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American scientists from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have moved the Doomsday Clock measuring the likelihood of nuclear war to two minutes to midnight. The last time it was this close was in 1953.
The reasons are the risks from North Korea's nuclear programme; discord between Russia and the United States; tensions in the South China sea; the build-up of Pakistan's and India's nuclear arsenals and uncertainty over the Iran nuclear deal.
Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and willingness to inflict ``Fire and Fury'' on North Korea, his disavowal of the Iran deal and his willingness to remake and expand America's nuclear arsenal are also major factors increasing global nuclear tensions
Of all these challenges, the ones most pressing for New Zealand are nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula and tensions in South Asia.
North Korea has four to eight plutonium weapons and six to 20 highly enriched uranium weapons. Intelligence analysts think the regime might be able to build up to 80 by the end of 2020, albeit at great cost to the North Korean economy.
This number is small compared with the 15,300 possessed by the United States and Russia or the 1085 by other nuclear powers. But it remains an alarming number.
The challenge is what to do about all these weapons and the significant threats posed to South Korea and Japan. The United States position, endorsed by the Security Council, has been to impose tougher and tougher sanctions on North Korea in the hope this will force the it to the negotiating table.
The most recent example was at the Vancouver Conference on Korea organised by Canada and the United States and attended by New Zealand and 19 other countries. This conference was badly perceived by Russia, China and North Korea. It was, in the first place, a strange collection of state parties. It brought together countries that had fought under the UN command in the 1950s and who had signed on to the US Proliferation Security Initiative.
This made it look like a coalition of the willing about to reactivate the Korean War. There was a symbolic nod in the direction of a negotiated solution but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson primarily focused on tighter sanctions implementation, and the US Secretary of Defence James Mattis briefed the delegates on the US plan for military strikes. There was no real support for a diplomatic solution.
National security adviser H.RMcMaster dismissed the inter-Korean talks as ``diversion'' and placed more weight on the military options on the table. The Vancouver Conference's focus on imposing more restrictive maritime sanctions on North Korea, rather than how to nurture positive inter-Korean discussions was more unhelpful than helpful.
If New Zealand wishes to avoid being sucked into a dangerous military situation, it is vital our Foreign Ministry gets the balance right between sanctions and dialogue.
In particular, New Zealand should do what it can to support Korean government efforts to open multiple channels of communication between North and South in order to prevent a disastrous military strike.
South Korea, under President Moon Jae-In, is trying to develop a middle way. It has two main objectives: The first is to denuclearise North Korea and the second is to ensure the North Korean problem is resolved peacefully through diplomatic means.
South Korea wishes to do this through dialogue and negotiation, sanctions and pressure, and as a very last resort defence and deterrence.
This is a different priority from the United States which is fixated on enhancing sanctions and military deterrence and is threatening a conventional or pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korean nuclear facilities.
In the US argument, squeezing the North Korean regime will result in an increased willingness to negotiate. There is little or no evidence for this argument.
On the contrary, back channel discussions and positive incentives have been much more effective than negative sanctions in thawing relations between North and South Korea.
The South Korean Government's willingness to restore dialogue between North and South around humanitarian assistance, the winter Olympic games, tension reduction along the Demilitarised Zone and a temporary cessation of US-South Korea military exercises have undoubtedly been more effective.
It is vital, therefore, the New Zealand Government does not succumb to the bellicose position proposed by Foreign Minister Winston Peters after Vancouver. This will be unhelpful to the tenuous relationship and delicate negotiations taking place between both sides on the Korean Peninsula.
These are dangerous times for the world. It is vital New Zealand does not say or do things which foment division and polarisation.
On the contrary, we need to focus attention on ways we can play a positive peace-building role in the Asia Pacific region and do all we can to encourage and bring about a negotiated solution to the challenges facing the Korean Peninsula.
Enhanced sanctions and military solutions are not helpful to these more peaceful processes.
Prof Clements is the founding director of the New Zealand National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago.