Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone in Northeast Asia

Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan
Chairman, NGO Blue Banner

Ambassador Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan (right), pictured with parliamentarian N. Oyundari and first democratically elected President of Mongolia, H.E. P. Ochirbat


Compared to the conferences and RTDs on promoting peace and security on the Korean peninsula issues just two years ago, the world has witnessed many positive and somehow promising moments since 2018, including the recent meeting of the US President and the Chairman of DPRK’s as well as the trilateral summit meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas and the US at Panmunjom’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The US-DPRK summit meeting helped to overcome the post Hanoi stalemate in US-DPRK talks by agreeing to re-starting the working level negotiations.

In this article I have chosen to focus on an issue that so far has never been considered at any official level, i.e. the issue of the possibility of establishing a Northeast Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone (NEA-NWFZ). Establishing a regional NWFZ is rightly considered as a practical contribution to limiting nuclear weapon proliferation and increasing confidence and cooperation within the region and well beyond it. At present the world knows well about five NWFZs that comprise 115 nations. These zones have three common characteristics:

  1. Prohibition of development, testing, manufacturing, production, possession, acquisition, stockpiling and transportation of nuclear-weapons anywhere within the zone;
  2. Prohibition of the use or threat of use nuclear weapons against states and areas within the agreed zone and provision of security assurances by the five nuclear-weapon states (the P5), meaning the United States, the Russian Federation, China, United Kingdom and France.
  3. Establishment of an agreed mechanism to ensure compliance with the NWFZ treaty.

Established Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zones

The five NWFZs include Latin America and the Caribbean (Tlatelolco treaty), the South Pacific (Rarotonga treaty), Southeast Asia (Bangkok treaty), the entire African continent (Palindaba treaty) and Central Asia (Semipalatinsk treaty). Each one of the five NWFZs has its specifics, reflecting the specifics of the region and the relations among the states of the region. All have contributed to strengthening mutual trust and greater cooperation.

In 1998 United Nations General Assembly has welcomed Mongolia as a country with a unique nuclear-weapon-free status and in 2012 the P5 have welcomed “the passage” of Mongolia’s national legislation defining the status and declared that they would respect its unique status and would not contribute to any act that would violate it. In 2009 Mongolia was accepted as member of the international conference of NWFZs and the conference was renamed as the Conference of NWFZs and Mongolia (in short NWFZM conference). Last year United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 73/71 welcomed Mongolia’s offer to act as coordinator of NWFZM conference to be held in 2020 just prior to the 2020 NPT Review conference.

There have been a number of international studies undertaken on NWFZs, namely in 1975 a comprehensive study on the question of NWFZs in all its aspects that contained many concrete ideas and suggestions. The 1999 report of the Disarmament Commission on the issue of “Establishment of NWFZs on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned” provides a number of suggestions and in 2017 a VCDNP1 Task force reported on enhancing cooperation among the NWFZs. All these reports underline the positive role that such zones can play not only in the region but well beyond it.

A Northeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone

Establishing a NEA-NWFZ has been proposed by some states of the region since the 1970s but without any follow-up measures. Cold-war suspicion and mutual distrust have also hampered serious consideration of such proposals. Such proposals were either deliberately ignored or it was considered that there should be a radical improvement in the security environment to have a look at them seriously. Since 1990s a number of bold initiatives have been made unofficially to establish a NEA-NWFZ. Thus John Endicott of Georgia Tech has proposed to look into the possibility of establishing a limited NWFZ in NEA (LNWFZ-NEA), limited meaning both in respect to geography and weapons2. However the nuclear-weapon states were not supportive.

Then in mid-1990s a proposal was made by Dr. Hiromichi Umebayashi of Peace Depot (Japan) to establish a NWFZ covering the two Koreas and Japan, known as the 3+3 formula, with the US, Russia and China providing appropriate security assurances. Dr. Seongwhun Cheon and Tatsujiro Suzuki proposed a Tripartite NWFZ that would have involved the three nuclear-weapon states at some appropriate later stage of negotiations. In 1995 Andrew Mack of the Australian National University proposed a NWFZ involving not only the two Koreas and Japan, but also Taiwan. For obvious reason it was a non-starter. A year later Dr. Kumao Kaneko of Japan proposed the so-called circular NWFZ consisting of a circular area with a 2000 km radius from the Korean DMZ in which non-nuclear-weapon and nuclear-weapon states would have concrete commitments regarding nuclear weapons to be agreed upon.

