Can North Korea’s Nuclear Missile Crisis Be Resolved?

Journal Title: International Affairs

Issue Edition: Vol. 65, No. 6

Author: G. Ivashentsov


CAN NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR MISSILE CRISIS BE RESOLVED?

Gleb Ivashentsov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary; ivagleb1@googlemail.com

Source: International Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 6, pp. 37-47

Keywords: Korean Peninsula, South Korea, North Korea, nuclear program, Asia-Pacific region.


Gleb Ivashentsov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary; ivagleb1@googlemail.com


Tension around the Korean Peninsula is one of the main threats to international security. North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear and missile weapon systems has become a new serious factor in global strategic stability. Previously, during the cold war era, the only tool of control over strategic weapons was the relationship between Moscow and Washington. At present, the international situation has radically changed. New nuclear powers – India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – regardless of whether or not the original five members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) acknowledge them as such, are not under the control of either Washington or Moscow or Beijing, acting at their own discretion, as they see fit.

The current polycentrism of nuclear proliferation is based on regional rivalry. India has created its nuclear arsenal as a counterweight to China; Pakistan, as a counterweight to India; and Israel, as a shield against Arab states. None of these states, however, are seeking global supremacy and so their nuclear status is taken by the world community more or less in stride.

The North Korea case is different. The regional motive (i.e., years-long confrontation between the two Korean states – North Korea and South Korea) has also played a certain role in the evolution of Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program. However, its program has one peculiarity. Unlike the Indian-Pakistani or Arab-Israeli confrontation, the U.S. has been involved in the inter-Korean confrontation as a party to the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea. So originally, Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program was not aimed against its southern neighbor but was designed as a protective shield against a potential U.S. strike in a possible inter-Korean war.

At first, Pyongyang’s nuclear project did not cause much concern in the U.S. However, when North Korea acquired intercontinental ballistic missiles in the mid-2010s, it became the third country in the world (after China and Russia) that could deliver a strike against the U.S.’s continental territory, which drastically changed the situation. If the U.S. had previously become involved in a new armed conflict on the Korean soil it would only have sustained personnel losses among its military contingents deployed in South Korea. At present, however, that kind of action as part of its military alliance with Seoul would lead to the destruction of major U.S. cities.

That caused Washington to push toward North Korea’s “denuclearization” – in contrast to the U.S.’s rather lenient view of nuclear preparations by India and Pakistan, not to mention Israel.

***

Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program is dangerous, but not only for Washington. North Korea’s nuclear status substantially undermines the entire current nuclear nonproliferation system. For instance, Iran, in keeping with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and its reintegration into the global economy. However, if the JCPOA, from which the U.S. has already withdrawn, finally collapses, then nothing – not even possible U.S. and Israeli military strikes – will stop Iran from emerging as a nuclear power.

North Korea’s nuclear missile program is also affecting the positions of its neighbors in the region. Few people remember that Seoul, not Pyongyang, was the first to launch a nuclear military project on the Korean Peninsula in 1970. That program could easily be reactivated. Japan and Taiwan also have all the essential elements to develop their own nuclear weapons. It cannot be ruled out that if the U.S. pulls out of the bilateral “nuclear umbrella” agreement with one of its allies in Asia that would trigger a chain reaction where the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one state would lead its neighbors to launch similar programs. The likelihood of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organizations, such as ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Sham], also increases.

The problem is also that the line between defensive and offensive policy is getting blurred. Right now, North Korea has no plans to attack anybody; it needs nuclear weapons purely for protection. However, is there a guarantee that in the future, Pyongyang will not want to use force against Seoul on the assumption that nuclear missiles will protect it against U.S. intervention on the side of the South?

Another question is how safely North Korea’s nuclear arsenals are stored, and there is also concern that computer malfunction or some other incident could cause a potential armed conflict involving the use of weapons of mass destruction.

***

The nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula has a direct bearing on Russia. It is not only that Pyongyang is disrupting the nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s nuclear and missile test facilities are located a couple hundred kilometers from the Russian border. That does not suit us. We need neither nuclear nor missile tests near our borders. Nor do we need any saber-rattling from anywhere.

That is why in 2003, Russia, together with China, North Korea, the Republic of Korea, the U.S. and Japan, joined the six-party talks on the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula. The Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks provided a constructive foundation for progress not only toward securing a nuclear-free status of the Korean Peninsula but also toward normalizing the situation in the region as a whole. Its implementation would ensure political and economic decisions that could make Northeast Asia a region of peace, security and cooperation.

