2021: Peace Network Newsletter

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Peace Network Newsletter 
Small steps, Road to peace

A New Beginning:
The Case for a Korean Peninsula Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

Wooksik Cheong (Director of the Peace Network)


There are many reasons why the question of the Korean Peninsula has not been solved. One important reason is that the involved parties agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula but failed to reach an agreement on the definition and end state of denuclearization. However, by approaching the issue from a global perspective, one can find a practical solution based on an empirical model: the “nuclear-weapons-free zone.” South Korea should consider this concept, which is well-known in the international community but has not so far been adopted on the Peninsula.

Many are paying attention to the Joe Biden administration’s policy towards North Korea, as the incoming US president prepares for his inauguration on January 20. The biggest concern is whether the administration will follow former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience.” For now, there are some factors that make it difficult to return to the approach of “strategic patience.” First of all, reality has changed. North Korea's nuclear capability has become much stronger compared to that during the Obama administration. In contrast to the Lee Myung-bak administration, which claimed that “patience is also a part of our strategy,” the current Moon Jae-in administration actively wants negotiations with North Korea. There are many criticisms of strategic patience in the US, as well. Thus, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will advocate for such a policy.

However, we cannot rule out the possibility that the new administration will follow the idea of strategic patience in the details of its policy. First of all, the direction of Biden's North Korea policy that was proclaimed during his presidential campaign is similar to strategic patience. A case in point is the rigid attitude toward sanctions against North Korea, which was a key tool of the Obama policy. Skepticism about achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through negotiations is also greater than it was during the Obama administration, so it is hard to expect that the Biden administration will have a strong motive for negotiations with North Korea. In addition, it’s possible that the US will pursue bilateral alliances or military cooperation with South Korea and Japan to check China while claiming to fend off North Korean threats rather than neutralizing the North Korean threat through negotiation and dialogue as the US perception of the threat from China increases. 

Getting the First Step Right

The prospects for the Biden administration's North Korea policy may vary. But the best among them for South Korea is to shape its own future. It’s clear that the more time the Biden administration's North Korea policy spends in a vacuum, the more the policy will drift back to strategic patience, and the stronger North Korea's nuclear capability will become. The stronger that capability, the harder it will be to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. If this is not a desired future, South Korea should seek a “new beginning.”

It is vital that South Korea and the US take the first step in the right direction. The Biden administration needs to appoint a special representative for North Korean policy as soon as possible to review policies and consult with South Korea over them. If the US policy vacuum continues until the first half of 2021, cooperation between South Korea and the US on North Korean policy could be weakened. This is because South Korea will enter its own presidential election phase later in 2021.

The first thing Seoul and Washington should do to launch a “new beginning” is to cancel or postpone the South Korea-US joint military exercises scheduled for February or March. North Korea is likely to consider the exercises as a gauge of the Biden administration's policy toward it and for the restoration of trust between the two Koreas. Thus, if Seoul and Washington cancel or postpone the joint military drill, the possibility of a “new beginning” will emerge. It could foster an atmosphere favorable to the resumption of both inter-Korean dialogue and North Korea-US dialogue. Restrictions on large-scale military drills between South Korea and the US would also be helpful in fighting against COVID-19 and coping with the climate change crisis due to the reduction of carbon emissions.

To ensure a good result following this new beginning, new strategies and policies are required as well. To this end, it is necessary not to repeat the failed policy of “denuclearization first, lifting sanctions later,” but to lift economic sanctions one by one in line with positive steps taken by North Korea. This should be the main element of the new North Korea policy, especially considering that the international community, including the US, has never tried the approach of “denuclearization through empathy.” It is a much more effective strategy for changing the North’s actions than forcing behavior through the imposition of sanctions.

What does Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula Mean?

A new approach to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is also necessary. Let’s ask a question here: What does denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula mean? Answers can vary, but there is no one in the world who can answer this correctly. There is no single, agreed definition or end state between the parties.

The Trump administration argued that denuclearization includes North Korea dismantling not only its nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons, all ballistic missiles, and all dual-purpose programs. But this is “too big to grasp.” North Korea, on the other hand, does not seek its own denuclearization but rather a “fundamental resolution of the US nuclear threat to the North.” However, given that the US has more than 7,000 nuclear warheads, North Korea's demand is “too vague to grasp.” The end goals between North Korea and the US over denuclearization are too different. This is why a new approach to denuclearization is sorely needed.

Is there a solution to this? You can find one if you expand your vision to other parts of the world. Currently, more than 50 percent of the world’s area is included in nuclear-weapon-free zones, including Latin America, Africa, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. A total of 116 countries are included in this list. The denuclearization zone is also included in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the UN Disarmament Commission established guidelines for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1999, later approved by the UN General Assembly. In addition, UN Security Council Resolution 1887, adopted in September 2009, contained the following:.

“Welcoming and supporting the steps taken to conclude nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties and reaffirming the conviction that the establishment of internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned, and in accordance with the 1999 United Nations Disarmament Commission guidelines, enhances global and regional peace and security, strengthens the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and contributes toward realizing the objectives of nuclear disarmament.”

The resolution was made at the suggestion of US President Obama, with Biden serving as his vice president. “The Korean Peninsula should be a nuclear-free zone,” said then presidential candidate Biden in a televised debate on October 22, 2020. It is unclear whether this remark was made with reference to the UN suggestion of a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Considering the situation, however, these remarks can be taken as the basis for suggesting a nuclear-weapon-free zone as the solution to the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear issue.

