done their part to ensure bipartisan continuity on the Quad and AUKUS. A shared Labor-Liberal line throughout the campaign, with a three-word expression, was to blame Beijing for the problems in the bilateral relationship: “China has changed.”

The diplomatic icy age is five years old. China has been doing the trade squeeze on Australia for two years. China’s ministers will not take phone calls from Australian ministers, nor respond to ministerial letters.

As he headed for Tokyo, Albanese commented: “The relationship with China will remain a difficult one. … It is China that has changed, not Australia. And Australia should always stand up for our values. And we will in a government that I lead.”

Beijing could use the new government in Canberra as the opportunity for a reset, linking it to the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in December. First, though, China must reverse the billions of dollars of thinly disguised political trade bans imposed on Australian exports, or as Labor’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong puts it: “Desist from its coercive economic positions.”

The first step from Beijing was a message of congratulations to Albanese from Premier Li Keqiang saying, “The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit, so as to promote the sound and steady growth of their comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Australia chooses the United States

A Canberra refrain of earlier decades was that Australia didn’t have to choose between China and the US.

No longer. Australia has chosen because of what China has become.

In the election foreign policy debate at the National Press Club, Wong said the no-choice duality was the way John Howard’s government (1996-2007) could balance the principal strategic relationship with the US and the principal economic relationship with China. That no-choice balance was gone, Wong stated: “Clearly, the way in which economic power is being utilized for strategic purposes means that duality, as a model of engagement, is no longer the case. I would make this point, though—we have actually already chosen. We have an alliance that’s over 70 years old, between us and the US, an alliance with deep bipartisan support. So we have already chosen.”

Wong used Madeleine Albright’s phrase, saying the US remained the “indispensible partner” in the reshaping of the region, while Australia must do much more with partners in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The “we’ve chosen” message from Wong is an echo and an answer to a set of question that nagged at Washington in the first decade of this century: How far would Australia lean towards China?

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, says Australia’s response to China’s coercion had resolved US doubts about Canberra: “Frankly, if you’d asked me 10 years ago what country was most likely to start thinking about ‘we have to have a different kind of relationship with China and maybe think differently about the United States,’ it might have been Australia. I think that is completely gone now.”

Banning nuclear weapons

Labor has promised to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For Albanese, this is both policy commitment and personal belief. At Labor’s national conference in 2018, Albanese moved the motion to make the treaty party policy.

He recounted how one of his mentors on Labor’s left wing, Tom Uren, had been a prisoner of war on an island close to Nagasaki, and “saw there the second atomic bomb with his own eyes. He came back, having fought for Australia, a fighter for peace and disarmament.”

Albanese said the nuclear ban should be core business for Labor, and is following Labor tradition, campaigning against nuclear weapons while holding tight to the extended deterrence offered by the US alliance, as outlined by the Keating Labor government’s 1994 Defence White Paper:

“The Government does not accept nuclear deterrence as a permanent condition. It is an interim measure until a total ban on nuclear weapons, accompanied by substantial verification provisions, can be achieved. In this interim period, although it is hard to envisage the circumstances in which Australia could be threatened by nuclear weapons, we cannot rule out that possibility. We will continue to rely on the extended deterrence of the US nuclear capability to deter any nuclear threat or attack on Australia. Consequently, we will continue to support the maintenance by the United States of a nuclear capability adequate to ensure that it can deter nuclear threats against allies like Australia.”

In his talks with US President Joe Biden, Albanese can promise that a Labor government will be much closer to the US position on climate change than the previous Liberal-National coalition government.

Instead, the new difference between the two allies will be over nuclear weapon­s.­

Bridging this difference looks an impossible quest. Managing it will involve Australia talking more openly about the extended deterrence bargain. Such a debate will build on what has been a long discussion of Australia’s calculations and commitments in hosting the key US signals intelligence base at Pine Gap.

In adopting the UN treaty, the Albanese government will draw on the alliance approaches used in earlier eras to deal with the United States’ neither-conform-nor-deny nuclear policy; the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone treaty; and the lessons Canberra took when New Zealand crashed out of ANZUS alliance 36 years ago because of its anti-nuclear policy.

The 70-year history of the alliance gives plenty of guidance on using broad agreement to balance individual policy differences.

Graeme Dobell (graemedobell@aspi.org.au) is Journalist Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defense, and the Asia-Pacific since 1975.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #29 – Hints of a new North Korea nuclear strategy

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Japan Times.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

Make no mistake: North Korea leader Kim Jong Un truly believes he needs nuclear weapons.

For years, that need reflected a single objective: the protection and maintenance of his regime. A nuclear arsenal was a defensive tool—a deterrent—to ensure that no foreign power would attack his country and end the Cold War division of the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s rationale for possessing nuclear weapons seems to be shifting and his rhetoric and accompanying military developments indicate a new focus—the acquisition of a war-fighting capability.

In the May 9 Japan Times, Gabriel Dominguez argued that North Korea wants nuclear weapons to “offset its weaknesses against the superior conventional military capabilities of the United States and regional allies Japan and South Korea.” I’m inclined to a more ominous explanation. Kim wants nuclear weapons for coercion. It looks as though Kim has resurrected his grandfather’s dream of unifying the whole of Korea under Pyongyang’s flag—and nuclear weapons will assist him in that quest.

