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2017 Nobel Peace Laureate: Amid Talks with North Korea, It’s Time for U.S. to Abandon Nukes, Too

StoryOctober 09, 2018
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang over the weekend in talks meant to further steps toward nuclear disarmament. Pompeo hailed the meeting as a success, saying both sides were “pretty close” to agreeing to details for a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump. He also told reporters Kim has agreed to let international inspectors into a North Korean missile engine test facility and nuclear testing site where the country conducted its six nuclear tests. However, Pompeo did not say whether North Korea would allow inspectors to visit a site where the country produces fuel for nuclear weapons. We speak with Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, about the ongoing negotiations on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the path to an international ban on nuclear weapons. She is in New York to deliver The Nation Institute’s third annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth tonight at The New School.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show with North Korea, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sunday for nearly three hours in talks meant to further steps toward nuclear disarmament. Pompeo hailed the meeting in Pyongyang as a success, saying both sides were, quote, “pretty close” to agreeing to details for a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump. He also told reporters Kim has agreed to let international inspectors into a North Korean missile engine test facility and a nuclear testing site, where the country conducted its six nuclear tests. In May, North Korea said it had destroyed the testing site, but did not allow outside experts to inspect the grounds. But Pompeo did not say Monday whether North Korea would allow inspectors to visit a site where the country produces fuel for nuclear weapons.

We’re joined right now by Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Beatrice Fihn, welcome back to Democracy Now!

BEATRICE FIHN: Thank you very much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you in studio, as you’re about to give a major address at The New School tonight. Talk about the significance of these talks.

BEATRICE FIHN: It’s extremely encouraging, in a way. Just a year ago, we had Donald Trump threaten to totally destroy the entire North Korean country with nuclear weapons on Twitter, so this is very positive steps. At the same time, there’s still quite a lack of detail. This cannot be agreement just between two men. It has to bring in the international treaties, the international law, the international agencies. We have a system that can help with this. We have organizations. We have treaties. These talks have to be anchored in the law that exists. North Korea, for example, has to join the CTBT. The United States has to join the CTBT.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the CTBT is.

BEATRICE FIHN: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a treaty that bans all nuclear testing and has means to verify that. When we’re talking about these inspections, for example, opening up the North Korean test site, that cannot be done just by North Korea and the United States and be vulnerable to the whims of these two leaders. It has to be really—we have to take this unique opportunity to make sure that these two countries join the international treaty that exists, so that they can’t back out in three months if things change.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the U.S. nuclear stockpile? How large is it?

BEATRICE FIHN: It’s very big. We have still around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Over 90 percent belongs to Russia and the United States. The U.S. has about 6,800 nuclear warheads, and out of those, around 1,800 are ready to be launched within minutes. I mean, one nuclear weapon in Hiroshima killed over 100,000 people. Eighteen hundred of these are ready to be launched, authorized by the president himself, within minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think should happen to them?

BEATRICE FIHN: They need to be dismantled and disarmed. We have this new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is a unique development in the legal landscape around nuclear weapons, and it’s time for the United States and the other nine nuclear-armed states to follow the global trend. We can no longer threaten to mass murder civilians as a way of providing security with ourselves. We need to start taking—instead of threatening to use them and increasing and modernizing these nuclear arsenals that the nuclear-armed states are doing, we need to move to a situation where we reduce our reliance, take steps to disarm.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is.

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, this is a huge accomplishment, sort of a radical change in the structure around nuclear weapons. We have not had a ban on nuclear weapons before, the way we banned chemical weapons, biological weapons, landmines, cluster munitions. We have had this kind of nuclear apartheid system, where different rules apply to different countries. The most richest and powerful countries in the world have been allowed to have them, whereas the rest of the world were not allowed to have them. And we’ve just accepted that for 70 years.

But this treaty changes that in a way. It was adopted last year at the U.N. General Assembly with over 120 countries. The majority of the countries in the world support this treaty. And it prohibits all nuclear weapons for all countries. It doesn’t give exception to some countries, but it looks at the weapon as a weapon. These weapons have indiscriminate, inhumane impact on civilians. They will be a violation of the laws of war. We have banned biological and chemical weapons. Of course, these weapons should be banned, as well.

