Despite all eyes on the showing of unity between the Koreas at the Pyeongchang Games this month, North Korea’s nuclear program remains the elephant in the Olympic-sized room.
And here’s the uncomfortable truth: it is unlikely that the international community’s current approach to the crisis with North Korea — further sanctions coupled with sabre rattling — will turn back the clock on that reclusive country’s nuclear weapons program in the foreseeable future. There is no credible plan in motion, undertaken by any interested stakeholder, which can reasonably be expected to result in a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
If you browse the plethora of analyses and commentary on this topic, you will find a common theme: when it comes to North Korea, denuclearization remains an elusive objective, the risks are high, and the options are limited.
A former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs put it bluntly to TIME Magazine: “A long recognized diplomatic truism is settling in for President Donald Trump: North Korea is the land of lousy options.”
In recent years, North Korea has made very significant, well-documented strides in consolidating its nuclear weapons program. Since its latest test, last November, several sources have indicated that North Korea is now capable of producing thermonuclear bombs that could reach the continental United States.
The Trump administration has reiterated that “all options are on the table,” including a military “solution,” and there are reports of hawks in Washington pushing the military option. Still, the established consensus is that the risks of a military operation against North Korean targets outweigh the benefits. Even Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon conceded that there is no realistic military solution to the North Korea crisis.
Must we live with a nuclear-armed North Korea?
If the current approach is unlikely to work, and the costs of a military intervention are unacceptably high, what options remain?
The default position is hard for many world leaders to accept: the recognition that North Korea does have a credible nuclear weapons capability that threatens the United States and many of its allies. This will of course never be official policy. Multiple, overlapping sanctions regimes will continue to be implemented, coupled with efforts to get all states to fully enforce them.
Opponents of North Korea will continue to reiterate that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will never be “recognized.” Of course, India and Pakistan have “unrecognized” nuclear weapons programs — at least in the context of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear-armed Israel has deliberately avoided official recognition.
Meanwhile, the risk that nuclear weapons will be used — by accident, miscalculation or design — remains a constant backdrop to the crisis.
A peace treaty… 65 years after the Korean war
The current stalemate speaks to the ineffectiveness of the current strategy to halt the North Korean nuclear weapons program. What is needed is a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. The 1953 armistice was to have been a temporary measure. Nearly 65 years later, it behooves the international community to see to this unfinished business.
Of course, the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program constitutes a fundamental change in security dynamics since 1953 and must be addressed. Complex challenges abound. But this may be the only realistic framework within which North Korea could be persuaded to move toward denuclearization.
The high stakes in the crisis and the proven inadequacy of efforts to resolve it call for a rethinking of the current approach, with a view to reaching a renewed international consensus around the need to finalize a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.
A complex diplomatic undertaking
There are enough unknowns and potential pitfalls to make negotiations with North Korea a highly challenging diplomatic process. But aiming for a peace treaty, as distinct from just denuclearization, would not only define the objective, but also the core assumptions underpinning the effort, the strategy to be implemented and the likely nature of required concessions from the parties involved.
If such a treaty is to be pursued, here is a non-exhaustive list of factors to consider.
1. The elements of a treaty: Only the negotiations themselves would reveal all salient aspects of an eventual peace treaty. But, at a minimum, consideration must be given to:
verified dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
security assurances that North Korea will not be attacked or otherwise
destabilized, including the removal of US troops from South Korea and the end
of joint US-South Korea military exercises.
- The verified
cessation of North Korean threats and conventional military preparations
against the South.
- The removal
of economic sanctions against North Korea.
agreement to address the question of territorial integrity in the Korean peninsula
through diplomatic means, subsequent to the adoption of the peace treaty.
The scope and definition of the ultimate goal are critical. If denuclearization is pursued in isolation, North Korea’s reluctance to engage in negotiations will remain strong. Moreover, such a narrow understanding of the crisis obscures North Korea’s legitimate security concerns, including those related to the stationing of tens of thousands of US troops just south of its border.
2. The sequencing and preconditions of a treaty: The US government has so far been clear that North Korea must take “irreversible steps toward denuclearization” for negotiations with North Korea to be possible. However, the Trump administration recently revealed a possible opening for talks with the Kim regime. In early January, US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that, for Trump to entertain talks, “they have to stop testing. They have to be willing to talk about banning their nuclear weapons.”
The recent Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean peninsula, held in Vancouver on January 18, issued a statement in which participating foreign ministers indicated that strengthened sanctions against North Korea would remain until it moves decisively to dismantle its nuclear program. Would these countries be willing to support negotiations with Pyongyang in which both the removal of sanctions and the verified dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program are seen to be an outcome, rather than a prerequisite, of the process?
There is no question that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a necessary element of peace treaty negotiations. But sequencing is critical. Demanding prior concrete steps to denuclearize may only decrease the chances of Kim Jong-un coming to the table. Put simply, the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program is more likely to happen as a result of negotiations, rather than as a precursor to them.
3. Security assurances: When the Iran nuclear deal was being negotiated, opponents warned that Iran would not live up to its end of the bargain. As it turns out, it is the United States that has put the deal in jeopardy by questioning its usefulness, threatening withdrawal, and putting the Iranians on alert. Pyongyang has no doubt taken note.