What exactly did that document say? It said that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) and to IAEA safeguards. The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons. The DPRK and the United States undertook to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies. The six parties committed to joint efforts for lasting peace and stability in northeast Asia. The parties agreed to work out a compromise formula that would open the way to the DPRK for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including the provision of a light-water reactor. The six parties agreed to take coordinated steps to implement the aforementioned consensus step by step, in line with the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action.” The implementation of those agreements could have averted many dangerous processes that have developed on the Korean Peninsula in the last decade and a half. However, the agreements ended up in limbo. Not all parties to the talks, primarily the U.S., were willing to implement them.

***

At present, U.S. President Donald Trump has assumed the role of a leading campaigner against North Korea’s nuclear program. In 2017, speaking at the UN General Assembly, he threatened to totally destroy the DPRK if it did not abandon its nuclear missile weapons. However, the reluctance of U.S. allies to become involved in the U.S.’s new reckless adventures in Korea, as evidenced by the January 2018 Vancouver meeting of foreign ministers of countries whose troops fought in the 1950-1953 Korean War on the side of the South as part of the so-called UN forces in Korea, made him change tactics. The result: two North Korean-U.S. summits and an hour-long meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un on the demarcation line between the DPRK and the ROC in Panmunjom.

Both sides committed to efforts to achieve stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, their statements were not backed up by any concrete actions.

The reasons for that are understandable. The “complete, verifiable and irreversible” nuclear disarmament that the U.S. has been talking about for many years now is an absolutely unrealistic and politically impossible demand. Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program is its security shield and it will not abandon its shield just like that. The nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is unique in that this is not about ensuring a certain balance of nuclear missile capabilities of the two opposing sides that would limit the threat of a conflict, as was the case with the USSR and the U.S. in the past. The goal is to persuade the state that has developed nuclear weapons as its only security shield against a strike by the nuclear superpower to abandon that shield in exchange for international guarantees of the inviolability of its borders and its independence. The North Korean leadership knows how the West rewarded Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi for voluntarily abandoning the country’s nuclear program and does not want to experience the same scenario.

The U.S. has tried to exert pressure on North Korea through sanctions. However, it turned out that sanctions against Pyongyang are not working – for several reasons. The first reason is China. Just as Russia and the U.S., China is unhappy about the erosion of the nonproliferation regime, and if it implemented tough economic sanctions, it could effectively stifle North Korea: After all, China currently accounts for up to 90% of North Korea’s total trade.

However, there are additional factors in China’s policy on the Korean Peninsula, many of which, from Beijing’s perspective, are far more important than the threat of nuclear proliferation.

China views the lineup of forces in Northeast Asia primarily through the prism of its confrontation with the U.S. Washington’s efforts to reformat U.S.-Japanese-South Korea military partnership are perceived in Beijing as the surrounding of China. Under these circumstances, keeping the DPRK afloat is strategically important for China. China does not need a domestic political crisis in North Korea that would lead to mass disturbances, the flow of refugees and the uncontrolled export of nuclear technology and components of other weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, China does not view the DPRK’s nuclear program as a direct threat to itself. Beijing sees North Korea’s nuclear weapons primarily as a problem for the U.S. and its allies. This is why, on the one hand, China is implementing technical sanctions in good faith and cutting short the North Koreans’ attempts to gain access to materials and components for its nuclear missile program, and on the other, it continues to trade with the DPRK, including by means of bypassing the sanctions.

***

The problem is too serious to be handled in a gung-ho way, to be resolved in one fell swoop. But that is exactly what the U.S. establishment, including Trump as the most zealous advocate of its interests, is insisting on. And since resolving it in one fell swoop, i.e., ensuring the DPRK’s immediate and complete nuclear disarmament, is impossible by definition, Trump is using dialogue with Kim Jong-un not so much to resolve the problem as for the purpose of self-promotion, trying to convince the American voters that he has surpassed all of his predecessors in countering North Korea’s nuclear preparations.

Thus, during his first summit with the North Korean leader in June 2018 in Singapore, Trump sought primarily to boost his own ratings, as well as the ratings of his Republican Party ahead of the November 2018 congressional elections in the U.S., telling the Americans, spooked by North Korea’s nuclear missile program, that former U.S. president Barack Obama could do nothing about that threat, but he, Trump, even though he hated it, met and came to terms with the “rocket man” from Pyongyang. And he achieved his goal: Nobody asked what the deal was, exactly, and as a matter of fact, it was a non-deal. What was important about Singapore for the American voter was the TV picture: President Trump “came, saw and conquered,” and that image worked at the time.

Trump needed the Hanoi summit with an eye to the U.S. presidential campaign in which he hopes to get reelected to a new term. So, just as on other pressing foreign policy issues, he had to present to the American public a concrete, tangible result on North Korea’s nuclear missile problem.