Recent developments

In 2011 Dr. Morton Halperin of the Nautilus institute, a well-known US foreign policy expert, proposed a comprehensive approach to the issue of concluding an agreement on Peace and security in Northeast Asia that would include termination of the state of war, mutual declaration of no hostile intent, creation of a permanent council on security, provision of assistance for nuclear and other energy, termination of sanctions/response to violation of the treaty and establishing a NEA-NWFZ. Based on Dr. Halperin’s broader comprehensive approach, the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA), based in Nagasaki, organized 3 workshops during which a number of new ideas have been explored and examined. In 2016 the Panel on Peace and Security of Northeast Asia (PSNA) was established to provide a venue for frank exchange of views and ideas among experts, academics and civil society so as to facilitate political processes and elaborate policy recommendations aimed at promoting the establishment of a NEA-NWFZ.

Bearing in mind the above post-cold war developments, the UN Advisory board on Disarmament matters in July 2013 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 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. Though we know well that that would not be easy and would require courage, political will and perseverance, it is doable.” Since then Blue Banner, Mongolian NGO devoted to promoting full institutionalization of the country’s nuclear-weapon-free status, has been working with RECNA and some other interested NGOs and think tanks of the region to promote the idea of establishing NEA-NWFZ. One of the permanent agenda items of the Ulaanbaatar Process (UBP), a track 2 regional dialogue mechanism launched in 2015 by GPPAC’s3 Northeast Asian focal points in partnership with Blue Banner, is the issue of promoting establishment of NEA-NWFZ. UBP provides political space and venue for civil society organizations of the region, including representatives of the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the US to openly exchange views, information and analysis of the situation on and around the Korean peninsula as well as share the views regarding innovative ideas and concepts regarding the issue. In 2017 Blue Banner voiced the idea of recognizing the DPRK as a de facto nuclear-weapon state and involving the latter’s experts in future consideration of NEA-NWFZ related issues.

A bold conceptual approach is needed

The four inter-Korean and the three DPRK-US summit meetings since 2018 have shown that there is a political will to work for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. However, the sides need first and foremost to agree to clearly define the notion of “denuclearizing the Korean peninsula” since both the post Singapore and post Hanoi discussions have demonstrated that there is a wide conceptual gap in this. As is known, in many cases including in this case, the devil is in details and these need to be addresses carefully. Hence working level negotiations would provide the opportunity to work more seriously towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula rather than demanding unilateral denuclearization of the DPRK first.

Many scholars, including of Blue Banner, believe that a novel, practically acceptable and doable conceptual approach to the issue of denuclearizing of not only of the Korean peninsula, but of the entire NEA needs to be developed. In other words the issue of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula needs at some stage to be linked to the issue of establishing a NEA-NWFZ, while the bilateral DPRK-U.S. talks need to be expanded to include other former parties to the Six Party Talks, first and foremost the Republic of Korea. As things stand today it would almost take a miracle to convince the DPRK to agree to fully denuclearize itself and thus part with its nuclear weapons and/or its nuclear weapons infrastructure. This could be accomplished as a result of long and tortuous negotiations and exceptional bargaining. The question is whether the sides can come to an agreement on it. In order to do that a bold conceptual approach is needed. In the meantime the DPRK might opt to keep its weapons or at least some of them, if not increase or further modernize them. A logical question arises in that case as to whether Japan or the Republic of Korea, both technologically nuclear capable states, would allow it to happen. Will they allow the US to accept the DPRK as a de facto nuclear-weapon state as long as the latter’s weapons would be incapable of reaching the US territory, meaning that the US might tolerate DPRK’s weapons that theoretically would threaten its two allies in NEA. Would its two allies agree to that? Even the question of the temporary freeze of nuclear-related activities during possible US-DRPK negotiations would lead to heated discussions and would need a strict verification agreement and mechanism. And would the DPRK be satisfied with the sole US security assurances? Wouldn’t the de facto recognition of DPRK as a nuclear weapon state embolden it in regards to Japan and the Republic of Korea? Mindful of nuclear weapon states’ past practice the DPRK would feel more assured and comfortable by acquiring additional assurances from its former allies — Russia and China — that the US would keep its part of the deal regarding the security assurances. There is also the issue of how to ensure that the talks of economic assistance to and investment in the DPRK’s economy would in practice benefit the latter and not serve only as a verbal incentive for moving the political process. There is also the broader question of how all these would affect the NPT regime.

Then there is a broader issue of the US nuclear umbrella extended to Japan and the Republic of Korea, known as the “extended” nuclear deterrence that not only protects them but also prevents them from acquiring nuclear weapons themselves. Since Japan and the Republic of Korea are both non-nuclear states, the question would arise whether there is a need to provide them with extended ‘nuclear’ deterrence if the Korean peninsula is properly denuclearized. Frankly speaking the US and each one of its two allies have much stronger conventional arsenals to counter effectively any non-nuclear threats. Blue Banner believes that US extended nuclear deterrence and strategic ambiguity in ruling out the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear threats to itself and the allies does not contribute to greater confidence nor to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines and policies, the policies that are supported by the overwhelming majority of the international community.

