GPPAC Northeast Asia
Nov 1, 2017 · 12 min read
Kawasaki Akira addresses an audience in Reykjavik, Iceland (photo by Mizumoto Shunya)

Kawasaki Akira, Executive Committee Member, Peace Boat / International Steering Group Member, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)


Northeast Asia suffers from a chain reaction of provocation and escalation of tensions over the nuclear and missile developments by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In contrast, on July 7, 2017, the United Nations witnessed the historic adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, or hereafter the Prohibition Treaty) that makes landmark progress towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.[i] This paper examines the lessons and opportunities that Northeast Asia can draw from the Prohibition Treaty and the global process that led to its adoption.

The Prohibition Treaty

Building on the past legal achievements that prohibited biological and chemical weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons regards nuclear weapons as inhumane weapons. It unconditionally prohibits the development, possession, use, threat of use and deployment of nuclear weapons, as well as assisting, encouraging and inducing those acts. The treaty was adopted with votes of support by 122 countries — nearly two thirds of the UN Member States.

The successful establishment of the Prohibition Treaty was the fruit of an international movement focusing on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, initiated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2010 and promoted by the group of countries known as the “Humanitarian Initiative,” led by Austria and Mexico, among others. In 2013–2014, three International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons were held. Following deliberations at the 2015 Review Conference of the Non-proliferation Treaty of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), effective legal measures on nuclear disarmament were explored at the UN Open-Ended Working Group in 2016. In December 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which decided to convene in 2017 the UN conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.[ii] Costa Rica chaired this conference from March to July 2017, navigating the negotiations which led to the adoption of the Prohibition Treaty. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) supported the whole process as a global coalition of civil society organizations.[iii]

The Prohibition Treaty explicitly refers, in its Preamble, to the suffering and harm caused to the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hibakusha) and those affected by nuclear tests around the world. It further states that any use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. The proposition that that nuclear weapons violate humanitarian rules sounds natural for people from Japan, who have been taught about what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bombs, through heat rays, blasts and radiation incomparable to other weaponry, instantly destroyed the two cities, with over 200,000 killed. Further, the survivors have been forced to suffer from long-lasting aftereffects, not only in medical terms but also social discrimination and psychological trauma.

Moreover, the International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons dealt with the question of the potential consequences if nuclear weapons were used today. International scientists warned that a “regional” nuclear war between India and Pakistan would cause, in addition to the devastation, deaths and radiological contamination in the region, climate change on a global scale (“nuclear winter”), and significant decreases of food products that would risk two billion people’s lives around the world (“nuclear famine”).[iv]

Further noted was the risk that nuclear weapons could be detonated not only by an authorized command by a national leader but also in unauthorized ways, including by accident, human error, miscalculation, or even cyber attacks. Therefore, the nuclear deterrence argument that nuclear weapons can remain under safe control through state-to-state balance lacks credibility. This recognition of the real risk associated with nuclear weapons has underpinned the international humanitarian movement to prohibit these weapons. The often-presented cynicism that humanitarian arguments are just emotional and idealistic is not relevant in this regard.

Kawasaki Akira (right) with atomic bomb survivors Fujimori Toshiki and Setsuko Thurlow at a press conference at the United Nations regarding the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia

The humanitarian movement regarding nuclear weapons has been led by a group of enthusiastic countries, particularly from Europe, Latin America and Africa. Southeast Asian countries have also joined and contributed to this movement. In contrast, Northeast Asian countries have been generally negative[v], except Mongolia — the only country from the region that participated in the negotiation and voted in support of the Prohibition Treaty. How can this difference be explained?

The first and foremost explanation is that Northeast Asian countries are still deeply dependent on the Cold War-type thinking that nuclear weapons constitute the central component of their national security. Both Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are dependent on the military alliance with the United States that engages nuclear weapons. China has chosen to be a nuclear-armed state since the 1960s. The DPRK has publicly pursued its nuclear armament since 2006. The Cold War divisions remain deeply rooted in Northeast Asia.

But in addition to this, the failure to achieve reconciliation from the past history among countries in the region may well also constitute an obstacle that prevents the recognition of the humanitarian aspect of nuclear weapons from being widely shared and accepted. Rather than an academically proven case, this is a hypothesis I have come to through a number of practices of peace activism.

