Every nuclear test is a red line not to be crossed – non-proliferation organization leader

Once again, the world faces a nuclear crisis in North Korea – this time more than ever, with unpredictable leadership on both sides. With missiles armed and ready, the world may perish in a free-for-all exchange, despite all the diplomacy. Calls for a total ban on nuclear weapons are also ringing louder. But can humanity really give them up? We ask Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty organization and participant of the Valdai Discussion Club.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Lassina Zerbo, welcome to the show, it's great to have you on our program. So, President Trump has recently reiterated that ‘only one thing will work’ with North Korea - hinting at a military option. We’ve heard this many times before from U.S. officials. Is it just tough talking or is a pre-emptive strike really on the cards?

Lassina Zerbo: First of all, thank you for having us in studio with you. What I often said is that at a time of high tensions, sometimes words go beyond our thoughts. I'm just hoping that this is the case right now, and that everything will be done together, with all stakeholders, within the international community framework to find the solution of the problem, of the issue of DPRK.

SS: But why do you think that the U.S. has attempted an attempt to force Pyongyang into something by fear? I mean, these guys don't seem to be easily scared at all.

LZ: With nuclear weapons, the possibility of war - I mean, it's always scary, from the civil society viewpoint and from the international community as well. Any rhetoric that goes towards this end can be scary and is scary, in fact. But as I said, once again, my hope is that we live in a difficult period, the tensions are pretty high and difficult moments, and words sometimes go beyond our thoughts, and I'm hoping that things will settle one way or another and that's what we all  try to push for.

SS: We all hope that things will settle, but U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley took it even further - he said that the North Korean issue has a deadline, that decisions would be made soon. What does that mean? Is he saying that we are actually heading towards war? How much time do you think we have here?

LZ: I think, my hope is that things so far have been settled through the UN framework and the UNSC. I think the UNSC has gone beyond the words that we’re hearing and it always found solution to the problem in the DPRK. It is true that there's no definite solution, but if we manage to get DPRK to stop testing, I mean, all kinds of tests, I mean, both nuclear testing and then missile testing, I think that could be a good start to the solution in the region.

SS: So, international community has urged North Korea many times before to stop its nuclear testing. But it does not seem to bow to the pressure. Neither UN resolutions nor sanctions work. In your opinion - what else can be done to make Pyongyang stop their nuclear tests?  

LZ: That is the question that comes often - to say, what is the solution to Pyongyang problem? We've reached the 8th sanctions since the problem started in the Korean Peninsula. And despite incremental sanctions, North Korea has gone from one test - I talk about nuclear tests - every three years, to two tests a year in 2016, and then one huge one that has gone beyond anything thinkable that they were able to do. What does it tell? I mean, if you take a layman on the street, he’ll tell you: “Look, the sanctions seem to not be working,” from a layman's perspective. So if we are incrementally pushing sanctions and these sanctions seem to go incrementally with what North Korea is doing, I think we have to probably find a way in coercive diplomacy where we have the way to put pressure, but at the same time keep the door open for discussion and so that we move towards a solution that is sustainable. This is what we're hoping or, beyond words.

SS: Some experts believe an aboveground test would be a logical step for North Korea to prove success of their nuclear programme. Others believe Pyongyang wouldn’t go for it due to the risks. What’s your take on that?

LZ: I hope we won't go for an atmospheric test. You have to remember that the history of nuclear test, explosion in the air, have pushed people in the United States in Nevada and beyond that, to ask to stop - the CTBT from a Limited Test Ban Treaty, moving from atmospheric tests to underground testing. But then came the CTBT in 1996, the treaty to ban comprehensive tests, whereby there's no testing in the air, underground or underwater. So it is my hope, and I'm glad you're mentioning this, that we push towards the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, its entry into force, so that there's no room for testing, be it in the air or underground. We talk about underground testing, we shouldn't take it as something that is acceptable, and that the atmospheric test would be the red line. I think every test today is a red line and the red line is we have to get this treaty to force so that we leave no room for underground or atmospheric tests, or underwater testing. And that's what we're pushing for and that's why we have to finish what we started, which is finishing the CTBT by getting it into force as soon as possible.

SS: You’ve posted a motion graphic on Twitter which shows a simulation of the aftermath of a potential test over the Pacific. Some users found this video chilling, some - misleading. Could you give me a more detailed idea of the consequences of such a test? 

