Comprehensive Moves toward a Nuclear-free Peninsula
An international group of seasoned policy-makers, analysts and experts gathered in Seoul last December to discuss a future nuclearfree Korean Peninsula. The meeting was hosted by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, with co-organizers the Nautilus Institute and the Asia-pacific Leadership Network.
While there could have been no pointers then that a Trump-kim meeting was on the horizon, the issues discussed remain valid to any solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. THE PRESSING NEED to find a feasible way to prevent conflict on the Korean Peninsula, while also seeking a lasting solution involving denuclearization, was the focus of a meeting in Seoul on December 11-12 hosted by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. As Chancellor Byung-jae Cho of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy — where the meeting was held — noted in his opening address, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved closer and closer to nuclear cataclysm over recent decades, standing in 2017 at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight (it was moved onwards again to two minutes earlier this year). “The probability of global catastrophe,” he warned, “is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” South Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs Kyung-wha Kang encapsulated the reformist spirit of the Moon Jae-in administration in its efforts to seek a lasting peace, not merely on the Korean Peninsula but in the complex and testy political environment of East Asia.
The salience of these discussions was evident in the subsequent push for a resumption of North-south Korean talks and moves towards a prospective dialogue with the administration of US President Donald Trump. To that end, intentions, strategies and approaches were analyzed and canvassed in forensic detail across six sessions. Various themes and approaches characterized the discussions: the intentions of North Korea and its current political outlook and responses; the approaches, actual and possible, toward North Korea; the issue of achieving an enduring peace settlement for the Korean Peninsula, factoring in denuclearization; the capabilities of North
Korea; the intentions of the United States, most importantly those of Trump; and notable areas of divergence and convergence on all these issues.
Despite the adverse security environment and heated exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington, participants struck a note of confidence. Leon Sigal of the Social Science Research Council appropriately termed the barbs “clickbait” and
“catnip.” Trump’s tweets were merely weapons of mass distraction. Tony Namkung , Senior Advisor to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, viewed the transactional nature of Trump’s engagement as unlikely to yield dividends. Nor did the “maximum pressure and engagement approach” — one cornering North Korea — seem much different from previous US administrations. That said, Trump’s sheer unpredictability suggested unprecedented opportunities. The challenge lay in identifying the most feasible means of moving North Korea’s Kim Jong Un from a state of increasingly dangerous weapons testing and arming to a willingness to consider negotiations.
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell exemplified this spirit during his address on the opening day. “I am a believer in a denuclearized peninsula and a denuclearized world.” Any resolution of the dispute through force of arms was untenable: “jaw jaw,” said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during the first day’s discussions, is certainly preferable to “war war.” The prospects of a feasible military resolution had also been compounded by improvements in North Korean military capabilities, hampering accurate targeting in any pre-emptive strike. In any event, it was generally felt that the US would not, as
Prof. Chung-in Moon said, “use such military force without prior agreement” with South Korea.
The solution, then, must be diplomacy of the sort that would, as Rudd argued, “avoid sleepwalking into war in Northeast Asia and achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Tom Schelling’s point on the reciprocal fear of surprise attack, made during the Cold War, was deemed even more apt by way of analogy to the Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s history of how the
First World War started. The cycle of fear by which Washington and Seoul anticipated a possible attack by North Korea on the basis of statements or provocations had to be broken.
Diplomatic Solutions, Incremental Steps
What, then, would the shape of this diplomacy look like? Participants saw promise in an incremental approach: small, reciprocal steps to build up trust, accompanied by parallel activities. For Nobuyasu Abe, former UN Under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs and Ambassador, chronic mutual distrust and the security deficit must be overcome. Small, preliminary steps — “micro level” engagement — might also be taken in energy co-operation. Various short-range energy options could find their way to the diplomatic table and be exchanged for a reduction in the production of fissile material. This point was advanced in a detailed presentation to participants by Nautilus Institute energy expert David von Hippel and director Peter Hayes. This stress on energy, noted discussants, would involve North Korea in international structures, elevate interdependency and encourage compliance. Pyongyang could be involved in regional oil and natural-gas pipelines. Electricity grid interconnections could be powered by Simpo/kumho reactors. Renewable energy options and sharing of excess oil refining capacity might also be developed. Co-operation on transportation infrastructure could also feature in discussions. The military sphere might furnish additional areas of joint co-operation, including search and rescue, fisheries management and joint oceanographic research and vessel control in some
areas west of the Korean Peninsula.
