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Applying the Antarctic Solution to the Korean Nuclear Impasse

by William Lambers on Aug 23, 2005

William Lambers

Isn’t it ironic that while South Korea is locked in a dispute with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, the two rivals are at the same time members of a peace treaty that prohibits all military activity? The unlikely source of common ground lies in the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. This treaty may appear obscure, but in reality it’s a model for achieving peace and disarmament on the Korean peninsula.

In 1958 President Eisenhower invited 11 nations who had conducted scientific research in the Antarctic to participate in a peace conference in Washington, D.C. The result was the Antarctic Treaty, which banned all military activity from that region. The two Koreas joined the treaty in the late 1980s and thus pledged to honor the nuclear weapons-free zone status of the Antarctic.

Today, a nuclear weapons-free Korea is the goal of the six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. These talks are stalled over North Korea’s insistence on retaining its peaceful nuclear capabilities in return for disarming. But no one trusts that nation’s government to keep its nuclear facilities peaceful. Likewise, North Korea fears a conventional attack from the United States. Confidence-building measures, such as those of the Antarctic Treaty, are needed to jumpstart the negotiations.

Back in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was crafted with innovative aerial and ground inspection provisions to build confidence among the member nations that any treaty violations could be observed. Such inspection was quite an achievement during the early years of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, only four years earlier, had rejected Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” aerial inspection plan, which would have covered Soviet and American territory. The Antarctic Treaty was a small but significant consolation prize for the United States — and a preview of things to come. By the 1990s, aerial inspection would become a familiar sight over Europe and North America via the Open Skies Treaty.

Today, aerial inspection could help ease tensions along the Korean border. Only the demilitarized zone, several miles wide, separates the colossal military forces of North and South Korea. A million-man North Korean army with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces stands on one side of this zone. On the South Korean side are nearly 700,000 troops and 37,000 U.S. soldiers. North Korea also possesses a growing missile capability that is unnerving not only to its Southern neighbor, but also to the United States.

Regular over-flights by unarmed planes from each nation would give assurance that no surprise military preparations were taking place. More important, inspection flights would enhance cooperation by allowing North and South Korean military officials to work together on these missions. The Korean population, by witnessing such collaboration, could also gain confidence that peace on the peninsula is possible. The United States ought to try to arrange a demonstration surveillance flight over the Korean border region. This act of good faith could also counter the North’s perceived fears of a U.S. attack.

Another provision of the Antarctic Treaty is the notification of activities and sharing of information. While in the Antarctic this type of notification applies to scientific activities, in Korea such openness would pertain to military maneuvers. Open observation of military exercises should also occur to quell suspicions of hostile intent. Such inspections would build upon the recent establishment of a military hotline between the North and South.

The few Korean scientists who venture to the Antarctic can live in a region free from war and nuclear weapons, whereas their fellow countrymen back home cannot. But this isolated patch of common ground the Koreas share can lead to something much greater. The principles that govern the Antarctic Treaty can provide a much-needed boost to the nuclear disarmament negotiations and help set the long-time Korean rivals on the road to peace.


William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).