Disarmament Expert on N. Korea Summit: An International Process Is Needed to Reduce Nuclear Threat

StoryFebruary 27, 2019
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President Trump is meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un today in Vietnam in their second summit to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We speak with physicist, nuclear expert and disarmament activist Zia Mian. He is co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He is the co-author of “Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, President Trump is meeting today in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This is their second summit to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Trump and Kim met briefly in front of reporters before heading to an official dinner.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I thought the first summit was a great success, and I think this one, hopefully, will be equal or greater than the first. And we made a lot of progress. And I think the biggest progress was our relationship is really a good one. … I think that your country has tremendous economic potential, unbelievable, unlimited. And I think that you will have a tremendous future with your country, a great leader. And I look forward to watching it happen and helping it to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: CNN is reporting that the White House initially tried to ban reporters from attending the initial—the official dinner, that took place right after that meeting where you just watched Trump speaking. This was after a journalist shouted a question to Trump about Michael Cohen’s upcoming testimony. After reporters collectively protested the ban, the White House conceded one print reporter could be present, alongside cameras documenting the event.

We go back now to Zia Mian, the Pakistani-born physicist, nuclear expert, disarmament activist, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Professor Mian is the co-author of Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation.

Zia, thanks for staying with us. Talk about the significance of this summit.

ZIA MIAN: The second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is enormously important, in the sense that it keeps the path moving toward funding some kind of settlement of the nuclear crisis that has plagued the Korean Peninsula for such a long time.

But I think the larger issue that we need to focus on is the fact that nuclear weapons are too important to be left to the whims of leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, or, as we talked about before, the leaders of India and Pakistan. You know, when the lives of millions of people have been put at risk by countries making nuclear weapons, then it shouldn’t be left to random decisions by whimsical leaders as to who they want to talk to and when and where and about what. We need to have a much more organized international process to deal with the threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity, and not wait for, you know, whenever Donald Trump feels like talking to Vladimir Putin or whenever Kim Jong-un feels that he can now talk to the United States or when the prime minister of India thinks that he can threaten Pakistan or Pakistan thinks that they need diplomacy with India. When such great stakes are involved, we need the international community and international institutions to act together in an organized and systematic way, and not leave it to the whims of individuals who think that somehow they can save the day when it suits them and in the way that it suits them. That’s a much more important issue to focus on than what may or may not happen in one particular summit in some hotel in Hanoi.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in what way, though, could progress be made? There is the issue, that still remains, of—that there’s never been an actual peace treaty between the United States and North Korea, and addressing also the issue of the thousands of U.S. troops that still remain in South Korea. Would that be—being able to achieve at least a peace treaty, begin the process of then addressing the nuclear weapons issue?

ZIA MIAN: Well, it might, and it might not. You have to remember that the North Koreans want a peace treaty, so—and a peace treaty would be a good thing. The Korean War has been over for a very long time. But the lack of a treaty or the presence of a peace treaty did not stop the United States and the Soviet Union threatening each other with thousands of nuclear weapons, even though they never went to war, and there was no question of peace treaties or anything like that. And similarly in the case of Pakistan and India, it’s not the absence of a peace treaty that stops them from talking about nuclear weapons or enabling them to talk about nuclear weapons.

And so, I think what you have to do is ask the question: Are we going to focus on the issue at hand, which is how do we deal with the nine states with nuclear weapons in the world, or do we get into this endless process of, you know, trading diplomacy for sanctions and this and that, depending on whoever happens to be in charge at any particular time? Because what we’ve seen in the last 70 years is, we still have thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, despite so many efforts at this kind of diplomacy. So we need a much more determined and different approach to deal with the threat of nuclear weapons, rather than continuing to rely on this idea that leaders and summits are going to find a way out of this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this should be a model, this North Korean summit, Zia, for a meeting with Iran? Can you explain President Trump’s approach to Iran, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal; approach to Russia, pulling out of the INF, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces deal; and having this nuclear summit?

ZIA MIAN: Well, the issue is, not right now, as I’m trying to say, you know, pulling out of the Iran deal or having a summit with the North Koreans. Having the nuclear deal with Iran back in place would be a good thing. Having North Korea continue to commit to a diplomatic process going forward would be a good thing. We only have to think back to when North Korea and the United States were threatening each other on a daily basis.

But neither of these are going to solve the underlying problem, which is that: Where is the rest of the world in dealing with this question of nuclear weapons? There are nine countries with nuclear weapons. None of them have actually made any serious effort to give up their nuclear weapons. They talk about talking, rather than giving up their nuclear weapons. And I think what we need to do is to have many more countries in the world say, “Look, we have a stake in this, because the future of humanity is at stake when it comes to talking about nuclear weapons. And we are going to lay down some rules and conditions about how nuclear weapon states should behave.” And until we get to that point and begin to discipline the nine states with nuclear weapons and bring them back under international law, we’re not really going to address the real problem, the elephant in the room, which is the existence of nuclear weapons. You can’t manage something like this with this kind of diplomatic summitry that has gone on for such a long time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But how would it be possible to discipline these nine nations, given the enormous—the disproportionate influence that they have in international bodies, whether it’s the United Nations or others, in terms of addressing the issue of continued proliferation?

ZIA MIAN: This is exactly the question that we all need to be asking ourselves. What does it take to actually control and discipline and restrain the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea? I mean, they are nine countries. Between them, they have 14,500 nuclear weapons. But there are 193 countries in the world—not nine, 193. And the question is: How do we get all the rest of them, and the people in these nine countries that have nuclear weapons, to take interest, to get engaged and to demand that we do something about nuclear weapons and work for their elimination as an urgent priority? And I think the question you’ve asked is absolutely the right one. What does it take to control the great powers, that have basically dominated world affairs for such a long time through their threat of catastrophic violence? And this is something that, until we ask the question in exactly the way that you asked, we’re not going to be able to find an answer.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the nine nuclear powers. What about what’s happening with Saudi Arabia, last week House Democrats accusing the Trump administration of moving toward transferring highly sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, in potential violation of U.S. law?

ZIA MIAN: Well, this is part of the geopolitics of the Middle East and how the U.S. is trying to build allies in its campaign against Iran. But also, this is not the first time. The United States has sold nuclear technologies to its friends and tried to deny it to those it sees as hostile. The United States does this with India but denies nuclear technology to Pakistan. So, people have traded nuclear technology as ways of making allies, strengthening their friends, and have tried to prevent the spread of nuclear technology to those that it sees as potentially hostile. So there’s nothing new in this. This has been going on for more than 50 years, despite the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The idea that that was the way in which we were going to manage the threat of nuclear technology and the geopolitics of seeking influence and exercising power in the world, you know, we can see that that hasn’t worked the way that people thought it was supposed to. We have to deal with a much more fundamental question, and that question is one of world order and the role of international law and of the international community. And as Juan pointed out, we have to deal with the fact that some countries have a huge amount of power in the world, and it’s only through collective action, when the rest of the world and the people in the nine nuclear-armed states say, “Look, enough of this. We are not going to be held hostage. We want you to sign the new Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty from 2017.” I mean, more than 70 countries have already signed it; 122 countries have supported it. It bans nuclear weapons. It says the threat of use of nuclear weapons is illegal now under international law.

And that’s the kind of initiative that we need to see more and more countries take. And we need to see it be part of the domestic debate in the United States and in the other countries with nuclear weapons, because until we focus with great clarity on this question, that the challenge we face is the existence of nuclear weapons and the nine countries that have nuclear weapons and threaten to use them as part of their military and political policy, we’re not going to get away from the fact we’re going to keep coming back to crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Princeton professor Zia Mian, we thank you for being with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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