They say that unlike Singapore, in Hanoi, some deal could have been made. According to some reports, at that time, the North Koreans offered to close the Yongbyon nuclear research center in exchange for the complete lifting of economic sanctions, but Trump – under pressure from hawks in his entourage, above all his odious national security adviser John Bolton – refused that offer.

The main argument of the U.S. opponents of the Pyongyang-proposed deal was that by signing a deal with the DPRK, which does not provide for North Korea’s complete denuclearization, the U.S. would essentially recognize the DPRK as a de facto nuclear state. Washington also believes that agreeing to lift the UN sanctions on Pyongyang would be a mistake with irreversible consequences. China and Russia, which in 2016 and 2017 completely supported the U.S. stance on the DPRK at the UN, would under the present circumstances undoubtedly vote for the lifting of sanctions, but would they vote to restore them if such a problem arises in the future?

Now, after shaking hands with Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom and after dismissing Bolton, it seems that Trump would like to sign some document with Pyongyang, similar to what the North Koreans proposed in Hanoi, which could be presented to the electorate as an “agreement on North Korea’s denuclearization.” But naturally, such an “agreement” would not resolve the main problem. Pyongyang would retain not only the existing nuclear warheads and delivery systems but also the capability to produce a certain amount of uranium warheads and missiles. Granted, that agreement would make sense as the first step toward establishing a nuclear arms control regime on the Korean Peninsula.

However, is Kim Jong-un willing to make any deals with Trump in the current situation, where the latter is not on the best of terms with the U.S. Congress and has far from clear electoral prospects? It is in Kim’s interests to wait a little before making any deals to ensure himself against a situation where Trump’s successor abandons all obligations, just as Trump is now pulling out of the treaties signed by his predecessors, such as the ABM Treaty, the INF Treaty and the nuclear deal with Iran.

***

Pyongyang needs security guarantees, and it seems to be willing to discuss a system of multilateral guarantees. Not surprisingly, after four summits with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, three with [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in and two and half with Trump (counting the handshake in Panmunjom), in April, Kim Jong-un went to Vladivostok for a meeting with Vladimir Putin and then began to talk about a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Essentially, the idea is to restore in some form or other the six-party format to discuss current problems and develop a system of guarantees.

Progress on the DPRK’s nuclear missile program is possible only via a step-by-step approach, including, first, limitation, then reduction and ultimately complete elimination of those weapons. Naturally, since the DPRK’s nuclear status is enshrined in the country’s Constitution the issue of abandoning the nuclear program right now is out of the question to Pyongyang. But what about starting with a deal between the U.S. and the DPRK, with the participation of other Group of Six members, on Yongbyon nuclear research center in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions?

Or how about holding separate talks on the DPRK’s nuclear program and its missile program? For example, Kim Jong-un declares a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, which is actually already in force (after all, there have been no tests since November 2017); stops the ICBM development program; freezes the production of nuclear materials; opens its nuclear facilities to international inspection and provides guarantees of nonproliferation of nuclear and missile technology. For their part, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, in response to that, officially recognize the DPRK, establish diplomatic relations with it, exchange embassies, limit military activity near its borders, reduce and eventually lift sanctions, and provide financial assistance.

However, will the US political establishment accept that? So far, it does not seem to have realized that unless a substantive and equal dialogue is conducted with the North Koreans, based on mutual respect, in the future, the US will have to learn to live with nuclear Pyongyang, just as it once had to learn to live with nuclear Moscow and nuclear Beijing.

***

The ongoing wide-ranging and in-depth discussion of North Korea’s nuclear crisis overshadows, as it were, another crisis – i.e., an inter-Korean one, where one Korean nation has for almost three quarters of a century been divided into two separate states. The DPRK’s nuclear missile program was adopted to avert a potential U.S. strike in case of an inter-Korean war. Removing the threat of such a war would also eliminate the threat of a U.S. strike against the DPRK, which Pyongyang invokes to justify its nuclear missile projects. So inter-Korean normalization could give a new impetus to the efforts to resolve the nuclear problem.

The main takeaway from two years of inter-Korean and North Korea-US summits is that both Washington and Seoul have accepted the existence of the DPRK and adopted a policy of peaceful coexistence in relation to it. At the same time, they have no plans to recognize North Korea’s status as a sovereign state or recognize the legitimacy and constitutionality of its leadership.

Incidentally, Pyongyang does not recognize the constitutionality of the Republic of Korea. From the North Korean government’s perspective, South Korea is a territory occupied by the U.S. with a puppet regime that has no illegitimacy. At the same time, Pyongyang has already played host to the heads of that “regime” – Kim Dae-jung in 2000, Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 and Moon Jae-in three times in 2018. However, neither Kim Jong Il nor Kim Jong-un has ever been to Seoul despite official invitations from South Korea.

