By Tong Kim, visiting chair professor, Kyungnam University

A prelude to instability in the region

Undisguised, escalating confrontation in rivalry between the U.S. and China threatens peace and stability in Northeast Asia.  U.S.-China cooperation is widely deemed a necessary condition to a successful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. At present, the prospect for denuclearization is remote.

Without progress on denuclearization, there are limits to the improvement of inter-Korean relations. Resolution of these two issues—denuclearization and inter-Korean relations—is a prerequisite to a peaceful unification of the peninsula into One Korea.

Bluntly, with the continuing nuclear and missile development by China and North Korea, and an intensifying tension between the United States and China, amid a prolonged stalemate on nuclear talks with the North, the risk of a nuclear conflict—either between China and the U.S. or between North Korea and the U.S.—is lingering, if not rising. 

In this context, U.S. withdrawals from arms control treaties and alarming signals from its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review are hardly conducive to easing tensions, but more likely to portend an unstable nuclear security environment in the region.

Failure of denuclearization efforts

For more than a quarter of a century, the United States has tried and failed in different formats and approaches to denuclearize North Korea. It failed with the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2004 joint statement of the 6-party talks, the 2012 Leap Day agreement, and the 2018 Singapore summit agreement. 

Did neither the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Pyongyang joined in 1986 and withdrew from in 2003, nor well-intended arms control treaties such as ABM, INF, START I, New START or CTBT, help prevent North Korea’s breakout as a de facto nuclear state. Had North Korea remained in the NPT, faithfully implementing its treaty obligations including IAEA safeguards, there would not be its nuclear issue today.

The NPT still has three main goals: non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear energy.  The Treaty stipulates that non-nuclear weapons states pledge not to acquire or manufacture a nuclear weapon, and the five recognized nuclear states—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—agree not to transfer nuclear weapons to the non-nuclear states or assist them in manufacturing a nuclear weapon.

The treaty also encourages good faith negotiations for total dismantlement of all nuclear weapons.  However, no such negotiation has been held. Interestingly, President Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for making a political statement in Prague 2009 that he would work to build a world free of nuclear weapons.

Termination of arms reduction treaties

The United State has withdrawn from a couple of the landmark arms reduction treaties that it had signed and ratified with the old Soviet Union, succeeded by Russia.  In 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), designed to restrict missile defense systems that were somehow thought to be triggering a further competition in developing ballistic missiles capable of avoiding or surviving the missile defense systems. 

In February 2019, the Trump administration terminated the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, which had banned all land-based mid- and short-range missiles for 1,000 to 5,500 kilometers and their missile launchers, except for sea launch missiles.  The rationale behind the termination was that the treaty did not apply to China, which was aggressively developing a nuclear-missile force, while it was repeatedly violated by Russia.

The current New START that limits deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 is due to expire in February 2021.  It will probably not be renewed. Again, China is not included, and neither party of the treaty seems interested to renegotiate its extension.  

The United States is known to have reduced its nuclear stockpile by over 85% since the height of the Cold War. However, without a new trilateral or multilateral arms control deal in place that will include China and replace the New START, the existing nuclear weapons states—especially China, Russia, North Korea, and the U.S.—will likely be heading for an accelerated nuclear arms race.

 It is unsettling to recall, and rely again on, the Cold War concepts of deterrence:  “massive retaliation” or “assured mutual destruction.”

U.S. nuclear posture review

In addition, the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) requires the United States to modernize and update its nuclear capabilities, while reserving the first-use option.  According to the NPR, the U.S. will develop a low-yield nuclear weapon as a deterrence to a limited nuclear conflict.  It will sustain and replace the TRIAD—a three-leg delivery system of land-based ICBMs, heavy bombers, and submarine launchers—with new advanced strategic assets. It will also invest in the nuclear infrastructure.

The NPR says that the U.S. nuclear arsenal serves as a deterrence to nuclear and non-nuclear aggression and as an assurance of defeating an aggression, if the deterrence fails.  It also believes an extended nuclear deterrence provided to its allies and partners has a non-proliferation effect, since their reliance on the U.S. commitment should preempt the need for developing their own nuclear weapons.

While the NPR supposedly supports international non-proliferation and arms reduction efforts, it says the U.S. will not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was signed by 184 states and ratified by 168. The treaty has not entered into force, because it still requires ratification by eight specific countries — China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and the United States.

