The Mistakes, Effects, and Future of the Denuclearisation of Korea
The willingness by the US and North Korean leaders to meet and start negotiations to proceed with the denuclearisation of Korea rekindled the flame of optimism with regard to resolving the Korean conflict and ensuring the security of the peninsula. However, the meetings between the US and North Korea have been more symbolic than substantive.
The abrupt end of the Hanoi summit, with no agreements or final declaration, was greeted with frustration in Seoul but with a sense of generalised relief in Washington and Tokyo. China, for its part, wants to show clearly that it remains in the Korean game and will not tolerate an agreement between the US and North Korea that is detrimental to its interests.
What went wrong in Hanoi?
The expectations of the US delegation upon arrival in Hanoi were that North Korea would commit to the suspension of much of the production of fissile material and ballistic missiles, and that it would gradually proceed to declare some weapons facilities. For its part, North Korea expected the US to suspend much of its sanctions programme. The failure of the Hanoi summit can largely be explained by these unreasonable expectations.
North Korea hoped to convince Washington that it is on the right track towards denuclearisation, in order to persuade the US to ease the sanctions and allow South Korea to start implementing some joint projects that are limited by those sanctions.
For its part, Washington wanted to see strong evidence that Pyongyang is taking steps towards denuclearization and is beginning to dismantle its nuclear missiles. However, to expect Pyongyang to begin denuclearising before the Hanoi summit is unrealistic. We could not expect that it would dismantle much of its nuclear and missile facilities in the short period between the Singapore summit and the Hanoi summit. On the North Korean side, the contentious issue was to demand the lifting of sanctions in exchange for partial denuclearisation concessions.
Ultimately, expectations on both sides of the results to be achieved at the summit were too high. Prior to the start of the Hanoi summit, there was little clarity on the issues of complete and verifiable denuclearisation. It appears that the summit was carried out without the prior work necessary to reach an agreement.
The Negotiations with North Korea and its Effects
The failure of the Hanoi summit will have a significant effect on South Korea’s domestic policy. Moon Jae-In hoped that the summit would result in an agreement that would allow the South Korean government to implement some inter-Korean economic development projects. Criticism among South Korean conservative politicians, analysts and retired military personnel regarding Moon’s North Korean policy is likely to intensify because of what happened in Hanoi. These groups oppose Moon’s policy because they believe it would allow North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons without giving up anything.
Trump is willing to make peace with North Korea, as this could give a serious boost to its prestige and show that its intimidating approach to diplomacy works, while not only is he unwilling to make peace with Iran, but he is also willing to tear down any framework that will ultimately give the Islamic republic some sort of international legitimacy and recognition.
Trump’s goal with North Korea is to reach an agreement that can somehow resolve the proliferation crisis; with Iran, where such an agreement already exists, the real goal is regime change. However, the US president does not take into account the fact that his behaviour towards Iran creates a problematic precedent. First, he sends North Korea a precise message: Washington can easily enter or exit agreements. Secondly, it runs the risk of ruling out the JCPOA as a model for future negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation with North Korea.
How to Proceed?
To change Pyongyang’s position regarding the destruction of its nuclear arsenal, it is necessary to lift the sanctions. In this sense, we can already see changes in the American position. For example, prior to the Hanoi summit, Washington emphasized Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement before lifting sanctions. However, after the summit, the US has changed its discourse to one in which it considers the possibility of relaxing the sanctions if Pyongyang demonstrates that it has begun to denuclearise.
The US’s desire for Pyongyang to completely dismantle its nuclear programme, including its current arsenal of ballistic missiles, is a goal that to a large extent depends more on Washington than on Pyongyang, since for North Korea to agree to eliminate its only safeguard against foreign military intervention it must feel safe in the international system. It is true that the United States has shown on several occasions its will not to proceed with a regime change in North Korea. For this reason, a process of reconciliation between the US and North Korea through a trust building process is necessary.
This will require a peace process culminating in a treaty to end the Korean War, progress by Washington and Seoul towards political and economic normalisation with Pyongyang, and regional security agreements. A significant step towards this goal would be the partial and gradual withdrawal by the US of its troops in South Korea. It will also require a transparency exercise where all US nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula are dismantled. All parties should abolish or prohibit the presence of nuclear weapons in Korea, and their elimination should be verified by the IAEA. It must be ensured that the US never again introduces nuclear weapons into and around the Korean Peninsula.
Finally, all parties should undertake not to threaten or blackmail with nuclear weapons or through acts of war that mobilize nuclear weapons, and not to use nuclear weapons against any of the other parties under any circumstances.