The fact is that under South Korea’s national security law, North Korea is not a country but an antistate organization: should any one of the Kims have gone to the south, in keeping with the letter of that law, he would have been subject to immediate arrest as a war criminal. They say in his time, liberal Kim Dae-jung planned to ignore that odious law to visit the DPRK after the 2000 Pyongyang Summit that brought him a Nobel Peace Prize, but that was opposed by conservative forces in the National Assembly, the Armed Forces and the state apparatus of the Republic of Korea. Moon Jae-in’s current political situation is for various reasons more complicated than Kim Dae-jung’s. So, it seems unlikely that Kim Jong-un will get to see Seoul any time soon despite all the good words that the ROC president addressed to him at inter-Korean summits.

***

It cannot be said that during the inter-Korean summits of 2018, no efforts were made to reduce tensions between the DPRK and the ROC. There are two aspects here. First, at the Pyongyang Summit, the two countries’ defense ministers signed the Agreement on the Implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain. That is a fundamentally new, and most importantly, practical step toward reducing military tensions. Confidence-building measures in the military domain are being implemented and new channels of communication are opening as the sides are resolved to do all they can to prevent any clashes or conflicts with the use of military force. That is all the more important since the ROC has not signed the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.

Second, the North and the South have agreed to pursue a joint bid to host the summer Olympics in 2032. In other words, the ROC has acknowledged that it does not expect (as it did previously) the DPRK regime to collapse and that the North and the South will exist separately at least in 15 years from now.

However, it is noteworthy that the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces under the ROC Ministry of Security and Public Administration is still around. According to the ROC authorities, it is a legitimate administration for the territories that are “under the DPRK’s temporary control.” The committee is comprised of five governors of provinces with their staffs and several dozen heads of administrative subdivisions. In addition, the heads of all of North Korea’s rural towns, counties and urban areas are in reserve.

***

To normalize inter-Korean relations, it is extremely important to shift the relations between the DPRK and the ROC to a bilateral format. Issues of war and peace between the two Korean states should be dealt with by those states themselves.

The situation where the DPRK is officially in a state of war not with the Republic of Korea but with the UN as a party to the Korean War looks totally bizarre. The 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, on one side, by representatives by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, and on the other, by the so-called United Nations Command in South Korea, comprised of military contingents of 16 countries under U.S. command, i.e., actually on behalf of the UN.

However, that agreement brought about only a cessation of hostilities, not of a state of war, so de jure the UN is still at war with the DPRK, which looks strange, to say the least, since the DPRK has been a full-fledged UN member since 1991.

The time has come to adopt a UN Security Council declaration stating that the Korean War is history and that the UN Security Council closes that page of history, and therefore there is no need for the United Nations Command in Korea. As for the U.S. military presence in South Korea, it should be regulated exclusively by interstate agreements between the Republic of Korea and the U.S.

***

In the context of the 2018 inter-Korean summits, the issue of replacing the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty has repeatedly arisen. At the same time, there are different views on what states should be parties to that treaty.

There are several things to bear in mind in this context. The 1953 Armistice Agreement was not an interstate document. It was signed by the commanders of the armed forces that participated in the Korean War: DPRK head of government Kim Il Sung, the commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and the commander in chief of the UN forces, a U.S. Army general. The South Korean representative, following the orders of then-president Syngman Rhee, refused to sign the agreement. Thus, neither the Republic of Korea nor the U.S. or China was involved in the armistice agreement in their state capacity. Nor did the U.S. and China participate in the Korean War as states. US troops fought as part of the international contingent that was sent to Korea in keeping with a UN Security Council resolution and Chinese troops fought as volunteers.

Taking that into account, a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula should be a treaty between two sovereign states – the DPRK and the Republic of Korea – possibly, with guarantees from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, China, the U.S., the UK, and France).

It is hardly possible to achieve full trust between the opposing sides on the Korean Peninsula in the foreseeable future, but a certain measure of confidence regarding each other’s actions is quite a realistic and necessary goal.

***

The North Korean nuclear dossier is one of the few international political issues on which there is a near consensus among the main players. At the same time, in addition to the general reluctance to see North Korea as a nuclear power, each state that is in some way or other involved in the problem has its own specific goals and interests, which are often in conflict with each other and impede coordination of actions.

Nevertheless, the situation around North Korea’s nuclear program is not an impasse that cannot be resolved. Right now, the task is to ensure that the consensus of all parties concerned – the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan – on the military aspect of North Korea’s nuclear program lead to active concerted efforts on a practical level.

Progress on the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is crucial to the future of not only Northeast Asia but also the entire Asia-Pacific region, as well as global processes.