Could the solution to a nuclear North Korea lie in arbitration? (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)
According to latest polls, a majority of Americans see North Korea as the greatest immediate threat to the U.S. with as many as 73 percent concerned about Kim Jung Un’s use of nuclear weapons. The world lives in fear that one more provocation in the form of a North Korean missile or nuclear test could lead to major war on the Korean Peninsula.
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 unsatisfied and disappointed. If these talks fail or lead to frustration, the temptation to resort to military force could ratchet up quickly. And if such direct engagement efforts fall short of expectations, international arbitration might provide – as it has in the past – an alternative to conflict.
As scholars who study international law and Asian politics, our question is: Could arbitration help resolve the present crisis with North Korea?
We have been here before
In 1904, war between Russia and the United Kingdom appeared imminent after the Russian Baltic fleet fired on and severely damaged six English fishing boats, killing two fisherman and wounding six others, on Dogger Bank, just a few miles off the coast of England.
The British press demanded that the “wretched Baltic fleet” be destroyed, and the Royal Navy eagerly maneuvered 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 United States, France and Austria.
The result was a four-month interval that allowed time for tempers to cool as well as a complete inquiry and an analysis of the incident.
Ultimately Russia paid damages for the incident on Dogger Bank, and the U.K. and Russian governments were both able to step away from war while saving face with their public.
A positive track record
The United States, too, has been party to disputes settled by arbitration.
The most prominent of these are the “Alabama claims” in which the U.S. – after the Civil War – demanded reparations from the U.K. 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 U.S. annex Canada, which was then under British rule.
Instead, diplomacy prevailed and the U.S. and the U.K. finally agreed in 1871 to an arbitration panel – composed of Switzerland, Italy, Brazil, U.S. and the U.K. – that awarded US$15 million to Washington and, critically, also set the stage for a lasting peace between the two countries.
After this arbitration, politicians, including Ulysses S. Grant, thought the world could be entering an “epoch when a court recognized 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.
Given this positive historical track record, could arbitration help avoid war on the Korean Peninsula today?