Since they began in 2003, an uncomfortable fact has clouded negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear capability: Pyongyang’s commitment to the development and acquisition of a nuclear weapon is absolute, a requisite for regime survival that cannot be bargained away. For all the talk of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization or its subsequent variants, that wasn’t a real option.

Negotiations had two unspoken goals for the United States and like-minded governments. First, talks would buy time so pressures would build and force the collapse of North Korea. Second, they would reveal Pyongyang as unreasonable and intransigent and rally other governments behind a policy that would pressure the North to give up its weapons or collapse.

The regime proved more durable—and lucky—than many anticipated. It survived the negotiations and kept the other five parties in the Six Party Talks from uniting against it and forcing it to make concessions. It exploded its first nuclear device in October 2006, while the talks continued and has conducted five tests since—the last in September 2017. There are reports that a seventh test may occur sometime soon, perhaps in days.

Equally important has been Pyongyang’s determination to hone its delivery systems. It has steadily developed its missiles, lengthening their range, increasing throw weight, and improving mobility, which requires greater accuracy in targeting. Most recently, it is thought to be miniaturizing components, allowing it to send more payloads farther.

This year, North Korea has conducted a record 16 missile tests as of mid-May, including the testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US homeland and a guided missile that can reportedly deliver a tactical nuclear weapon. A May 7 test-launch featured a submarine-launched ballistic missile; such missiles are harder to detect, and better-suited to a surprise attack.

The focus on smaller nuclear weapons is particularly worrisome, because it suggests that Kim now thinks he can fight a war with a tactical nuclear weapon.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the North who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, has been sounding the alarm. He told the Financial Times that North Korea’s strategy has changed. A program that was initially “purely defensive”—a product of fears that “without nuclear weapons they would be invaded”—is now “clearly overkill from a defensive point of view.” The new capabilities make Lankov “strongly suspect that their ultimate dream is to assert their control over South Korea.”

That was his grandfather’s dream, one that he tried to make real in 1950 with a bloody, ill-fated invasion of the South. Later, Kim Il Sung appears to have accepted co-existence with South Korea after the Cold War, although we’ll never know his actual intent in agreeing to a nuclear deal with Jimmy Carter, a proxy for President Bill Clinton, in 1994. Kim Il Sung died soon after. I’m inclined to believe that his son, Kim Jong Il, knew that reunification was impossible given the balance of forces he inherited and the appalling shape of his country.

Recent statements by Kim Jong Un and other senior officials suggest those grand ambitions have been revived. Kim last month spoke of a “secondary mission” for the country’s nuclear forces, adding that “our nuclear (arsenal) cannot be tied to this one mission of war prevention.”

Gibum Kim, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-funded think tank, emailed that development of nonstrategic, low-yield nuclear weapons is consistent with statements from Kim and other officials “that they are working toward ‘diversification,’ ‘miniaturization,’ and ‘lightening.’” He also said that ambition is much longer lived, pointing to a 2016 order of Kim’s to the North Korean military to “convert (their) mode of military counteraction toward the enemies into a pre-emptive attack one in every aspect.”

Paul Choi, a military expert in Seoul, agrees with Gibum and Lankov. “North Korea’s advancing military capabilities and changing nuclear doctrine reflect Kim’s pursuit of a more coercive strategy and posture,” he explained in an email. Pyongyang “seeks to control escalation, if not dictate the terms of conflict (including its termination), and be the dominant force (the product of capabilities, commitment, and threshold of risk).” Especially worrying is Choi’s assessment that tactical nuclear weapons are aimed at being able to prevail in a fight that may include territorial expansion.

External developments have no doubt reinforced Pyongyang’s thinking. Western governments’ concern about Russian nuclear escalation to break the stalemate in Ukraine makes the North Korean pulse quicken. Western restraint and refusal to put boots on the ground as it supports Kyiv seems to underscore the deterrent effect of nuclear threats. But, Choi cautioned, North Korea is also learning “about the formidable challenge of controlling any territory with a resisting population.”

A second external development is the return to power of a conservative president in Seoul. New President Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to prioritize the alliance with the US over inter-Korean relations, which will deprive Pyongyang of a vocal advocate in otherwise skeptical capitals.

A senior member of the presidential transition committee, who worked on foreign affairs and national security, agreed that Kim Jong Un shares his grandfather’s dream of unifying the Peninsula under the North. “Diplomacy and negotiation for denuclearization have always been tools to earn more time and political space to continuously develop nuclear weapons,” the committee member says. “For Pyongyang, military threat is leverage to force the US and the ROK to accept nuclear arms reduction negotiations, a peace treaty, withdrawal of (US forces in Korea) and eventually a socialized Korean peninsula.”

Note, however, that those developments reinforce North Korean thinking. Pyongyang has its own logic and central to that thinking is the necessity of a nuclear capability; recent developments confirm existing beliefs. Or to put it differently, the outside world has limited ability to redirect North Korean policy.

There is no need to hyperventilate, however. Coercion and expansion may be the goals, but they both remain beyond Kim’s grasp. South Korea is not Ukraine. It’s a treaty ally and US commitments, conventional and nuclear, are steadfast. I’ve heard North Korean officials talk about a relationship with the US akin to that of the Soviet Union, which was characterized by nuclear parity. That’s a fantasy. A nuclear threat is not the equivalent of mutually assured destruction.

