It is true that tensions have lessened recently with North and South Korea holding talks and, on March 8, President Trump accepting an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un ‘by May.’
But past efforts to engage the North have often left participants disappointed. If these talks fail, the temptation to resort to military force could ratchet up quickly. In such a scenario, international arbitration might provide an alternative to conflict.
Been Here Before
In 1904, war between Russia and the UK appeared imminent after the Russian Baltic fleet fired damaging six English fishing boats, killing two fisherman and wounding six others, just a few miles off the coast of England.
The British press demanded that the ‘wretched Baltic fleet’ be destroyed, and the Royal Navy manoeuvered to do just that. War was avoided at the last minute when the foreign ministers of both countries agreed to arbitration presided over by commissioners from Britain, Russia, the US, France and Austria.
The result was a four-month interval that allowed time for tempers to cool and ultimately Russia paid damages.
Positive Track Record
The US, too, has been party to disputes settled by arbitration.
The most prominent of these are the ‘Alabama claims’ in which the US – after the Civil War – demanded reparations from the UK for having supplied and armed Confederate ships such as the CSS Alabama, despite being ostensibly neutral. These ‘Confederate raiders’ had caused millions in damages to American shipping. Such was the tension between the two countries that some American politicians suggested that the US annex Canada, which was then under the British rule.
Instead, diplomacy prevailed and the US and the UK finally agreed in 1871 to an arbitration panel – composed of Switzerland, Italy, Brazil, US and the UK – that awarded $15 million to Washington and also set the stage for a lasting peace between the two countries.
After this arbitration, politicians thought the world could be entering an ‘epoch when a court recognised by all nations will settle international differences’ so as to avoid major military conflict.
Indeed, such a court was created in 1899 at the Convention on Pacific Settlement of International Disputes and still exists with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which has been actively involved in settling current disputes in India, Malta, Italy, Timor, Australia and South Africa.
How it Could Work
One advantage of such a commission is that it could make relatively objective, logical and practical decisions that politicians could never agree to if they wanted to keep their popular base and their defence establishments happy.
For example, it is likely that President Trump could not, at present, agree to let North Korea keep nuclear weapons. At the same time, despite what Kim Jong-un has told the South Koreans, his generals would probably not be happy with a unilateral promise to cease testing in the Pacific.
Supporting an international arbitration mechanism would certainly offer China a tempting opportunity to restore its international image following its rejection of the 2016 UN ruling against it and its claims in the South China Sea.
So who would sit on this arbitration panel? We believe it would make sense to decide this on the basis of the UN Security Council’s permanent members and the leading countries in the region: China, Russia, France, the UK and Japan. The next question is, what would such an arbitration court decide?
There are many possible scenarios, but we believe the following would be realistic, fair and effective.
· Many countries – from France, the UK and the US to India, Israel and Pakistan – have nuclear weapons. Their primary motive is not aggression but self-preservation. It seems reasonable that this is North Korea’s main motivation too. All nations today are also acutely aware of what happened in Libya to Gaddafi and in Iraq when Saddam did not have weapons to defend against invasion. North Korea, therefore, could make a case to keep its present stock of nuclear weapons. So, this remains one of the most contentious elements of any resolution.
· North Korea would freeze its intercontinental ballistic missile programme (with minimum range of 3,400 miles or 5,500 km) and promise not to further test nuclear weapons or to fire their missiles toward or over any other nations.
· China would promise to come to the aid of North Korea if invaded – after all, it has come to its aid before, in 1950, during the Korean War. But, critically, the Chinese would also promise that if North Korea acted unilaterally or distributed its nuclear weapons to third parties, then China would back the elimination of the present regime.
This last promise would be heralded as a serious shift in China’s strategy and would send an unambiguous message to the North Koreans while simultaneously signaling China’s constructive engagement in favour of stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The point is that North Korea does not want China as an enemy. China, for its part, is loathe to see a nuclear-armed North Korea. China feels that it has lost a good deal of influence and control over North Korea. This sort of declaration from China would help restore China’s influence.
Protecting the US
President Trump’s desire to put America first seeks to avoid getting bogged down in foreign entanglements such as a war on the Korean Peninsula.
But the President has an obligation to protect the US from a potential nuclear threat.
Although the arbitration route could be vulnerable to domestic political critiques of ‘outsourcing sovereignty’ it might, nonetheless, offer a way out of the current menu of unpalatable options. It is certainly far better than a disastrous war.
(Sievert is Senior Lecturer in Government, Texas A&M University. Norris is Professor of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. theconversation.com)