Denuclearizing of the Korean Peninsula

Denuclearizing of the Korean Peninsula and Establishing a Northeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

(Presentation of Dr. J. Enkhsaikhan, Chairman of Blue Banner NGO at the 6th Forum of Northeast Asian Peace and Development, held on 24 November 2019 in Shanghai)

Mongolia, as part of this Northeast Asian region, pursues an active foreign policy mindful of the saying that duck is calm when the lake is calm. Thus it tries to actively promote regional stability and cooperation through the state supported policy of Ulaanbaatar dialogue (UBD)[1] and GPPAC[2] supported policy of Ulaanbaatar process (UBP)[3].

I represent Mongolian NGO Blue Banner that is devoted to raising awareness and promoting the goals of international cooperation for a safer and prosperous world. Hence the views expressed in this paper are not that of the Mongolian Government but of Blue Banner.

DPRK’s nuclear weapons program has become one of the most challenging regional issues with far-reaching implications. The recent bilateral US-DPRK summits and high level meetings on the issue are providing a rare opportunity to politically address it. However, there is still a lingering question what happens if these bilateral meetings are not productive. Plans “B” or  “C” need to be developed, since, as they say, one must avoid putting all eggs in one basket.

Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula should not be addressed in isolation. It needs to be done mindful of the broader security and developmental interests of the entire region since there are other states that technologically are capable of developing nuclear weapons or promoting regional cooperation. Bearing that in mind, as well as the interests of other regional powers and of the economic interest of the DPRK itself, Blue Banner believes that establishing a Northeast Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone (NEA-NWFZ) with legally binding security assurances and providing the DPRK with a credible mini Marshall plan would be a win-win solution for all.

A nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia

So far NWFZs have been established in regions with political structures and where the nuclear-weapon states did not have a direct geopolitical stake. However establishing such zones in areas where the nuclear-weapon states or other great powers have geopolitical interests or stakes would be much more difficult, for example in the Middle East or in Northeast Asia. With climate change, the issue of establishing such a zone in the Arctic is becoming complicated.

Establishing a NEA-NWFZ is currently not on the political agenda of the region. Though establishing such a zone is being discussed, it is being done on an informal basis only, at the levels of some regional think tanks and disarmament NGOs, including Blue Banner.

It should be underlined that when one talks about NEA-NWFZ, one means a zone consisting of the territories of the two Koreas and Japan, and not the entire region. In the post-cold war period proposals have been made whereby the US, Russia and China are expected to provide legally based security assurances to these three states (commonly known as the 3+3 formula).

In 2011 a comprehensive approach to the issue was proposed that would include termination of the state of war, provision of energy assistance, termination of the sanctions and establishing a NEA-NWFZ.  However that proposal is not on the region’s political agenda as well, nor does it clearly envisage the role of all major regional powers.

Recent encouraging developments

In July 2013 UN Advisory Board on Disarmament matters recommended to the United Nations Secretary-General to “take action towards establishing a NEA-NWFZ”.  In September of that year at the UN High-Level meeting on disarmament President of Mongolia has stated that the country was “prepared, on an informal basis, to work with the countries of NEA to see if and how a NWFZ could be established in the region.”[4] However regionally no tangible measures have been taken to follow-up on these suggestions.

Blue Banner’s study of the most effective way of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula has lead to a conclusion that a novel, regionally agreed and accepted conceptual approach resulting in establishing a NEA-NWFZ might be a recipe for a permanent solution.

A broad conceptual approach is needed to denuclearize the Korean peninsula

The latest events demonstrate that there is a wide conceptual gap on the issue of “denuclearizing the Korean peninsula” and on the effect of applying maximum political and economic pressures. Demanding almost unilateral denuclearization of the DPRK first, without normalizing relations, is not helpful for trust-building and the negotiation process.

Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is not only a bilateral US-DPRK issue. Hence it needs at some stage to be linked to broader regional interests. Thus the bilateral talks need, at some stage, be expanded to include other former parties to the Six Party Talks, first and foremost the Republic of Korea followed by China, Russia and Japan.

Main elements of the approach

The conceptual approach should come first and foremost from the DPRK and the U.S. Hence the DPRK would need to make the strategic decision regarding its nuclear weapons, i.e. committing to go beyond “working toward” complete denuclearization of the peninsula, as mentioned in the Singapore joint statement. On the other hand, the U.S. also needs to review some part of its almost half a century old national security doctrine, especially the nuclear umbrella and the purpose of nuclear weapons use doctrines because today they tend to serve as part of the problem and not of the solution.  Besides, the US and each one of its two allies have strong conventional arsenals and there is the alliance itself that can address effectively any non-nuclear threats.

A sole purpose nuclear weapons use declaration in NEA by the U.S., Russia and China can play a positive, reassuring role. Deterrence that excludes nuclear weapons, until an appropriate regional security mechanism is agreed upon, would still retain intact the basic bilateral security commitments of the US towards Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Such tailored ‘non-nuclear’ extended deterrence and sole purpose use declaration would open a way to start discussing the issue of establishing a NEA-NWFZ whereby the three nuclear weapon states involved would be expected to provide treaty-based security assurances to the DPRK, the Republic of Korea and Japan.

As per accepted NWFZ rule Russia and China would be providing assurances to Japan and the Republic of Korea as parts of the zone, which are important in themselves. Their assurances would probably mean for the DPRK an additional political reassurance of U.S. commitment and serve as a further incentive for over-all agreement. Content-wise, the NEA-NWFZ treaty could also contain provisions on providing economic assistance to the DPRK, a form of a mini Marshall plan. The current US President repeatedly underlines the tremendous potential of the DPRK’s economic development and prosperity, while other states of the region believe that the DPRK, if allowed, can play an important economic role in the region.

Blue Banner believes that establishing a NEA-NWFZ would reduce the pressure to introduce medium or intermediate-range nuclear weapons in the region and thus contribute to trust-building.

[1] Annually held track 1.5 regional conferences that under the Chatham house rules discuss the so-called non-traditional or soft security issues, including infrastructure development, energy connectivity, environmental protection, etc.

[2] Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict

[3] Annually held track 2 regional meetings that provide political space and venue for civil society organizations of the region to discuss issues of common concern and interest, and communicate the outcomes to the relevant authorities and to their peer organizations. Representatives of both Koreas participate in the works of UBP.

[4] See General Assembly document A/68/PV.11 of 26 September 2013  (p. 6).