The North has a long way to go to turn its ambitions into reality. Gibum Kim explained that a test or two (or 16) isn’t enough. North Korea would have to spend lots of money to build the logistical infrastructure for nuclear use and maintenance, train for nuclear use and, “most unimaginable of all,” prepare to delegate authority to field commanders for nuclear use in wartime.

Still, the US, South Korea, and Japan must plan on continued acquisition and sharpening of North Korean nuclear capabilities and prepare to better deter and defend. Yoon has said that he wants to work more closely with Washington and Tokyo to do that, and President Joe Biden is reportedly going to reiterate nuclear assurances to US allies during his trip to the region beginning this week.

The signals must be clear to discourage Kim Jong Un from reviving those dangerous dreams of unification or miscalculating his way into a nuclear conflict.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #26 – Why South Koreans See Little Difference in Biden’s North Korea Policy

Does the South Korean public see a difference in the American administrations when it comes to North Korea? Our survey data suggests most do not.

Each US president since Bill Clinton has tried to convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, and each has failed. As such, the extent to which the South Korean public sees a difference across administrations is unclear, although previous data found that the public strongly opposed the Trump administration’s demand of a fivefold increase in payments from South Korea toward hosting US troops in the country.

We conducted a national web survey in South Korea on March 11-16, administered by Macromill Emrbain, using quota sampling for age, gender, and geographic region. We asked 1,107 respondents: “Which US administration do you think had a better North Korea policy?”

A clear majority (57.45%) believe that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same concerning North Korea policy. This option was selected the most across supporters of the two largest parties, the progressive Democratic Party (DP) and conservative People Power Party (PPP), but also the smaller parties (the social democratic Justice Party (JP) and the center-right People’s Party (PP)), as well as those with no party preference. Across all groups, respondents were slightly more likely to have chosen the Biden administration over the Trump administration as having a “better” policy, even though Biden has not publicly said much about North Korea. There was no additional question as to why this was chosen, but respondents could be evaluating Biden’s leadership style or personality traits, or weighing Trump’s demands for South Korea to pay a substantially higher cost share, rather than responding to specific North Korea policy.

We also asked respondents to evaluate, on a five-point scale (“strongly oppose” to “strongly support”) how they feel about the presence of American military bases in South Korea. We found 55.83% of respondents supported the presence, compared to 10.84% in opposition. Views of the two administrations, broken down by opinions on the US troop presence, reveal the same pattern as before: a majority (or at least plurality) say that the Trump and Biden administrations were about the same. However, we also find that those more supportive of the US presence are more likely to pick one administration as better than the other. Why this is the case is unclear, though it may reflect greater attention to the United States or interest in security matters.

The results of our data reflect increasing ambivalence about North Korea among the South Korean public. As with previous survey research, our survey found that less than 10% of respondents thought about North Korea frequently. While missile tests and worsening relations between Seoul and Pyongyang may reengage the public temporarily, continued engagement remains a challenge.

The results potentially have implications for President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon’s policy proposals center around policy alignment with the United States, improving relations with Japan and Southeast Asia, bolstering defenses, and stricter enforcement of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Our data suggests that Yoon’s approach could encounter resistance domestically. The election of Yoon suggests a public that wants a departure from the engagement policies of Moon. Yet, the general lack of attention by the public to North Korea suggests that the public will only reengage on North Korea in light of a major breakthrough or if a crisis occurs, such as a resumption of nuclear tests or a military skirmish that results in South Korean deaths. If this is the case, and the public attributes such inter-Korean tensions to Yoon’s policy, a reengaged public may be less supportive of Yoon.

It is also currently unclear whether South Koreans understand the Biden administration’s policy and how it differs from his predecessor, suggesting the need for a clearer articulation of a North Korea policy by an administration focused on other areas such as Ukraine, inflation, and pandemic recovery. Rather, the public may assess the Biden administration not on policy differences, but as a return to a more predictable leadership style. With a new administration in Seoul, such positive evaluations may not continue, especially in the event of increased tensions or dramatic deterioration of security conditions on the peninsula.

Furthermore, Yoon has signaled support for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea under certain circumstances (e.g. signs that a North Korean missile launch towards South Korea is imminent), and it is unclear whether this, or other measures departing from how past Seoul administrations have handled Pyongyang, would receive support from the Biden administration. Increased public support for South Korea to procure nuclear weapons themselves may undermine efforts at a unified stance on North Korea. More broadly, a Biden administration unable to present a distinct North Korea policy, other than some middle ground between Obama and Trump, provides an opportunity for North Korea to exploit differences between the allies. This may lead to both inconsistent policies on deterrence as well as frustration in the Yoon administration as to its ability to strengthen ties with Washington, further encouraging Seoul to act independently of its alliance partner. The Biden administration should use this opportunity to signal its commitment to the US-ROK alliance via a coordinated response to North Korea, while the Yoon administration may wish to dampen expectations that the South Korean public will identify much of a change out of Washington.

Timothy S. Rich (timothy.rich@wku.edu) is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Ian Milden (ian.milden650@topper.wku.edu) is a recent graduate from the Master’s in Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University. He previously graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Kentucky University.

Mallory Hardesty (mallory.hardesty769@topper.wku.edu) is an honors undergraduate student researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in History and Political Science.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #11 – Nuclear submarines for our Pacific allies: When to say yes

An earlier version of this article appeared in Real Clear Defense. 