Possible Future Scenarios
North Korean diplomats have long spoken of a potential alliance with Washington. At the Panmunjom talks, Kim Yong Sun discussed the issue with Under Secretary of State Arnold Kanter at the first high-level talks between the two countries in January 1992. An alliance such as the US has with South Korea would be backed by a presence of US troops on Korean soil, which the North Korean leaders have indicated to both President Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in would be permissible once the US and North Korea were no longer enemies. Such an alliance could also mean putting the whole Korea under the US nuclear umbrella.
At the same time, there seems to be a conscious administration of Pyongyang’s interest in an alliance with Washington. A potential US-Korean alliance would only be detrimental for China, which would lose influence in North Asia to South Korea and Japan. At the same time, such an alliance will lead to the denuclearisation of Korea, which will ultimately affect China’s deterrence capacity.
However, the chances of reaching such an alliance run into several problems. South Korean conservatives are unlikely to accept this option. Neither will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who until recently resisted any negotiation by anyone with North Korea. Opposition in Seoul and Tokyo may prove difficult for the Trump administration. Such an alliance is also likely to arouse suspicion, if not absolute antagonism, in China, which would not result in improved security in North Asia. Xi Jinping’s repeated meetings with Kim Jong Un indicate China’s concern about such a radical change in the alliances system of the region.
On the other hand, Kim needs continuity with the past, specifically with the positions of his father and grandfather regarding the fundamental and foundational orientations of his regime. Thus, while purely realistic logic might suggest that it remains in North Korea’s strategic interest to secede from China’s orbit, it may be willing to settle for less: a diversification of China’s dependence and a readjustment to become a US security partner rather than an ally. This stance could strain North Korea’s alliance with China, but it would not break it; and it would allow the US to become a fundamental deterrent in Korea that would ensure that South Korea, with its much larger economy and population, and its superior army, does not overwhelm North Korea.
From this point of view, the relationship between the US and North Korea would change from enemies to security partners, i.e. North Korea would be neither an enemy nor an ally, but something in between.
Another possible future development is the creation of a regional security alliance. This would require initiating a tripartite or quadripartite peace process to replace the Korean armistice with a peace declaration, committing to negotiating a peace treaty or establishing what the September 2005 Joint Agreement establishes as a “peace regime”. Declare non-hostility and move towards normalisation of political and economic relations. Gradually reduce sanctions, provide humanitarian, economic and energy aid to North Korea, establish a Northeast Asia Security Council, establish a legally binding nuclear-weapon-free zone that provides a framework for dismantling nuclear facilities on the peninsula, and manage the nuclear threat in the region in a manner that takes into consideration all parties, including North Korea. This possibility seems more feasible than the previous one.
A larger nuclear-weapon-free zone could also be created in North Asia that would not only include the Korean peninsula. The North Koreans have repeatedly expressed their interest in such an agreement. An agreement to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone has several advantages. Firstly, it would attract other countries and could strengthen legal and political ties, thereby contributing to improving the external perception of North Korea. Second, it could lead to security commitments beyond those deriving from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
General and Forward-looking Appraisal
Faced with the failure of the Hanoi summit, North Korea has begun rebuilding a military base to put satellites into orbit and test missiles, showing its unwillingness to denuclearize if its concerns are not addressed. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the White House’s insistence that there is no rush to disarm Pyongyang suggests that it is now leaning towards something less ambitious than the destruction of its atomic arsenal. There is still some room for optimism, North Korea is today a direct interlocutor with the US, which gives it legitimacy, and will give excuses to Russia and China to lower their own sanctions.
For his part, Trump suggests that Kim follow the Vietnamese model where, even though the Communist Party governs, 84% of Vietnamese people have a good opinion of the US. Consequently, a reform of the North Korean regime in which more lax approaches to communism are adopted could be an element that favours not only the economic recovery of the country, but also trust-building between North Korea and the US, which is a sine qua non condition for achieving a denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
WRITTEN BY: Manuel Herrera
Manuel Herrera is an international security analyst who previously worked at the Nuclear Security Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi (India) as a research assistant. He devoted his research to the Iranian nuclear file and the Indo-Pakistan conflict.
Manuel was also an intern at the Department of the Interior of the Catalan Government where he draft a report on the EU Area of Freedom, Security and Justice and its main mechanisms for exports control of sensitive nuclear materials.
He holds a master’s degree in International Security from IBEI and a master’s degree in European Union Studies from the European Institute in Bilbao. He also has a bachelor degree in International Relations from the Ramon LLull University of Barcelona.