And right now we’re working to get this treaty to enter into force by getting 50 ratifications. And once it does that, it will be international law, and it will start to have an impact on also the nuclear-armed states.

AMY GOODMAN: We just talked about this landmark U.N. report on climate change, and the report attacks nuclear power as a key climate solution by promoting the notion that it risks nuclear weapons proliferation, which cause childhood leukemia, destroys the natural environment. The authors write, “Nuclear energy can increase the risk of proliferation, have negative environmental impacts and have mixed effects for human health when replacing fossil fuels.” Your thoughts?

BEATRICE FIHN: Well, I can’t—I mean, we focus on the weapon itself. There are similar technologies behind this, but in its essence, one is a source of energy, one is a weapon meant to mass murder people. So we try to keep these two separate. But, of course, the kind of changes in climate change means that we have to think about this. And the technology around nuclear weapons, with the spread of nuclear energy around the world, is no longer advanced. If a country like North Korea can get nuclear weapons, one of the poorest countries in the world, then anyone can do it. So we have to work with the normative change. It’s not a matter of constraining the technological possibility, but we have to work on getting countries to not want nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: So, a lot is made of President Trump’s relationship with President Putin of Russia. What’s happening when it comes to the competition around nuclear weapons? I mean, you have Trump, in August, signing a $716 billion military spending bill. A military spending bill, it included over $21 billion for nuclear weapons programs, including $65 million for a new submarine-launched, low-yield nuclear weapon. That’s just the U.S.

BEATRICE FIHN: Yeah, we see this trend all over the nuclear-armed states, this kind of going back to the Cold War a little bit, increasing the role of nuclear weapons, coming up with new missions, emphasizing nuclear weapons more in their security doctrines. And this is very dangerous, because we also have a very rapidly changing security environment. It’s not actually the Cold War anymore. We have regional conflict. We have things like cyberwarfare, fully autonomous weapons on the horizon. Things are changing very quickly. And the decisions that were made in terms of deterrence theory are no longer applicable. We see an exponential growth of the risk of accidental use, misunderstandings. And the more countries behave like this, the more likely it is that we will see the use of nuclear weapons, intentionally or by mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal?

BEATRICE FIHN: It’s a disaster. I mean, it’s a working deal, a result of a long negotiations process. It shows a disdain for diplomacy and peaceful solutions. The deal works. We have inspectors verifying that Iran is complying with this deal. But it shows this kind of zero-sum attitude to negotiations, that you have to dominate, you have to win everything, you have to humiliate the opponent in a negotiation. And that’s an extremely dangerous attitude, because that doesn’t solve the problem. I mean, you can’t do “America First” in nuclear weapons. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a global problem that needs a global solution. And that’s what we see with North Korea. These two countries can’t solve this problem on their own. It has to be anchored in law, anchored in international institutions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you proposing now? And talk about the grassroots organizing that’s going on around this.

BEATRICE FIHN: In many ways, we see similar—I was listening to the climate change discussion you just had before, and in many ways it’s very similar. We have to act now. Both climate change and nuclear weapons are the two existential threats to us. And we have to urgently act and not ignore this anymore.

We have tools. We have international law. We have treaties. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it has to enter into force. Countries have to support it. If the government doesn’t want to, we have local actions. For example, around the U.S., we have cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore, stepping up, supporting this treaty. We had the state of California support a resolution on the TPNW just in August.

And we see sort of people taking action. The fact that world leaders are going in the wrong way isn’t always a sign that the world is going that way. I think that we have to also highlight the positive developments. The majority of countries in the world, by far, do not have nuclear weapons, do not want nuclear weapons and want them gone. And I think that that’s also where we have to put focus on, in a way, and emphasize that. In terms of the North Korea-U.S. negotiations, we really have to look at how to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, and we have to use the existing treaties.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2 of our discussion post it online at Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, she accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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