LZ: Yes, you're right, I did post on Twitter the simulation of a possible test in the air. That was in response of the request of many journalists and experts who were asking us - should we have to today an atmospheric test, what will be the consequences? What we did, we basically simulated the weather forecast, how an atmospheric test could be taken and an isotope be moved with weather and conditions and be spread around, same as we did for Fukushima when we had the Fukushima accident in 2011. It's a same thing, the same type of simulation we put together. It is true that it has caused some concerns because we get back people saying that this is scary. I mean, there's nothing scary in this map, this map is just an indication of how things can be transported with weather conditions that are on the planet. That's what we did and that's what we put forward on Twitter for the international community, or, you know, laymen to be able to see as well, twitter being the way to move forward this day in communication.

SS: So, what will be the consequences of the test? Can you tell me what will be the consequences?

LZ: Consequences of an atmospheric test would be certainly more damaging that what we've ever seen so far with underground testing. Underground testing, we talk about geological stress and earthquakes that might happen in the event of the cracking in the ground - that could seep through some radioactive isotopes that could come in very minimal quantity or minimal level, but if you talk about atmospheric tests, you just have to go to Kazakhstan and then see what the consequence could be. I've been to Semipalatinsk and the consequences that can be are often very damaging, because you talk about an atmospheric test, and conditions that are in the air, are it's affecting the environment more than if it was in the ground. Not that I'm justifying, that we should do tests underground, I'm just saying that the consequences in the air for the environment are more damaging than what could come underground.

SS: The U.S. is the staunchest opponent of North Korea’s nuclear tests. Yet it has never ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. How much credibility does the U.S. hold when it seeks to prevent others from nuclear testing?  

LZ: It is true. You talk about the U.S. not having ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. This is where I often quote democracy. That's a sign of democracy that people should take forward. I mean, a leader can be willing to consider the CTBT ratification, but if he doesn't have the numbers at the Senate or at the Parliament, it's difficult for him to pursue this policy as he wishes. So this is the situation in the U.S.. Having said this, the U.S. does contributed tremendously to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, they’ve completed the international monitoring system facility on their territory. I think there are one or two remaining and then we're working towards that and participating in the technical work of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. It is my hope that the conditions, putting the U.S. into saying that anything that contributes to their national security, they buy in  - I am yet to prove that the CTBT is indeed contributing to the U.S. national security, and I think if we manage to do that, as we're trying our best, we'll put the U.S. into conditions of ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

SS: U.S. ratification of the treaty would most likely set a good example for other states including China and even Iran. If those countries join, U.S. security will benefit - so why aren’t the Americans ratifying the CNTB?

LZ: Why the remaining countries are not ratifying the treaty? I think it's... not a million dollar question, but I mean it's a question and an answer that I give sometimes for schoolkids. I mean, kids are telling me often, "but mr. Zerbo, why don't you bring them in the room and then get them to ratify all at the same time?" and the answer to this question is often because we tell them, they hear from civil society or from reading that U.S. or China is waiting for U.S., Israel is waiting for Iran and Iran is waiting and so and so forth. I mean, it's the answer of people who are of pure mind - they say, "bring them all in one room and get them to sign at the same time, so there won't be a problem of who ratifies first and does it late." So, that's probably an idealistic scenario. But having said this, I often say that we have 8 countries that all have the responsibility of ratifying the CTBT and they should go for it. There's no 800 pound gorilla or 150 pound gorilla. From the eight countries that ratification is necessary to enter this treaty into force, and we're working closely, or, I would say, very closely with some of them, and we wish to do with all of them, to get this treaty into force the soonest. That will leave no room for nuclear testing.

SS: The Trump White House wants to disavow and toughen up the Iran deal, which helped halt Tehran's nuclear weapons programme. If Trump does it, what will that mean for non-proliferation?

LZ: The Iran deal was one of the few, if I can put it this way, agreements for nearly a decade, in non-proliferation arms control. It is my hope that everything will be done by those stakeholders who are key in that agreement to find a way to pursue it, to give the confidence necessary for the international community, to move on with other arms control treaties, like the CTBT, MCT, and arms control that seeks to establish a peaceful environment that this world needs today. That is my hope. I am positive that with Iran, there's always solution to be found, to issue, and then, I think, the same way they concluded this deal, the same way they can find ways to continue in the best way for the international community and all parties.

SS: Are nuclear weapons the only insurance that countries like North Korea can count on for the safety of their regimes against intervention? What can be more solid than a nuke?

LZ: I hope that nuclear weapons are the not the only assurance for countries, as you are asking. I think what could be more assuring, is the conducive environment that one could create for people to feel at ease, that the security and their national security is not threatened by their neighbors or the international community. How do we do that? I think that's why multilateral diplomacy exists and that's why we have regional framework, you know, asian framework, western framework, african framework, you name it. I think we need multilateral and regional diplomacy to be able to put countries in the position where they feel comfortable, that there's no threats by all means next to them or coming from afar. That's what we need and that's what we have multilateral diplomacy for.