On March 9, South Korea will elect a new president. One of the first things the new president will have to determine is whether or not to get Washington to support South Korea’s development and fueling of a nuclear submarine fleet. The progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has publicly vowed to press the United States to cut a submarine technology transfer deal for South Korea similar to what Washington struck with Australia. In a recent interview, Mr. Lee noted, “It is absolutely necessary for us to have those subs.”

But is it? Mr. Lee’s key opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, says no. He favors investing in military space and airborne surveillance systems instead. In fact, if South Korea is serious about neutralizing the naval threats it faces, it would do far better with a sound mix of advanced non-nuclear anti-submarine and anti-surface systems than with nuclear submarines.

A detailed study, which The Naval War College Review just published, spells out why. Commissioned by my center and authored by James Campbell Jr., of Naval Sea System Command, “Seoul’s Misguided Desire for Nuclear Submarines” details how poorly nuclear submarines would perform in the relatively closed East China, Yellow, and East Seas, which border Korea. His conclusion: The best way to track and contain North Korean naval threats and help the United States and Japan monitor the First Island Chain (the islands connecting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines) is not with nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines are vastly more expensive and far less effective than a proper mix of advanced non-nuclear naval systems for these particular missions.

Such systems include upgrading South Korea’s air-independent propulsion submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and naval surface combatants; upgrading, sharing, and analyzing acoustic and non-acoustic anti-submarine sensor information with Washington and Seoul; and investing in new anti-submarine technologies. The latter include airborne and underwater drones, wave runners, artificial intelligence-enhanced anti-submarine systems and the like.

As for South Korea using nuclear submarines to launch conventional missile “second strikes”—yet another argument some South Korean naval advocates make for “going nuclear”—using these boats for this mission compares poorly against using air and mobile ground-launched missile systems. These are far more survivable, can fire many more rounds, and cost far less per flight. Finally, if Seoul is eager to secure a blue-water navy, then developing advanced surface combatants, including small aircraft carriers, is more cost effective and avoids compounding the growing challenge of identifying nuclear submarine friends and foes in the open Western Pacific.

Sensible for Seoul, this set of recommendation is also sound for Tokyo. From bases in Japan, super-quiet, advanced conventional submarines and other select non-nuclear systems can monitor and contain Chinese and North Korean naval threats within the First Island Chain far better than nuclear submarines.

What, then, about Australia? Located thousands of miles from China’s coast, Canberra requires naval platforms that can quickly travel significant distances and stay on station for extended periods. For this purpose, nuclear submarines make sense. In short, it’s different.

Why belabor these points? First, if Washington wants Seoul and Tokyo to make military investments that are leveraged to deter North Korea and China, preventing South Korea and Japan from wasting billions of dollars on nuclear submarine cooperation is essential. This, in turn, requires making a no-nonsense distinction between Australia’s naval requirements and those of Seoul and Tokyo.

Second, green lighting South Korea on nuclear submarines risks spreading the bomb. Nuclear submarines require enriched uranium fuel. Seoul, which attempted to build nuclear weapons in the 1970s, has been asking Washington to allow it to enrich uranium now for nearly a decade. So far, Washington has said no. Why? Even if Seoul promised to enrich uranium ever so slightly, it could flip any enrichment plant it ran to make weapons-grade uranium in a matter of days. Bottom line: If Seoul pursued its own nuclear naval program, it would alarm Japan (a historical antagonist that also has pondered going nuclear) and disrupt alliance relations with Washington, Seoul’s nuclear guarantor.

What’s to be done? It would help if Seoul weren’t the only one being asked to restrain its nuclear aspirations. In this regard, my center has proposed having Australia commit to a moratorium on enriching uranium tied to its 30-year AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. It also has recommended that the United States and Japan join South Korea in suspending their commercialization of fast reactors and the recycling of nuclear weapons explosive plutonium. This would help spotlight similar militarily worrisome plutonium production-related activities in China.

Finally, Washington should work with Europe to help Seoul and Tokyo tackle significant cutting-edge defense related projects of their own. For South Korea, this might be developing space surveillance systems. For Japan, it could be advanced communications, computing capabilities and cryptology to crack China’s great firewall.

Each of these steps would help. First, however, South Korea and Japan need to conclude that their acquisition of nuclear submarines would be, at best, a dangerous distraction.

Henry Sokolski (henry@npolicy.org) is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B Zingaro

PacNet #54 – What AUKUS means for Malaysia’s technological future

When the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced their new trilateral security partnership, AUKUS, on Sept. 15, Malaysia’s prime minister released a statement expressing concern about its impact on stability in Southeast Asia. Malaysia’s minister of foreign affairs and minister of defense separately issued a statement in support of the prime minister’s position, underscoring the risks of a conventional and nuclear arms race, particularly in the South China Sea.

These statements are worth parsing out. At the outset, however, it is important to note that despite Malaysia’s reservations about AUKUS, the government has continued to welcome deeper relations with all three countries in the pact, bilaterally and through multilateral platforms such as the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). What’s more, nuclear-powered submarines are only a piece of AUKUS. Of greater significance to Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, is the longer technological arc of AUKUS, which will reshape the regional strategic landscape.