At the same time, North Korea has been the subject of numerous UN Security Council resolutions condemning its nuclear weapons program and imposing increasingly tighter sanctions against it. Yet Kim’s regime not only continues to defy the international community, it has also upped the stakes of possible nuclear confrontation.
Such actions generate mutual mistrust. One can expect parties at negotiations to be cautious about ensuring compliance. It should be assumed that denuclearization, as well as changes to Pyongyang’s military readiness against South Korea, would require a stringent verification regime. But North Korea would also need assurances about US military intentions. The sizeable US military contingent south of the DMZ, its joint military exercises with South Korea, and its deployment of the THAAD ballistic missile interceptor system would need to be part of any grand bargain. Threat perceptions from all stakeholders must be taken into account.
The lifting of sanctions alone constitutes a qualitatively different concession than the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. While Pyongyang sees these weapons as its prime bargaining chip, sanctions can be reinstated as quickly as they are lifted. Thus any security assurances offered to Pyongyang must be based on a fundamental change in US military doctrine and preparedness toward North Korea.
4. Global support of Nobel proportions: The multilateral nuclear disarmament landscape was dramatically altered last year with the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by most states. The ban was championed by civil society — notably the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) — in concert with a growing number of diplomats from all latitudes who negotiated this landmark treaty, despite strong opposition from states with nuclear weapons and many of their allies.
The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to ICAN has recognized the importance of this effort and raised further awareness about the nuclear weapons threat. An increasingly vocal majority of the international community now demands the prompt and complete elimination of all nuclear arsenals. In the context of this new normative reality, the possession of nuclear weapons by any state is unacceptable. Achieving peace and stability in a denuclearized Korean peninsula must be understood as a necessary yet insufficient element of the broader nuclear abolition enterprise.
Universalizing the nuclear ban treaty will feature prominently in nuclear disarmament debates going forward. Outliers will be pressured to join the global movement toward the prompt elimination of nuclear weapons. The new treaty may well provide a solid legal foundation for disarmament efforts in the Korean peninsula.
As things stand, however, the doctrines, actions and postures by those that embrace the purported benefits of nuclear weapons are decidedly more conducive to perpetuating, rather than renouncing, the possession of nuclear weapons. This is out of sync with the prevailing sentiment and expectations of a clear majority of the international community that is demanding the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
5. The players needed: The Vancouver summit conspicuously excluded Russia and China, which later expressed disbelief in the effectiveness of a gathering without their presence. The direct participation of both near neighbours in any credible effort to resolve the stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is widely seen as necessary — despite the reluctance of either to set expectations for themselves. Russia and China may well be the most credible guarantors of any security assurances afforded to North Korea.
It would be logical for the participants in the “six-party talks” — North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, the United States and Russia — to engage in peace negotiations. The six-party talks, however, came to an abrupt end in 2009, when North Korea withdrew after one of its satellites was denounced by the international community.
Since then, circumstances have changed in North Korea in at least two significant ways. The country’s nuclear weapons program has advanced dramatically, and the son has replaced the father as leader. Also, every other party to the talks has undergone changes in leadership — including the United States, where the presidency of Donald Trump has drastically upended traditional parameters of American foreign policy.
Given the changed circumstances, a renewed effort to resolve the crisis with North Korea may not necessarily be framed as a direct resumption of the six-party process. But the reasons for the participation of each of the six countries involved in the talks remain as valid today as they were then, and the talks themselves would no doubt be a key point of reference for negotiations of a peace treaty.
6. Toning down the rhetoric: The bellicose rhetoric from both Washington and Pyongyang could derail any chances of rapprochement with North Korea, even if all other conditions are favourable to negotiations. Explicit threats of military attack, in particular, are not only concrete obstacles to the process, but also constitute flagrant violations of international law.
It bears noting that foreign policy objectives are not the only factors driving the increasingly heated exchanges. Both presidents Trump and Kim are speaking to constituencies in their own countries, including the political elite, the military and the general public. Domestic political considerations could constitute wildcards that disrupt negotiations.
Pressure from President Trump’s base to “do something” about North Korea could result in a miscalculated statement or action. At the same time, increasingly tight international sanctions against President Kim could test his ability to control discontent and in turn lead to a more hostile posture against the United States. Whatever the reason for inflamed rhetoric, a radical de-escalation of discourse would go a long way in laying the groundwork for eventual negotiations.
Setting a clear objective
At this point, any talk of “preventing” a nuclear weapons program in North Korea is not only misguided but years late. North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability — including the perfecting of both its warhead and delivery vehicles — is a “fact on the ground.” Officially recognized or not, North Korea is a nuclear-armed state.
The situation in the Korean peninsula is complex, multidimensional, and involves numerous stakeholders and interests. Surely an eventual peace treaty negotiation would need to consider factors not mentioned here. Among others, attention must be given to the impact that a reconfiguration of American forces in the region, necessary for credible security assurances to be afforded to North Korea, would have for the nature of the US-Russia-China security relationship.
Nonetheless, it remains true that a peace treaty for the Korean peninsula would bring about concrete regional and global security benefits, including a decreased likelihood of a nuclear weapons exchange. Citizens of the North could gradually start to enjoy the social, economic and political benefits that come with a greater integration with the international community. And, not least, a known obstacle to broader nuclear disarmament efforts would be removed.