With the inter-Korean summit just a week away and a potential Kim-Trump summit not far off, there’s no doubt what the number issue will be: denuclearization. It’s easy to see why this will be the top priority as the aims of de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, lowering the threat level emanating from Pyongyang, repairing relations, and bolstering national security are all intrinsically linked to the North’s nuclear weapons program.
However, why is the problem of North Korea’s nukes being approached as a question of “denuclearization”? All the key players use the term “denuclearization”: Moon Jae-in, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, and even Kim Jong-un himself during his recent trip to Beijing. But why is it that when we talk about North Korea’s nuclear weapons we talk of denuclearization, whereas similar cases in the past, such as Libya or Iraq, were referred to by other terms, such as “disarmament” or “non-proliferation”?
Likewise, is denuclearization the right approach or one that’s likely to yield the positive, long-lasting results that Moon, Trump, and others want? If denuclearization isn’t the right way to solve the North Korean nuke issue, what alternatives are there? To answer these questions, we have to briefly delve into history.
During the height of the Cold War, the United States deployed a mix of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in South Korea, with numbers peaking as high as over 900 during the late 1960s. These American nukes remained in South Korea until the early 1990s. Faced with such an overwhelming military force not far from its borders, North Korea was feeling the pressure. The North had been considering developing nukes of its own since the end of the Korean War; however, at the height of Cold War tensions then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung floated an alternative idea: a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) on the Korean Peninsula. There are several precedents for these kinds of zones, whereby neighboring countries, regions, or whole continents agree not to deploy nuclear weapons in their backyards. The whole of Africa, Central Asia, a large part of Southeast Asia, Mongolia, as well as all of Latin America have all agreed on these mutually beneficial NWFZs. When we consider that states who think about developing nukes often do so in response to a threat, we can see why NWFZs can be such an effective method of providing stability and security.
However, this idea of a NWFZ for Korea was never taken seriously or considered by the United States and its then-President George H. W. Bush. Bush did, however, take the North Korean threat more seriously in the 1990s as he agreed to withdraw all U.S. nukes from South Korea to try and quell the growing tension over the developing North Korean nuclear program. Initially, this seemed to have worked as it led to North and South Korea signing the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; essentially agreeing to make the Korean Peninsula a NWFZ. However, it soon became clear that this “denuclearization” meant different things for the two Koreas, as well as the United States.
It was around this time that Bush’s administration really honed its focus on how to end the North Korean nuclear threat. Bush’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz articulated that the United States wouldn’t be able to accept the concept of North Korea as a nuclear state, nor a nuclear free weapons zone on the Korean Peninsula, and instead suggested that Washington focus on a policy of denuclearizing North Korea. And thus, it seems an unshakable belief was born.
Regardless of the changes that have taken place since the 1990s, the U.S. insistence on approaching the North Korean nuclear issue through the lens of “denuclearization” is steadfast. This denuclearization baton was picked up by the neoconservatives of President George W. Bush’s administration in 2003. They doubled down on this strategy by taking the denuclearization policy to a new level: CVID. The official policy now was that nothing less than the Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program was acceptable. The North has always rejected this approach as they argue CVID is the kind of terminology applied to a conquered nation.
But so much of this is old news, and many things have changed for the two Koreas, and the United States, since the respective Bush eras. However, the unwavering belief that “denuclearization” is the right term, the right approach to dealing with North Korea, and the right way to increase security and stability on the Korean Peninsula is still as strong as ever. Also unrelenting is the lack of American desire to agree to a nuclear weapons free zone across the two Koreas. But why is that? Why is an outdated policy still so favored and at the forefront of Washington’s North Korea policy?
NWFZs are seen as desirable internationally and can be reinforced with the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), international declarations, and/or UN resolutions. Additionally, NWFZs provide a security framework in which the members’ safety is inter-related and interdependent. NWFZs not only take away the risk of nuclear weapons being used due to rash decision-making, unauthorized use, or accidents, but they also take away the threat factor to neighboring nations or nations with poor relations. As mentioned, feeling threatened is a big reason why states develop nukes to provide a nuclear deterrent. NWFZs therefore don’t only rid a particular area of nukes, but also minimize the chances of any of those NWFZ member nations considering developing, or redeveloping, nukes in the future.
So, why isn’t this model being applied to the Korean Peninsula? Isn’t this a much more realistic alternative than CVID denuclearization, which expects North Korea to yield what it feels is its key shield against a much stronger enemy? Officials from Pyongyang have often defended their nuclear program by saying their country doesn’t want to become another Libya or Iraq and is thus all the more determined to maintain its nuclear deterrent. So, why not ditch the denuclearization approach and instead focus on a nuclear weapon-free zone?
While all the U.S. nuclear weapons may be long-gone from the Korean Peninsula (not that the North Koreans believe that), the American nuclear umbrella over South Korea remains. This is a significant point for Kim Jong-un and echoes back to his grandfather’s suggested policy of a Korean NWFZ. The North Koreans argue, “How can we be expected to give up our nuclear security guarantees, when our neighbors/enemies in the South still have American nuclear security guarantees protecting them?” Through this we can start to see why the United States and South Korea have been favoring a denuclearization approach over concepts of a NWFZ for so long. In short, a nuclear weapon-free zone on the Korean Peninsula gives obligations not just to North Korea, but to South Korea and the United States too. These obligations are not likely to be well received by Seoul or Washington. However, what exactly would these obligations be?
First off, in order for a NWFZ to be established on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. would potentially have to, albeit tacitly, acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state; something that Washington has hitherto been very reluctant to do. Second, North Korea has already laid out their conditions for dismantling their nuclear weapons in no uncertain terms. Below are the conditions they spelled out in 2016:
- The U.S. and South Korea should allow international verification that all nuclear weapons previously stationed in South Korea have indeed been removed and remove any weapons that still remain.
- Guarantee that the U.S. would never again deploy nuclear strike weapons on the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding region.
- Promise that no nuclear weapons will be used to threaten or attack North Korea.
- Declare an evacuation of the U.S. army that owns the nuclear usage right in South Korea.
These North Korean demands, while not explicitly saying so, are in effect articulating the terms under which North Korea would be happy to denuclearize not just their own country, but the entire Peninsula; in other words, create a nuclear weapons free zone on the Korean Peninsula. No doubt China would be on board with this as it doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, nor does it want U.S. military hardware nearby in South Korea. Perhaps in such a set-up, China and Russia, as NPT nuclear states, could be brought into the fold to play a monitoring and verification role to ensure the Korean Peninsula remained a NWFZ. No doubt this NWFZ approach would be granted international approval too.
The conditions outlined above for achieving this, however, are unlikely to be deemed attractive or acceptable to the United States, which gains huge strategic advantages from having troops and military hardware deployed in South Korea. Not only would Washington be unwilling to easily give up those advantages, but if North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, and the threat they bring were to disappear, the legitimacy of and justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea would also disappear.
In conclusion, the upcoming inter-Korean summit and potential U.S.-North Korea summit will take place in an era of unpredictability, especially in terms of U.S. decision-making while Donald Trump is at the helm. Trump longs to set himself apart from previous administrations and to leave his mark on presidential history. Approaching the North Korean nuclear issue differently than his predecessors and learning from the mistakes of previous administrations’ denuclearization approaches would be a good start. The other key player in this drama, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, is seemingly also onboard for trying a new approach for the North Korean nuclear problem. Moon said on April 19 that “creative” and “bold” steps were needed to find a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. Does that mean the one-way expectation of the denuclearization approach is no longer in favor?
Trump, for all his shortcomings, is known as a deal maker and thus surely knows deals require compromise; a little give and take. Denuclearization doesn’t require any concessions of any kind from the United States or South Korea; only North Korea is expected to yield. A nuclear weapons free zone, on the other hand, requires compromises and concessions from both sides; both sides must keep their nuclear arsenals in check. This NWFZ approach could just be the Trump card that the U.S. can play to finally make progress on this long-running nuclear conundrum.
Olly Terry is a researcher at the Seoul-based think tank Peace Network and Assistant Professor at Sungshin Women’s University.