The nuclear objection

Although uneasiness about AUKUS was downplayed as overhype or strategic naiveté, Putrajaya’s position is an assertion of Malaysia’s long-standing foreign policy. The underpinnings of AUKUS bring to bear Malaysia’s stance on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, non-alignment, as well as its management of the South China Sea dispute all at once.

Some may have interpreted Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s statement that AUKUS could trigger a regional nuclear arms race as misunderstanding the nature of the deal. AUKUS, of course, involves nuclear-powered—rather than nuclear-armed—submarines. However, AUKUS marks the first time a non-nuclear weapon state would receive nuclear-powered submarines and, therefore, this raises uncertainties about proliferation and international legal safeguards. These questions, although distant for now, remain deeply unsettling for Malaysia given its position vis-à-vis the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. For example, Malaysia has tabled a United Nations resolution every year since the 1996 International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The resolution underscores the ICJ’s call for nuclear disarmament “in all aspects under strict and effective international control.” Since AUKUS exploits a loophole in existing nuclear safeguards regimes, Malaysia believes that there is a risk that this will undermine the disarmament goal.

But even if Malaysia’s nonproliferation concerns with AUKUS may be misplaced, Putrajaya is not alone in fearing that it will trigger a conventional arms race among the major powers in Southeast Asia’s backyard—specifically, in the South China Sea. In looking at AUKUS, Indonesia’s foreign ministry, for instance, voiced “deep concern” over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region. Even Singapore and Vietnam, which are often described in the media as welcoming of AUKUS, gave carefully crafted responses that suggest they are cautious. Both states stress the importance of regional peace, stability, cooperation, and prosperity.

Partners and problems

Despite Malaysia’s apprehension of AUKUS, Putrajaya has continued to welcome closer bilateral and multilateral ties with Washington, London, and Canberra, including in the areas of security and defense. Only a month after AUKUS was announced, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein affirmed the country’s commitment to the 50-year-old FPDA, the overlap in FPDA and AUKUS partners notwithstanding. As part of the FPDA, Malaysia participated in a 10-day exercise, Bersama Gold 2021, involving 25 fighter jets, six support aircraft, six helicopters, 10 maritime ships, one submarine, and over 2,000 military personnel alongside Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom in the international waters of the South China Sea. Malaysia also hosted the FPDA’s anniversary celebration and the FPDA defense minister’s meeting following the exercise.

This proclivity to segment relationships based on issues and interests as well as the desire to preserve an expansive network of ties with competing major powers are a key element of Malaysia’s foreign policy approach. This is true with AUKUS countries, as it is with China. Despite sustained harassment by Chinese vessels around Malaysian waters, the Malaysia-China relationship remains warm and friendly. Putrajaya has sought to sequester its problems with Beijing in the South China Sea from the economic, political, and socio-cultural dimensions in the bilateral relationship. This separation of issues both between and within partnerships is a feature rather than a bug of Malaysia’s foreign relations. It does not, however, always work perfectly.

Technological pathways

Accordingly, to retain geopolitical space for itself in the middle of deepening fissures between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other, Putrajaya will need to intensify its diplomatic engagement with all sides proactively rather than reactively. This will require looking at trends which now appear to coalesce around technology as well as the governance and regulatory frameworks that underpin it. AUKUS underscores this point.

Nuclear submarine technology for Australia is but a “first initiative” under AUKUS. In the pipeline is trilateral collaboration on cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and undersea capabilities. While the subtext for these plans may be defense technology competition with China, there are converging opportunities for cooperation between Malaysia and the three AUKUS countries that could empower Putrajaya in shaping the regional tech landscape. The most accessible, benign, and functional entry point for tech cooperation is the digital economy. Much of this is already underway in Malaysia, with ongoing industry partnerships as well as capacity-building and training efforts to improve cyber security and the operationalization of AI in various economic sectors.

There is one practical way Malaysia can carve out strategic agency while helping chart the region’s tech-based future amid rival powers. The government could create either a coordinating ministerial or ambassadorial portfolio specific to the cross-cutting role of technology. This senior official would stitch together the country’s technology interests in trade and economy, national security, and foreign affairs, and register Malaysia’s perspectives on tech’s rules of the road—from ethics and norms to standards and laws—in bilateral, multilateral, and multi-stakeholder discussions. Although the National Cyber Security Agency of Malaysia currently functions as the lead coordinating agency on cyber security matters, a senior official representing the country’s cross-sectoral interests in broader emergent/emerging technologies could help streamline multi-faceted policies at the domestic level. Additionally, a single, senior point of contact could facilitate cooperation with AUKUS countries and others on new and unfolding technologies. In both substance and form, a coordinating minister or ambassador would recognize tech’s reach across agency silos and the importance of a whole-of-government approach in contributing to the evolving governance frameworks of technology.

Several countries outside of Southeast Asia already have representatives in similar roles that reflect the ubiquity of technology transcending a range of agendas in government, industry, and civil society. Malaysia could benefit from that model. A focused and active Malaysia, along with its ASEAN counterparts, offering thought leadership on tech governance would not only design the country’s digital future in a more comprehensive manner but also potentially help the region avoid the pitfalls of US-China decoupling.

Malaysia may not welcome AUKUS. But it should use it to shape rules of the road to ensure that Southeast Asia’s tech and strategic landscape remains inclusive rather than exclusive.