SS: But tell me something - we’re ok with India and Pakistan having nuclear weapons, right, why not North Korea? Why not just admit it and move on with it?

LZ: Oh. I mean. Why not admit that North Korea's nuclear weapons are like India and Pakistan and move on with it... I think you're asking a pretty difficult question, but my answer to that would be: we're aiming for non-proliferation and we're aiming for disarmament in the end. We cannot, in the framework of the NPT, consider more countries that are coming up today with nuclear weapons and the risk that we have that others will say: "If this country has managed to do it under this current framework, why not me?" And who wants that? What we want is to put an end to nuclear testing and then to move towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and to do that we have to bring countries who seek or who have this ambition to understand that a national security doesn't depend on the possession of the nuclear weapons. And I just want to say, if you take a toddler, a toddler would want only to sit, crawl, before he walks. If he walks without crawling, you would not have solid legs to work in a sustainable fashion. And I'm putting the move towards the world without nuclear weapons - in the same way. We need solid ground that includes putting into force a CTBT, and a legally binding one. So, we'll be creating conditions that are right for world without nuclear weapons.

SS: Military doctrines of global powerhouses depend on having nuclear arsenals, policies are made based on having nuclear arsenals, nukes provide checks and balances in global politics - wouldn’t outlawing them and getting rid of them bring more instability, make politics unpredictable?

LZ: You are asking somebody from tiny little country, somebody that will not say that having nuclear weapons brings stability, because I don't think that some regions where there's no nuclear weapons, are not stable because there's weapons, or stable because there aren't weapon. I think we're moving towards bringing peace and stability for this world, for this planet, and bringing peace and stability is about also stopping anything that leads to arms race, and then, achieving disarmament, and that's what we want and that's what we're working towards, and working towards this, the international community, has brought forward treaties like the CTBT or FMCT, Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, and many other treaties that come together as we move towards achieving this world that we're dreaming of, dreaming of world without  nuclear weapons. I hope we will achieve this in our lifetime and people will not see nuclear weapons as means for stability, by any means. I think that we have the opportunity to do that, because now, more than ever, we have a big risk of a start of a new arms race again.

SS: The Nobel Prize winners managed to push a Treaty on the Prohibition of the Nuclear Weapons in the UN. But none of the nuclear club members backed it, with the U.S. calling the initiative unfit for today’s security situation, and Russia calling it dangerous. Without the signatures of the heavyweights, is this Treaty powerless, and then what’s the point of it?

LZ: You talk about the Nobel Prize. I think I will try and quote what exactly the Nobel Committee said. They said, they've ordered this Nobel Prize knowing that it will not achieve stopping nuclear weapons today, but it's a message that they wanted to send to the international community. But beyond the message, what we want is the practical disarmament and the practical disarmament takes into account arms control treaties that are here, the CTBT being one of them. I've used the example of the toddler, I think we have to finish what we started. One of the things that we started more than 20 years ago is CTBT. It's such a low-hanging fruit! If you can't have a world free from nuclear testing, how can you achieve a world free from nuclear weapons? North Korea cannot be testing - still - and  we're talking about world free from nuclear weapons... North Korea like any other country, it's only country that is testing today, they must stop this, stop nuclear testing, stop missile testing, and then create the conditions for the international community to see them as partners, and with that we can move towards the world free from nuclear weapons. That's what we think and that's what we want to achieve.

SS: Does the Comprehensive Ban on Nuclear Tests as well as the Non-Proliferation make this new UN Prohibition Treaty redundant? I mean, we already have a structure in place that controls nuclear weapons reasonably well...

LZ: Whether the Prohibition Treaty is a redundancy to the CTBT and the NPT?... I wouldn't take one versus another. I think what we hear from civil society and from the proponents of the prohibition of nuclear weapons is the perceived frustration that I have seen in what they see as no movement towards disarmament. But precisely, movement towards disarmament includes the getting the CTBT into force to create the conditions of trust that is necessary for countries to come together and then discuss how they can effectively and practically achieve disarmament. This is important. When I used toddler's example, I think it might look a little bit funny, but the reality is, to have something sustainable, we have to prepare the ground for it, and to prepare the ground for an effective and practical, we need to achieve entering into force of the CTBT, and bring many of the arms control treaties that are pending - live. If we bring them live, we create the conditions. Because we have to move on them, because if you don't move on entering into force of the CTBT, you effectively give the perception that nothing is moving towards non-proliferation and disarmament. That's the risk, that's what we're facing today, and this is why we still have to finish what we started, the CTBT is the lowest-hanging fruit in that in marsh.

SS: Alright, Mr Zerbo, thank you very much for being with us today. We were talking to Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty organisation and participant of the Valdai Discussion Club, about the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula and whether a world without nukes is actually possible. That's it for this latest edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.