A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone as the Definition and End State of a Denuclearized Korean Peninsula

Rather than pursuing a solution that is untested and is difficult to agree on, a new beginning may be possible if an existing international definition and end state of denuclearization is adopted as the answer to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Making the nuclear-weapon-free zone as the main definition and objective of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula can serve as the starting point, with the signing of a treaty as the final destination. The dismantling of North Korean nuclear weapons could be sought simultaneously with measures such as lifting international sanctions on North Korea, signing a peace treaty, establishing diplomatic relations between North Korea and the US, and arms control.

Making the Korean Peninsula a nuclear-weapon-free zone suggests a reality where the two Koreas sign a treaty as the main parties involved “within the nuclear-weapon-free zone,” and the five official nuclear weapon states and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent members -- the US, China, Russia, the UK and France --sign the treaty protocol as concerned parties from “outside the nuclear-weapon-free zone.” The basic content of the treaties is that the two Koreas do not develop, produce, possess, experiment with, or otherwise obtain nuclear weapons. Also, according to the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the two countries should not possess any uranium-enrichment or nuclear reprocessing facilities. Furthermore, the nuclear states would guarantee in a legally-binding document that they will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the two Koreas, and they will not deploy nuclear weapons or means for their delivery on the Korean Peninsula. Compared to the current ambiguous definitions of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the definition and aim of this approach seems much clearer.

Establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone on the Korean Peninsula would allow the two Koreas to solve the nuclear issue independently while also promoting international cooperation. In the Panmunjom Declaration on April 27, 2018, “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” and “South and North Korea agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” However, negotiations following the declaration centered on the US and North Korea, and the results were very disappointing. Contrary to this experience, the United Nations suggests that the nuclear-weapon-free zone “should be established on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned” and “countries outside of the zone including nuclear powers shall support it and cooperate.”

According to international law, the parties of the region concerned are the two Koreas. As the two Koreas discuss the nuclear-weapon-free zone, measures to induce support and cooperation from the nuclear powers, including the US, are needed. The five nuclear powers should actively encourage the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone on the Korean Peninsula, support it once it is created, and cooperate. In particular, UN Security Council members and candidates for signing the related treaty protocol should play an active role, considering their authority regarding sanctions on North Korea.

A nuclear-weapon-free zone on the Korean Peninsula is necessary to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, but it also eases the way to solving other problems that are stalled due to the stalemate over the nuclear issue. To solve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, a number of objectives need to be pursued “simultaneously and in parallel,” including the normalization of North Korea-US relations, the establishment of a peace regime and arms control on the Korean Peninsula, and lifting sanctions on North Korea. However, if there is no consensus on the definition and objective of denuclearization, progress on these issues will be obstructed.

If the nuclear-weapon-free zone becomes the definition and aim of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, progress on these issues might become possible. Creating a virtuous cycle between the nuclear-weapon-free zone process and corresponding measures could enable this. For example, exchanging partial corresponding measures such as sanctions alleviation and dismantlement of nuclear production facilities in North Korea and reaching a “comprehensive” consensus centering around the nuclear-weapon-free zone could act as a “first stage” implementation measure.

Despite these advantages to redefining denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, there are possible obstacles. First, there is a chance that the US would be unwilling to agree. Traditionally, the US has taken a passive position towards nuclear-weapon-free zones that may create setbacks to its nuclear strategy. However, as mentioned above, nuclear-weapon-free zones have become a norm in international society and the US has agreed to them. Also, the idea of pursuing a nuclear-weapon-free zone may provide a solution to the 30-year-long unsolvable North Korean nuclear issue. Considering this, the Biden administration might view this as a feasible approach.

Uncertainty also remains over whether North Korea would agree to a nuclear-weapon-free zone. It might not be convinced that the US nuclear threat toward the North will be fully resolved by mere treaties. However, the nuclear-weapon-free zone is superior compared to previous methods because it could provide a legally-binding approach to the US nuclear threat. Also, the nuclear-weapon-free zone is similar to the “Joseon Peninsula denuclearization” argued by North Korea. For these reasons, the nuclear-weapon-free zone could act as “maximum pressure” on the Kim Jong Un regime. At the same time, it could open a path of “honorable choice” for Kim. The creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone, after all, would actualize the historical instructions of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il.

There is no solution where any one party is completely satisfied in diplomatic negotiations, particularly in negotiations between hostile countries. This is difficult to achieve even when negotiating with defeated nations. Instead, a situation where the parties of interest are both satisfied and dissatisfied is rather realistic. The suggestion to solve the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear issue with the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone is one such case.

A nuclear-weapon-free zone on the Korean Peninsula is still an unfamiliar idea. The South Korean government, and surely other countries as well, is not yet officially considering the possibility. Civil society and international diplomatic circles need to start publicly advocating for this strategy. For their part, countries that can communicate with North Korea may convey this idea to them. Most of all, if South Korea and the US review and discuss the idea, and settle on it as useful, they should communicate this with North Korea.

The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is often labeled a “mission impossible.” The varying goals surrounding denuclearization are currently too far apart, making it difficult to create a virtuous cycle that corresponds with them, such as the issue of lifting sanctions. The international community should seriously consider the possibility of a nuclear-weapon-free zone, a solution that is already familiar in international society but unfamiliar in the context of the Korean Peninsula. While the concept of nuclear-weapon-free zones is “normal” in international society, it is “new” as a solution to the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear issue, but it could become the “new normal” to address the situation.

---The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the East Asia Foundation.

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