To increase trust on an even higher level, Pyongyang might be convinced that it need not fear preventive war from the US. For Morton Halperin, formerly of the Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State, a regime guarantee might also be warranted in which the US would give an undertaking not to use force to overthrow the Pyongyang regime. Such approaches might seem to be a question of what Deng Xiaoping described as crossing “the river by feeling the bottom one stone at a time.” As Sigal and former US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Pickering asserted in discussions during the first day, North Korea could hardly be expected to relinquish the political leverage inherent in its nuclear capability without something in return. As North Korean expert Patrick Mceachern noted, denuclearization could be realized but only after the initial expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear armed forces in both a qualitative and quantitative sense, and the ending of the “hostile policy” of the US.
Such steps might well constitute a freeze-forfreeze option (entailing the initial suspension of Us-south Korea military exercises on the one hand, and North Korean nuclear and missile testing on the other) to initially temper the situation and build trust. In that respect, participants found much common ground between Halperin’s suggestion for an immediate freeze on military exercises and weapons tests, and those articulated in Chineserussian proposals. Drafting a timetable for the destruction of nuclear weapons, accompanied by external security guarantees from the US and China and economic incentives for North Korean development might also be advanced.
This would bring into play the nature of a comprehensive security settlement featuring six phases: the creation of a Six-party-northeast Asia Security Council; the gradual ending of sanctions against North Korea; a declaration of non-hostility; the signing of a normalizing peace treaty to end the Korean Armistice; the provision of aid to North Korea that would encompass energy, telecoms, logistics, transport, mobility, trading and financial networks through the North Korean land-bridge linking
Eurasia with Japan and South Korea; and, finally, the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ). Such an interlocking system crowned by the NWFZ would help ensure a lasting arrangement. For Halperin, the last element, while only coming in the final phase of negotiations, would nonetheless be an incentive to create lasting peace while forging a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Hayes furnished an additional pointer: that it would supply a means of managing the threat as North Korea incrementally disarmed, enabling it to come into compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Participants also noted that using the NWFZ would shift the focus away from specifically denuclearizing North Korea to creating a zone free of nuclear weapons. Such a treaty format also has the distinct merit of avoiding competing claims of sovereignty over the Korean Peninsula, while acknowledging the superseding of the September 2005 principles issued at the fourth round of the Sixparty Talks. Hayes noted the salient point of ensuring durable trust: North Korea should have confidence in agreements that will last beyond the lifespan of administrations in Seoul and Washington.
Such an ambitiously envisaged Grand Bargain could also employ the anchoring stability of the Sixocean
Party format, despite its moribund status. China, according to Rudd, would find much to recommend in such an approach. Additional actors, such as the United Nations Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could also play roles. Beyond that, a regional security architecture was suggested as a means of calming the temperature and settling disputes, whether along the lines of an East Asia Summit, as suggested by Rudd, or the more specific, phased processes envisaged by Halperin and his colleagues. Disagreements between such powers as China and the US also have to be managed.
Points of Disagreement
Inevitably, some disagreement was registered on the role of existing policies in compelling Pyongyang to the negotiating table, even as its nuclear program is retarded. One participant took the rather dim view that “we do not have any good solutions to the problem.” What should be given up in achieving an NWFZ? Furthermore, would these measures genuinely encourage Pyongyang to achieve a denuclearized Korean Peninsula? Should negotiating parties surrender hope that Pyongyang will give up nuclear weapons? Or should they make a move first?