The author would like to thank the Asia Pacific Team from the Defence and Security Foresight Group (DSFG) for their support during the development of this piece. 

Elina Noor (ENoor@asiasociety.org) is Director, Political-Security Affairs and Deputy Director, Washington, D.C. Office at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

PacNet #45 – False Dawn: The Resumption and Re-ending of the Inter-Korean Hotline

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the United States. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

War Games: Shadow-Boxing?

To understand the hotline, first consider the politics behind US-ROK military exercises. Since Donald Trump summarily cancelled upcoming regular US-ROK military exercises at his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in June 2018, the usual calendar of spring and summer allied drills has been much disrupted. Far from appreciating that olive branch, Kim saw this concession as a chance to press harder.

After several changes of name, these drills have waxed and waned, reflecting the state of relations between North Korea and its foes. Trump, soon followed by COVID-19, ushered in a new era of cancelled or smaller maneuvers. So Kim had less to worry about, but he chose to go for broke, insisting that to hold joint exercises at all, in any form or on any scale, is a hostile act. This has created a new cycle, where every spring and summer the allies must decide what kind of drills, if any, to stage.

With exercises due in August, Minister of Unification Lee In-young on June 6 called for “maximum flexibility,” insisting that joint drills “should never work in a way that causes or further escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” That was tantamount to calling for their cancellation, which Lee could not do directly. This kicked off a fresh round of the perennial argument in Seoul about the right balance of stick and carrot, force readiness versus peace process, and so on. Besides playing out in the media, politically more important was the debate inside the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and above all necessarily hidden discussions within Moon Jae-in’s government.

Arguably, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the military establishment, not to mention Washington, would not countenance complete cancellation (in 2018 Trump forced their hand). Even as public debate continued, planning and preparations were surely under way. Meanwhile, as we now know, at some point and in some form Moon and Kim began exchanging messages about reactivating inter-Korean hotlines, unused for a year after Pyongyang blew up the Kaesong joint liaison office in June 2020. Ever since then, the South has faithfully called as agreed at 0900 each day, but gotten no reply. (Talk of the lines being “cut” misleads: They still work, but the North chooses not to pick up.)

Lights! Camera! Action! They’re Talking Again!

Then, on July 27 and with much fanfare, the Blue House in Seoul and the official North Korean news agency KCNA in Pyongyang both announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines. In a triumph of hope over expectation all too familiar in inter-Korean relations (but we never learn), hopes ran high that after a two-year hiatus that Pyongyang might finally be ready to engage again. Not only with Seoul, but also the not-so-new Biden administration.

For a week or two, inter-Korean ties seemed to flicker back into life. Beyond the formality of checking the lines daily, there were signs of substance. The two sides used the line to compare tallies and positions of Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, which the DPRK has never formally recognized. Besides sharing notes to repel intruders, such liaison in sensitive and sometimes contested waters would help avoid any risk of accidental clashes.

But it went no further. An eager Seoul broached concrete proposals—virtual talks, family reunions by videolink—but got no immediate reply. Then Kim Yo Jong weighed in. On Aug. 1, four days after the lines were restored, Kim Jong Un’s sister warned against “premature hasty judgment. What I think is that the restoration of the communication liaison lines should not be taken as anything more than just the physical reconnection.” In particular, the “unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the south Korean army and the US forces could go ahead as scheduled” would surely “becloud” inter-Korean prospects.

On Aug. 8 Seoul announced that joint drills would go ahead, albeit computer-based with no field exercises. This predictably prompted an angrier second salvo from Ms. Kim, attacking the “perfidious” South for this “unwelcoming act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid.” That was on Aug. 10. In the morning the hotlines still worked, but by 5 pm the North was not picking up. Nor has it done so since.

As You Were

What to make of this episode? The Blue House denied insinuations by Yoon Seok-youl—a contender for the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s presidential nomination next year—that a secret deal lay behind the hotlines restoration. If that is true, then it fell apart in record time. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) claims the initiative came from Kim Jong Un. If that is the case, then one hypothesis is that Kim was testing Moon over the joint drills. Perhaps he thought this sop might tip the balance of the debate in Seoul. It did swell the ranks of those in the ruling party who favored cancellation, but not enough. Once it was clear the exercises would go ahead, Kim duly exacted punishment, reverting to noncommunication and the status quo ante.

Reading Moon’s mind is harder. Though an idealist on inter-Korean ties, he is also a canny politician whose time is running out: his successor will be elected on March 9 next year. He may have felt he had little to lose, and we don’t know what was said in the letters he and Kim exchanged. Unclear too is what input, if any, the foreign ministry or even MOU had in any of this. Reportedly, the Blue House handles dealings with Pyongyang itself, no doubt via the NIS. Did Moon reckon Pyongyang would not really mind the joint exercises, despite Kim Yo Jong’s clarity on the issue?

After Moon: More of the Same?

As a presidency winds down it is natural to try to peer into the future. With ROK presidents constitutionally limited to a single five-year term, less than half a year from now South Korea will have a new president, due to take office May 9.

Six months is a long time in politics, especially in Seoul. As of now, while Moon Jae-in is becoming a lamer duck (albeit with better poll ratings than most of his predecessors at this stage), the DP looks in better shape than the PPP. Within the DP, ongoing primaries have confirmed a front-runner: Lee Jae-myong, governor of Gyeonggi province which surrounds the capital (indeed, it has become a largely urbanized greater Seoul).