However, the NPR says the United States will keep a conditional moratorium on testing. “The United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” It calls on other states to declare or maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing.

 Evolving nuclear threats in the region

The nuclear strategic environment in the region has been deteriorating due to a combination of several evolving security threats, including China’s offensive missile development and Russian violations of arms control treaties and its modernization of nuclear forces. In addition, North Korea has been a source of emerging threats.

The North possesses 20 to 60 warheads with an annual capacity of adding six warheads to its arsenal. It has tested short to long-range delivery systems. Moreover, it is known to maintain a large quantity of chemical and biological weapons.

A preview by the Washington Post of Bob Woodward’s new book Rage divulged on September 9 that the United States had developed an “incredible, new secret nuclear weapons system” that it could have used against North Korea during the brink of war in 2017, while Trump openly talked of “fire and fury” and a “total destruction of the North.”  Woodward also wrote that the then Secretary of Defense James Mattis slept in clothes when Kim Jong Un was launching provocative missile tests during that period.

China is believed to have 200 to 300 nuclear weapons depending on varying assessments, which China does not admit or deny.  China maintains a no-first use policy. Likewise, if the U.S. also declares even a non-binding no-first use policy, it might help contribute to stabilizing the turbulent security environment of the region. However, there is a hurdle: the U.S. appears concerned that a public commitment to no-first use would undermine the efficacy of its nuclear deterrence.  

Contending views on denuclearization

The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is an indispensable imperative to the reduction and removal of nuclear threats in the region.  Against a backdrop of the undeniable record of failures in numerous denuclearization efforts thus far, perhaps it is time to start searching for a creative, new comprehensive solution.  

There are many views floating around on both spectrums of conservatives and progressives that are different in approach to the North Korean issue, albeit none of them was successful.

For the format of negotiation, some suggest a return to the 6-party talks, and others argue in favor of a four-party negotiation among the U.S., China, and the two Koreas. (Previous four-party talks also failed in the late 1990s). Some prefer top-down summit diplomacy: others believe that any negotiation should start from a working level for a final agreement by the leaders of the countries involved.

For the right substance of approach, some support application of more sanctions and pressure until Pyongyang surrenders.  Others call for an outright strategy for regime change, based on a theory of implosion or collapse from within.

Yet, others support the merits of an explosion theory: they believe that the use of military force is the only solution.  This group also believes that North Korea cheats, and it never keeps its commitment to an agreement, only buying time to develop more nuclear weapons and missiles and to advance their technology.

Defectors from the North favor an intrusive information program in an attempt to bring down or democratize the North Korean regime, while human rights activists at home and abroad understandably demand inclusion of North Korea’s human rights issue in nuclear negotiations or peace talks with North Korea.

On the other hand, there are pragmatic realists, who support a nuclear freeze that would cap and contain the North Korean nuclear arsenal, while building mutual trust by keeping promises that both sides make. They understand that denuclearization will be a long haul. They believe a freeze should precede as a necessary interim step to the ultimate goal of complete denuclearization.

Some others believe that an eventual denuclearization of North Korea is still possible, if the U.S. accepts Pyongyang’s two main conditions for the resumption of negotiations: withdrawal of hostile policy against the North and agreement on a mutually acceptable process of denuclearization. They hold a view that sanctions alone have not, and will not, resolve the issue.

Then, there is another view that holds a stunning argument that the U.S. should fully accommodate North Korea and pit it against China. The feasibility of this advocacy is based partly on the historic background of traditional Korean resistance to China’s invasions and domineering behavior. It is also based partly on the DPRK’s doctrine of independence and self-reliance.

Some believe that the South Korean government should play a more active role, beyond an intermediary role, to press for making progress on denuclearization, through its talks with the North as a direct party, and by influencing U.S. policy as an ally.

Yet, another school of thought believes, as do many others, that the North will never give up its nuclear program through negotiations, because it regards its nuclear arsenal as the only means of assuring the security and survival of its regime.   This school concludes that unification of the Korean peninsula, achieved by whatever means, would be the solution to the nuclear issue. In other words, no denuclearization is possible before the achievement of unification. 

Relevance of Nuclear Weapons Free Zone

Amid these contending views, there is an intriguing proposition that stands out. It has not been fully discussed among the governments concerned with the North Korean issue.   It is an idea of incorporating the framework of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ), which would include the two Koreas and Japan, into a comprehensive peaceful process of denuclearization.  