In that sense a sole purpose nuclear weapons use declaration by the nuclear weapon states, i.e. as long as nuclear weapons existed it would be used only in response to the use of nuclear weapons, would play a positive, reassuring role in NEA. Extended deterrence that excludes nuclear weapons would, until an appropriate security mechanism is agreed upon, retain the basic bilateral security commitments of the US to Japan and the Republic of Korea as well as constrain the latter two from pursuing and developing their own nuclear weapons. If nuclear deterrence is perceived widely today as part of the regional security problem, the ‘non-nuclear’ deterrence can become part of the solution since it would contribute to greater predictability and stability and hence would avert a possible uncontrollable chain reaction leading to the regional nuclear arms race. This would also lead to ‘denuclearizing’ regional war planning and military exercises.

Such tailored ‘non-nuclear’ extended deterrence would open the way to start discussing the issue of establishing a NEA-NWFZ. It is too early to discuss the possible content of a treaty establishing a NWFZ4, however the three nuclear weapon states, i.e. the US, Russia and China, would be expected to provide legally based security assurances to the DPRK, the Republic of Korea and Japan, while Russia and China would make sure that the US assurance is also politically credible. Content wise, the NEA-NWFZ treaty could also have provisions on providing economic assistance to the DPRK, as alluded to on a number of occasions by the US President. Politically, establishment of NEA-NWFZ would show that DPRK’s stance cannot be used as a justification for keeping or pursuing regional missile defense or counter defense systems in the region.

Blue Banner supports the positive and promising movements registered since the 2018 winter Olympic games and is prepared to work with the like-minded NGOs and think tanks to support and promote the positive signs and gestures in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula as agreed in principle at the 2018 Singapore US-DPRK summit and reaffirmed at the Panmunjom summit. Hence it is prepared to continue to share views on creating conditions for discussing and establishing a NEA-NWFZ which would benefit all the countries of the region and the region as a whole.

1 Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation

2 It would remove the non-strategic weapons as a first step towards subsequent reduction of nuclear weapons. Thus the proposed circle zone would cover an area of almost 1200 nautical miles radius from the center of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), while the ellipse zone would cover areas as far as Alaska.

3 Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict

4 Though as mentioned earlier, there are already a number of concrete practical proposals that could form the basis of discussion of the issue.

Profile of Dr. ENKHSAIKHAN Jargalsaikhan

Dr. ENKHSAIKHAN is international lawyer and diplomat who represented his country in Austria, USSR/Russian Federation and at the United Nations offices in New York and Vienna. In early 1990s he served as the foreign policy and legal advisor to the first democratically elected President of Mongolia and later as the Executive Secretary of the first National Security Council. In 2008–2013 he served as the focal point of Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free status and in 2013–2014 as Ambassador-at-Large in charge of disarmament issues. Between 1992–2015, as representative of Mongolia , he promoted the country’s nuclear-weapon-free status and held over 80 meetings and talks with experts and Ambassadors of the five nuclear-weapon states (P5) that led to signing by the latter of a joint declaration whereby they have recognized Mongolia’s status and pledged not to contribute to any act that would violate that status. Dr. Enkhsaikhan has also worked in the civil society sector dealing with such issues as promotion of peace and non-proliferation, democratic governance, human rights and gender equality.

He has contributed nearly 100 articles on international relations, democracy promotion, non-proliferation and regional security, organized or participated in many regional meetings aimed at promoting peace, international cooperation, environmental protection and good governance. He has published a scholarly book entitled: “The nuclear future of Mongolia…” (in Mongolian).

The Government of Mongolia has bestowed upon him the title of Merited lawyer of Mongolia and the Order of Labor Merit of Red Banner. In 2019 the Global Peace Foundation awarded him with Innovative Scholarship Peace Award.

At present Dr. Enkhsaikhan serves as Chairman of Blue Banner, Mongolian NGO dedicated to promoting the goals of nuclear non-proliferation and institutionalizing Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free status. Nowadays his work specifically focuses on working with the younger generation under the motto: “Informing, inspiring and empowering the youth”.



GPPAC Northeast Asia
Perspectives on Peace and Security in a Changing Northeast Asia — Voices from Civil Society and the Ulaanbaatar Process —

Northeast Asia regional network of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a global civil society-led network for peacebuilding.