Though not personally or factionally close to Moon, ideologically Lee shares his engagement stance. He also favors conditional sanctions relief for the DPRK. So, if he is the next ROK president, expect policy continuity rather than change. The problem is that Moon’s approach has not worked, even if his government appears in denial on that score. At the very least, Lee (if it is he) will have to be more imaginative in finding ways to break the deadlock.

Postscript

The chapter from which this article is excerpted was completed early in September. There have been fresh developments since, notably two—one skeptical, the other more positive—by Kim Yo Jong to President Moon’s suggestion, made (not for the first time) in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, of a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. We might therefore see a renewed bout of inter-Korean dialogue on Moon’s watch after all. Precedent, not least the episode described above, suggests that hopes of a meaningful breakthrough are not high. But let us not prejudge. Prospects will be clearer when the next issue of Comparative Connections appears in January 2022. Watch this space!

Aidan Foster-Carter (afostercarter@aol.com) is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in Korea began in 1968. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on North and South Korean affairs: writing, lecturing, and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide. He has written on inter-Korean relations for Comparative Conections ever since 2001.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Issues & Insights Vol. 18, CR5 – Building Bridges for the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agenda in the Indo-Asia-Pacific

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USCSCAP and CSCAP Vietnam co-chaired the fifth meeting of the CSCAP Study Group on Nonproliferation and Disarmament (NPD) in the Asia Pacific. The meeting took place in Seoul, Republic of Korea on April 4, 2018, on the front-end of the ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Nonproliferation and Disarmament (ARF ISM on NPD). Approximately 40 senior scholars and officials as well as 10 Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders attended, all in their private capacity. The off-the-record discussions focused on recent developments in nonproliferation and disarmament, the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and ways to enhance collaboration between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states on nuclear risk reduction. Key findings from this meeting include:

The current strategic nuclear landscape is worrisome. The bipolar nuclear order of the Cold War has given way to a world of many nuclear-armed states. In this new multiplayer system, it is not clear that deterrence will hold as it did in an environment dominated by two states. Moreover, the emergence of new tools of strategic significance in addition to nuclear weapons, such as precision-guided and hypersonic conventional weapons and missile-defense systems, as well as new domains of engagement, notably space and cyber, make arms races and escalation more likely and deterrence and arms control more difficult.

A related problem is the deterioration of the international security environment, including among major nuclear-armed states (read: between the United States and Russia). Nuclear brinksmanship is becoming the new normal and the US-Russia arms-control relationship may soon be in jeopardy. It is unclear if there is even enough political will in both capitals to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The downturn in US-Russia relations is affecting regional stability in Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

There is general agreement that achievements in arms control and nonproliferation should be preserved. The principle should be “do not harm” the existing, functioning instruments. Arms control has brought much stability between the United States and Russia, and the nonproliferation regime and its associated initiatives, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, have been a success. If building upon these achievements is currently out of reach, efforts should be made to preserve them, at a minimum.

India has recently joined the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group. New Delhi is also seeking membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which has been resisted because India is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). From an Indian perspective, membership in all four multilateral export control regimes is a rightful acknowledgement of its responsible nuclear behavior, and will benefit nonproliferation.

Defining good (or bad) nuclear behavior is difficult and unlikely to be universally accepted. Strict disarmament advocates, for instance, argue that nuclear-armed states are, by definition, irresponsible. The concept of “nuclear responsibility” is an area for future research.

The 2018 spring of summits with North Korea is raising both hopes that a solution may be found and fears that diplomacy could fail and lead to war. While all agree that denuclearization is the goal, it is unclear what each party means by “denuclearization” and the conditions each would demand for it to happen. The current situation puts a premium on coordinating positions to avoid misunderstandings.

Until there is a breakthrough on the Korean denuclearization issue, UN sanctions against North Korea will remain in place. Significantly, the sanctions regime has been strengthened considerably over the past two years in the context of North Korea’s “race to the finish line” with its missile and nuclear testing. Some argue that these enhancements have the effect of an economic blockade, while others note that sanctions implementation is lagging and that Pyongyang has consistently improved its evasion tactics.

Discussions about the CTBT usually revolve around the outstanding accession of Annex 2 countries, which is required for the Treaty to enter into force. Yet states have much they can do now to improve the international monitoring aspects of the CTBT, notably by improving data collection and analysis, and they stand to gain not only from nuclear explosion monitoring but also from natural disaster monitoring and other civil and scientific applications. In that context, there is a need to enhance capacity-building efforts.

Since 2012, there has been no apparent progress made on getting the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) to ratify the Protocol to the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ). To resolve the deadlock, an open discussion between ASEAN and NWS is critical. Establishing a SEANWFZ Center that would focus resources on the issues covered in the treaty could be an important first step in moving the process forward.

While there is growing division between the deterrence and disarmament communities, notably in the context of the recently concluded UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or “Ban Treaty”), research is needed to “bridge the gap.” At the most basic level, both communities share the goal of reducing nuclear dangers and preventing nuclear use or war. The work of the “Group of Eminent Persons on the Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament” spearheaded by Japan, which is intended to make recommendations in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference, is one of these initiatives.

The Ban Treaty’s relationship with the NPT remains unclear and could potentially seriously undermine the global nonproliferation regime, especially because of its failure to adequately address verification and monitoring standards. The Treaty could also have a negative impact on military and commercial cooperation between the NWS and their allies. Research is needed to better understand the implications of the Treaty.

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Issues & Insights Vol. 18, CR3 – Myanmar Shows Progress on Nonproliferation Despite Challenges

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The Pacific Forum, in coordination with the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) and support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA), held the fifth Myanmar-US Nonproliferation Dialogue in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2017. The Pacific Forum thanks the MISIS for co-hosting the meeting and providing administrative support to workshop participants. Some 45 US and Myanmar experts, officials, military officers, and observers attended, all in their private capacity, along with four Pacific Forum young leaders. The off-the-record discussions focused on future directions of Myanmar’s relationship with the West; implementation of nuclear nonproliferation protocols, the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, and strategic trade controls; and opportunities for enhancing Myanmar’s role in ASEAN nonproliferation networks. Key findings include:

– The US is engaged in various initiatives including humanitarian assistance to support Myanmar’s democratic transition and development. The crisis in Rakhine State has caused tensions between the two countries, but the two sides continue to cooperate to advance shared objectives, despite these challenges.

–  North Korea and its actions are a problem for the entire world. North Korea has historically viewed Southeast Asian countries as friendly or at least neutral, so Myanmar taking a public stand to protest North Korea’s actions could send an effective message to Kim Jong Un’s regime. A more passive stance by Myanmar could be seen as giving encouragement to North Korea.

–  US-Myanmar relations and China-Myanmar relations should not be seen as a zero-sum proposition. Strong, positive relationships with both countries are important to Myanmar’s future. Trying to use the different approaches to relations to create an advantage should be avoided as each country can provide valuable assistance to promote economic development and a more resilient society in Myanmar.

–  Myanmar has achieved many successes in nonproliferation since its opening in 2011, and is rightly called a “nonproliferation success story.” Nevertheless, more work remains to be done. Myanmar has been highly engaged with international partners on nuclear nonproliferation and should continue on this trajectory to improve implementation of nonproliferation treaties.

–  Myanmar has approached nonproliferation implementation in a systematic way, ensuring that there is full buy-in from the ministries and that members of parliament understand the legislation being put forward. Delays in implementation are often due to confusion about which ministries are responsible for the particular piece of legislation.

– Myanmar does not have a strategic trade management system and does not maintain a list of controlled dual-use items.  Rather, it provides exporters information regarding the control lists of the destination country. Currently, it maintains a “negative list” for imports (items that are barred from import) and is now developing a negative list for exports. However, the items on the negative list are not necessarily the same as those on international strategic trade control lists.

– There is a lack of knowledge and awareness of the risks associated with the transfer of dual-use technologies. Myanmar needs more support in this area. Given the lack of high technology manufacturing in Myanmar, the greatest threat for the transfer of strategic goods is the establishment of front companies engaged in transit/transshipment activities.

– A tension exists between liberalizing trade and controlling exports, but developing a strategic trade control system can help Myanmar move up the technology chain. Having controls in place allows developing countries like Myanmar to attract high-tech industry and trade.

– Translation of key nonproliferation terms has proven challenging. For example, Myanmar experts have found it difficult to explain the difference between “nuclear security” and “nuclear safeguards” in the Burmese language, in a way that policymakers understand. There is an opportunity for Myanmar to share what it has learned and to learn from other ASEAN countries about the translation of key technical terms.

– Implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) are more challenging than nuclear treaties in Myanmar because these treaties involve many different agencies. For example, the BWC covers biological agents under the purview of the health, agricultural, and forestry ministries, and others. Coordinating among many different agencies is one reason why Myanmar’s reporting to the BWC for 2017 has been delayed.

– Despite challenges in crafting and passing legislation (the attorney general’s office and the parliament have a backlog of bills), technical barriers, and some degree of “legislative fatigue,” Myanmar has made progress on implementing nonproliferation measures. The government is working with the international community, especially the European Union and other partner donors, to update its existing Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) laws. Myanmar is also working closely with the World Health Organization on its health agenda, including the completion of a joint external evaluation with Ministry of Health and Sports.

– There is a perception that Myanmar has been reluctant to fully enforce UN sanctions because it is expensive and provides little apparent security benefit to Myanmar. Also, having suffered under sanctions itself (and currently facing the threat if re-imposition of targeted sanctions), there a lack of public support for bearing the costs of sanctions enforcement.

– An “easy win” for Myanmar in the area of sanctions enforcement would be to establish the capability to screen vessels that visit its ports. This could then be reported to the UN sanctions committee, showing how Myanmar has moved forward in implementing the UNSC resolutions.

– While Myanmar faces challenges in implementation of nonproliferation treaties, it could demonstrate leadership in Southeast Asia by becoming more involved in promoting the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (SEANWFZ) and the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM).  The international community stands ready to support Myanmar in these initiatives.

– Myanmar lacks experts in nonproliferation and other fields; the government needs to invest in developing the next generation of experts. Managing strategic trade and implementing sanctions will become more of a concern to Myanmar as it pursues economic development.

– Nonproliferation should be discussed in terms that are relevant to Myanmar, such as the potential for economic engagement with advanced countries and for future economic growth, rather than making it about security, which is more of a concern for advanced countries.

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