For years, the Tokyo-based civil society organization Peace Boat, to which I belong, has conducted a project in which Hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki travel on board our chartered passenger ship, sharing their testimonies with citizens around the world.[vi] Most people they meet have heard of the names of the two cities, and have seen photos of the mushroom cloud taken from above by military planes. But very few people have heard of or imagined how humans suffered under this mushroom cloud. The average age of Hibakusha now exceeds 80. The way they courageously speak of the hell on earth that they had to experience impresses and moves the audience. Their efforts have thus contributed to building the grounds for a wide recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

Hibakusha prepare to depart for their Global Voyage onboard Peace Boat from the port of Yokohama

However, it is also the case that the messages of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not bring about a straightforward impact, particularly for the people of Japan’s neighboring countries in Asia. The Japanese story-telling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their “no nukes and peace” messages have often been countered by reactions such as to ask, “What about Japan’s past crimes and atrocities in its colonization and aggression?” Even more critically, some see that the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki aim to cover up the misconduct of Japan in World War II.

In responding to such typical skepticism, Japanese peace groups have explained that that the purpose of sharing the testimony of Hibakusha is not to appeal about Japan’s suffering. Rather, it is for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the most dangerous weapons on earth, which are posing a threat to the very survival of humankind. The Hibakusha do not want to see anyone in the world suffer from what they went through. In fact the Hibakusha are not all Japanese: Tens of thousands of Koreans, many of whom were forced to move to and work in Japan under Japan’s colonial rule, were also exposed to the bombs, along with US prisoners of war. Japanese groups are working in solidarity with those non-Japanese Hibakusha and nuclear test victims around the world, presenting the concept of “Global Hibakusha.”[vii]

These accounts do not always, in my experience, convince audiences from countries that suffered from Japan’s acts in the past. They are generally reluctant to accept Hiroshima and Nagasaki as symbols of peace. This is understandable. All the more so, now that there are clear signs of historical revisionism gaining force in Japan, as seen in the behavior and speeches of politicians and opinion leaders in the country. If Japanese peace activists want to properly communicate the messages of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to others, they have to first tackle the issues of historical recognition within their own country.

That said, the lack of understanding of and indifference to the horrific nature of nuclear weapons seen among the people of Northeast Asia other than Japan do need to be addressed. One can observe that it is the perception that the use of nuclear weapons on Japan liberated the people of Asia (an understanding of history which I do not believe is correct) that prevents those people from paying attention to the horrific nature of nuclear weapons. Such a barrier should be removed so that people can see the real face of nuclear weapons. As Northeast Asia today is escalating into an arms race involving nuclear weapons, it is necessary to establish the common understanding that nuclear weapons are weapons that will never be accepted or permitted. Education both for the public and for policy makers is essential, and needs to be urgently implemented.

International humanitarian law has the basic premise that the right of countries to choose means of warfare is not unlimited, as stated in the Preamble of the Prohibition Treaty. Countries can claim their rights of survival and self-defense. But it is not that any weapons can be permitted as legitimate for the sake of their survival or self-defense. Nuclear weapons are inherently non-discriminatory and inhumane and therefore exceed the limit that is permitted as legitimate weapons. This is the logic of prohibiting nuclear weapons. This logic needs to be applied when the international community demands the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons. The abandonment of nuclear weapons should be demanded not because the DPRK is a “bad country,” but because nuclear weapons are bad weapons.

The International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons have repeatedly addressed the simulated detonation of nuclear weapons, using cases such as Oslo, Mexico City and a US base in Central Europe. The simulated scientific data has led to the conclusion that there would be no international capacity to adequately respond to such a catastrophe. Even humanitarian relief would not be possible. Learning from such results, the governments and non-governmental actors of Northeast Asia are encouraged to consider convening a similar conference for the region. They could thus investigate the potential humanitarian consequences in the event of detonations of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia today, and discuss what can or cannot be prepared in a realistic sense.[viii] It is ironic that the only region in the world that has directly suffered from the use of nuclear weapons in wartime would have to make special efforts to recall the tragic memories after over 70 years. But it is very necessary, as in Northeast Asia there are dangerous signs of dealing with nuclear weapons too easily as a tool of international games.

The Prohibition Treaty and a nuclear-weapon-free Northeast Asia

Civil society actors from Japan and the ROK have long called for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia.[ix] But today, with the global Prohibition Treaty established, if the countries of Northeast Asia were to accede to the Prohibition Treaty together, the main objectives of a nuclear-weapon-free zone could be met without actually developing a new regional treaty.

A regional policy goal could be set, that the three countries of Japan, the ROK and the DPRK accede to the Prohibition Treaty at the same time. Such a joint accession would greatly contribute to the regional security of Northeast Asia. On the part of the DPRK, it would need to decide to abandon all nuclear weapons before acceding to the Prohibition Treaty. Then the DPRK would be required, upon its accession, to dismantle all its nuclear weapons programs, in accordance with Article 4 of the Treaty, under the monitoring of an international authority (or authorities) in a time-bound, verifiable and irreversible manner. This would no doubt bring about security benefits for the ROK and Japan, and more widely, internationally.