A key to a successful NWFZ is a protocol signed by the recognized nuclear weapons states to legally assure the protection of the member states of the NWFZ against external nuclear threats. Such a security protocol is not granted automatically.  At times, it is conditions-based.

In the past, South Korea and the U.S. dismissed NWFZ proposals as propaganda, largely, if not simply, because they were offered by North Korea or other Communist countries during the Cold War.   The North Korean proposal also included a demand for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea. This demand alone was enough to render the proposal a non-starter.

Recently, several international think tanks were engaged in the discussion of a renewed proposal for an NEA NWFZ.  In particular, the Mongolian government and its civic organization called the Blue Banner have been actively pushing forward the idea of establishing such an NWFZ.  Mongolia is providing “good offices” with the support of the UN Advisory Board on Disarmament, while maintaining good relations with both Koreas.

Likely demands of North Korea

In this connection, North Korea may still demand withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South.  However, an agreement of troop withdrawal should not have to be a condition for the establishment of an NWFZ.  On the other hand, North Korea is more likely to demand a provision prohibiting the presence of nuclear weapons not only in the territorial boundaries of a Northeast Asia NWFZ, but also banning the transit of such weapons through international waters and air space surrounding such a zone.   

In order to keep U.S. strategic bombers, submarines, and aircraft carriers that may carry nuclear weapons at a distance from its territory, North Korea may want to propose an extended nuclear free zone beyond the territorial waters and air space of the two Koreas and Japan.  However, banning submarines carrying Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) from international waters will be a more difficult challenge to deal with.

Existing international law may not allow an NWFZ to control navigations in international waters for any vessels, including those carrying nuclear weapons. Although unlikely, it is not impossible that the relevant nuclear states may agree on the establishment of a nuclear free zone on international waters and a no nuclear flight zone above them, in which the presence or transit of their vessels or aircraft carrying nuclear weapons would be banned.

The question of withdrawal of U.S. nuclear extended deterrence from South Korea and Japan will be another challenging issue that has to be addressed. Replacement of a nuclear extended deterrence with a deterrence arrangement by conventional force may not be readily acceptable to South Korea or Japan, until North Korea has been completely denuclearized.

A comprehensive package of settlement

It must be a paramount goal for any denuclearization approach:  to prevent war and stop use of nuclear weapons.  The Korean people do not want another war on or nearby their land.  They reject war as an option. Hence, they have no choice but pursue a peaceful process to resolve the peninsula issue. However, they cannot do it alone. It needs support and cooperation of the countries concerned in particular, and the international community in general.

In a continuing search for a peaceful resolution, perhaps we should consider borrowing some ideas from the concept of an NWFZ and try them in a combined process for denuclearization.

At the same time, it is important to continue efforts to pursue a refined version of an approach to:  (1) normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang, (2) establishment of a peace regime—which aims to provide security assurance for both Koreas, and (3) a phased, reciprocal process to complete denuclearization with conditional lifting of sanctions and snap-back measures.

If all necessary terms and provisions are successfully negotiated in these three critical areas, they can be consolidated into one comprehensive settlement package that reflects some aspects of the conceptual framework of an NWFZ.  When all goes well, a final document of settlement may be designated as “The Agreement on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the Establishment of the Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.”

Maybe, we need such a big package deal to realize “a final and fully verified denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” a phrase Washington uses in replacement of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), which was adamantly opposed by the North. In addition, we may also need a big deal to establish a durable peace regime for coexistence and common prosperity on behalf of all parties. 

A Northeast Asia NWFZ (NEA NWFZ), if successfully established, could serve as a nuclear buffer between the U.S. and China, minimizing the chance for an apocalyptic nuclear clash in the region.  China would probably welcome it, as it has conventionally sought for a buffer zone against U.S. encroachment and for the sake of stability in the region.  Japan, as the only country that actually experienced the destructive might of nuclear bombs, is expected to accept the offer of an NWFZ.

An overwhelming question is, would the U.S. accept an NEA NWFZ as a buffer against China, which would be a deviation from its pronounced nuclear posture laid out in the NPR?  Probably not, as long as Trump is the president of the United States. But, who knows?

In any case, diplomacy should continue to work, and harder, to achieve what it has failed to achieve in the last 25 years.