Building Confidence in Denuclearization: A Roadmap for the Korean Peninsula


When South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Pyongyang last week, in their third meeting of 2018, they were able to agree a fairly substantial package of activities on developing inter-Korean relations and on military risk reduction. So substantial that, although Moon has to date managed to avoid this agenda moving too far ahead of U.S.-North Korean talks on denuclearization, there is now a real risk that this may soon be the case.

From Kim’s perspective this is all to the good: he wants to trade away as little nuclear and missile capability as possible, while selling what he does trade as dearly as he can; and developing inter-Korean relations both greatly reduces the likelihood of American military action and blunts the effectiveness of the ongoing pressure campaign. For his part, Moon has not been shy about his view that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula is best delivered through better North-South relations, rather than the other way around.

But Washington’s stated expectation of denuclearization by January 2021 is not compatible with the rate of progress to date – or, unless the increasingly-flexible definition of denuclearization is stretched to breaking point, with technical reality. If there continues to be a lack of serious progress, then there is a risk that U.S. President Donald Trump will give up on this diplomatic process entirely, undercutting the advances that Moon and Kim made. As ever, though, there is no agreement between Pyongyang and Washington on who will move first on serious concessions.

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North Korea argues that it has taken significant steps – freezing nuclear and missile testing, destroying its nuclear test site and dismantling a missile test stand – while the United States has done nothing to soften its stance of maximum pressure. The United States, on the other hand, believes (rightly) that these steps are highly reversible and of substantially less importance to a program now – as Kim himself has said – focused on production of missiles and warheads, rather than their development. No new commitments are likely to emerge on either side until the summit between Trump and Kim that we expect to see before the end of the year, and even then it will be difficult to make progress.

Appropriately-designed confidence building measures, or CBMs, if applied to the nuclear domain as they are beginning to be applied to the conventional military domain, have the potential to help unlock this process. These measures are unlikely to be formalized or legally binding but can still provide a degree of transparency about the areas to which they relate, and therefore constitute a soft form of arms control. Further, they are inherently voluntary and co-operative, often requiring contact between parties at an operational level, and therefore serve to build mutual understanding between parties. They offer opportunities for easy successes, a vital component of any deal considering that the legacy of past U.S.-North Korea negotiations is one of deep mutual distrust.

The scope for this kind of measure is incredibly broad. But there are some features of the current situation on the peninsula, and the history of nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, that allow us to derive some principles for the design of CBMs in this case.

First, the interlocking security concerns on the peninsula suggest that confidence building efforts are likely to be required well before nuclear rollback. The history of denuclearization efforts in DPRK suggests that any process will be gradual, and subject to setbacks and delays, which means that CBMs need to be flexible and resilient to fluctuations in political relations. They should therefore be open-ended where possible, avoiding the imposition of deadlines and targets, and to allow a contentious broader process to be sustained through times of difficulty. They should also start with relatively simple steps, to build a track record of compliance on both sides.

But perhaps most importantly, they should complement, not replace, work towards formal arms control and denuclearization measures. These measures should ideally sit alongside a process of freeze, capping and roll-back of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs, and should be designed to support the objectives of those stages while – given the unfortunate likelihood of failure – not offering irreversible benefit to Pyongyang. For example, a key requirement at present is to understand more about the DPRK’s nuclear program: its sites, scope, material stocks, operations and people. This points towards transparency measures and person-to-person contact between technical personnel in the DPRK and counterparts from the US, potentially other countries, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

At the lowest level this could include information exchanges on radionuclide releases from nuclear sites; workshops on the application of IAEA nuclear accident provisions to nuclear sites; and working level talks on operational methods for exchanging information about sensitive sites North and South of the DMZ, noting that, while it may be too soon to discuss the characteristics and locations of those sites at present, if this process is to succeed in the longer run then this mechanism will need to be developed at some point. Contact between national Academies of Sciences could be usefully established if substantial progress towards verified capping is made, combined with a reciprocal but non-binding program of invited site tours for members of those academies. One creative mid-term option for building a shared basis of assessment, made possible by advances in commercial satellite technology, might be to create a joint-staffed US-DPRK-ROK Peninsula Monitoring Center, tasked with using satellite imagery analysis to jointly investigate and report on activities either side of the DMZ that any party considers might relate to the agreements entered into at that point.

In the longer term – which may seem fanciful to imagine but is worth considering now as it outlines a broad direction of travel – CBMs might focus on consolidating gains made in the formal negotiating process and looking to help develop and sustain a transformed security relationship. This might include guaranteed markets for North Korean uranium ore such that the regime is incentivized to remove it from the country before further processing, along with a scientist and engineer redirection program. At that point the DPRK could for its part adopt national legislation setting boundaries on nuclear technology development and implementing nuclear safety legislation comparable to international standards; if rollback were somehow achieved, the amendment of the DPRK’s constitution to renounce nuclear weapons would also be necessary.

On the military side one might imagine the exchange of a no first use of force declaration, which could ultimately be subsumed within a peace treaty. It might be possible to institute a program of measures enabling (perhaps in conjunction with the Peninsula Monitoring Center suggested above) the non-intrusive verification of elements of the forces on the peninsula, such as pre-notification of certain deployments and maneuvers in sufficient time for imagery analysts to prepare to monitor them.

As these examples show, the design space for this sort of measure is broad, and precise details will need to be tailored to the situation on the peninsula – and in the negotiating room – at any one time. But it would be a mistake to think of CBMs solely as concessions to North Korea, or as in some way secondary to the central negotiating process. Properly designed and conceived CBMs do not just support quid pro quo deal making at high-stakes summits, but instead are integral to the resolution of ambiguities, doubt and suspicion that this process will inevitably generate. If Pyongyang and Washington are short on areas of agreement in the run up to the next summit – as seems highly likely – then progress in this area at least would be substantive and useful, leading us away from confrontation and towards meaningful restrictions and controls on activities of concern in the DPRK.

Tom Plant is director of the proliferation and nuclear policy programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London

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