On the part of Japan and the ROK, the two countries would first be legally obligated to ensure that no nuclear weapons are stationed, installed or deployed in their territories, including within the US bases located in those countries, in accordance with Article 1 (g) of the Treaty. The DPRK has called for a verified confirmation of the non-existence of nuclear weapons on ROK soil as a premise to discuss nuclear disarmament.[x] The ROK’s accession to the Prohibition Treaty would address this concern of the DPRK.

Secondly, Japan and the ROK would also be legally obligated to undertake to never under any circumstances assist, encourage or induce the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons by the US, in accordance with Article 1 (d) and (e). In other words, the two countries could still maintain their military alliances with the US but undertake not to assist, encourage or induce the particular act of using nuclear weapons.

The proponents of the traditional security concept of the “nuclear umbrella” for those countries would criticize such an option as unrealistic. However, it is important to understand that the essence of the “nuclear umbrella” is in fact, despite the protective nuance of the words, to assist, encourage and induce the use of nuclear weapons by others on one’s behalf. If the US-allied countries such as Japan and the ROK were to determine never to undertake to assist, encourage or induce the use of nuclear weapons in view of the unacceptable humanitarian consequences, this would become a significant restraint preventing military tensions in the region from escalating into a nuclear exchange.

Still, the question of how to deal with the three nuclear-armed states, namely, China, the US and Russia, remains. The US and Russia have a bilateral scheme for the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons. China does not have any nuclear disarmament regime internationally. Still, it should be recalled that China has a declared policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Moving a step further, China is encouraged to adopt a policy of increased transparency to convince the international community that their nuclear weapons are not placed to be used, assuring to prevent the occurrence of catastrophic humanitarian consequences.


This paper focused on issues relating specifically to nuclear weapons, and could not examine other issues of importance for peace and security in Northeast Asia. Among these issues is Japan’s possible revision of Article 9 of its Constitution.

Japan’s Abe administration is currently preparing a new proposal of Constitutional revision, which would keep the words “renunciation of war” within Article 9 unchanged, but add an explicit provision regarding the Self-Defense Forces to the same article.[xi] Their argument for such a revision is that Japan would remain committed to never wage war again, but to provide expressly in the Constitution that the country retains the necessary minimum military capacity for its self-defense. Here the key questions are who and how to define the “necessary minimum,” and whether surrounding countries could be confident in and accept this “necessary minimum”.

Even for the self-defense of a country, there must be a red line to be kept and not exceeded. Seeking and establishing a common standard for that is the foundation of common security of a region. Rejecting nuclear weapons under any circumstances shall be an essentially necessary, albeit not solely sufficient, element of a common security for Northeast Asia.

[i] United Nations General Assembly, Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (A/CONF.229/2017/8), July 7, 2017,

[ii] United Nations General Assembly, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 23 December 2016
(A/RES/71/258), January 11, 2017,


[iv] “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?”, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), November 2013,

[v] Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stated at a press conference in Hiroshima, commemorating the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing, August 6, 2017, that Japan would not sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

[vi] Global Voyage for a Nuclear Free World: Peace Boat Hibakusha Project

[vii] As an example, see Peace Boat’s Pacific Peace Forum in 2016,

[viii] As a precedent, refer to Hiroshima City’s Report from the Committee of Experts on Damage Scenarios Resulting from a Nuclear Weapons Attack, November 2007,

[ix] For example, see the project of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA) of Nagasaki University to Develop a Comprehensive Approach to Northeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone,

[x] Moon, Chung-in, “Basis for a breakthrough in Pyongyang statement?”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 14, 2016,

[xi] The Constitution of Japan,

Reflections on Peace and Security in Northeast Asia -Perspectives from the Ulaanbaatar Process-

CHAPTER 1: Northeast Asian Security and a Vision for a Nuclear Weapon-free Zone, CHAPTER 2: Korean Peninsula Security Issues and their impact on Regional Stability, CHAPTER 3: Civil Society Dialogue and Multi-Track Diplomacy in Peacebuilding in Northeast Asia

GPPAC Northeast Asia

Written by

Northeast Asia regional network of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a global civil society-led network for peacebuilding.

Reflections on Peace and Security in Northeast Asia -Perspectives from the Ulaanbaatar Process-

CHAPTER 1: Northeast Asian Security and a Vision for a Nuclear Weapon-free Zone, CHAPTER 2: Korean Peninsula Security Issues and their impact on Regional Stability, CHAPTER 3: Civil Society Dialogue and Multi-Track Diplomacy in Peacebuilding in Northeast Asia

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