This also led to divergence on the issue of what role South Korea would play. Pyongyang’s wedge strategy — designed to divide the Northeast
Asian alliance system — had to be seen alongside perceptions that Seoul lacks independence from Washington. The first day of the conference saw the former foreign minister of Thailand, Kasit Piromya, taking the view that the South Koreans were simply too closely aligned with Washington’s interests. An understanding that North Korea or any future unified Korea would not be a security buffer zone, but part of a genuinely secure denuclearized area, was also advanced by retired Chinese Major General Pan Zhenqiang on day one. Participants on day two, however, also expressed the view that the Us-south Korea alliance has been an essential tool A volatile environment spiked by threats of nuclear attack, a belligerent Pyongyang and a testy administration in Washington suggest an insolubly dangerous crisis. For all that, Thomas Pickering quipped that there was still room for the sort of cautious optimism supplied only by lunatics.
of deterrence and should not be decoupled. Putting stock in such peacekeeping bodies as the United Nations would be a poor substitute.
Differing views surfaced also on the role of sanctions, very much the preferred weapon of choice for the Trump administration and its allies. Historically, when sanction regimes have been imposed, notably with Us-chinese agreement, Pyongyang, far from being dissuaded, has actively pursued weapons testing. As a tool of coercion, sanctions have repeatedly failed. Furthermore, a
total sanctions regime would encourage North
Korea to resist more forcefully. Yang Xiyu, senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, noted that any full containment of Pyongyang, sealing off all doors for engagement, was fraught with danger. Energy studies have also suggested that disruptions to the coal-export cap, a dramatic cut in Chinese oil exports to North Korea and a reduction of hard currency earnings for North Korea are unlikely to significantly bruise the military. David von Hippel and Peter Hayes further added that the effect of such sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs would be at best negligible.
Some participants diverged over the extent to which targeted sanctions might prove effective. Some form of pressure was required to prevent or slow down North Korea’s nuclear missile build-up by restricting materials coming in. Nobuyasu Abe took the view that humanitarian consequences were regrettable, but could be ameliorated through separate assistance. There were also differing views about the nature of
North Korea’s economic performance, which has been uneven. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, 23 special economic zones have been built. Yang Xiyu reported that many of these remain empty, awaiting capital and trade to boost the economy. Such opportunities have been eliminated by sanctions, most conspicuously in rural areas.
A paradox of crisis is that it has a capacity to produce opportunities. A volatile environment spiked by threats of nuclear attack, a belligerent Pyongyang and a testy administration in Washington suggest an insolubly dangerous crisis. For all that, Pickering quipped that there was still room for the sort of cautious optimism supplied only by lunatics. Despite diverging at points, participants identified firm common ground. Sleepwalking or stumbling inadvertently into conflict were outcomes to be avoided with urgency. War should be struck off any agenda. Removing hostile intent, eliminating mistrust and dealing with security deficits were all accepted as critical priorities. The role of South Korea, even if currently inexact and nebulous, was deemed vital. A greater understanding between the powers within the Six-party framework was also urged, including a greater need for managing disagreements between China and the US.
The Olympic moment, one anticipated by discussions during the December 11-12 gathering, has already been seized upon by the parties. Dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang, initiated through the offices of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, has re-commenced. The freeze-for-freeze option has gained traction. Despite initial skepticism marked by the cancellation of a meeting between the North Korean delegation and US Vice President Mike Pence during the initial stages of the Winter Olympics, President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are now preparing for summit discussions by the end of May. The road heavily travelled toward a peaceful Korean Peninsula has taken another twisting turn.
Binoy Kampmark is Senior Lecturer, RMIT University, and can be contacted at bkampmark@ gmail.com. Peter Hayes is Director of the Nautilus Institute and Professor, Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a member of Global Asia’s Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A full version of the report covering these discussions, “Comprehensive Moves Toward a Nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” Jan. 25, 2018, is available at https://nautilus.org/wp-content/ uploads/2018/01/nautilus-knda-apln-synthesisreport-final-jan25-2018.pdf.