A Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone and a Peaceful Resolution of the Nuclear Crisis on the Korean Peninsula

Anastasia Barannikova (Center)

Anastasia Barannikova
Researcher ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University
GPPAC Northeast Asia Vladivostok Focal Point

The evolution of the nuclear program (technical progress, doctrine etc.) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has made the coerced nuclear disarmament of the country unfeasible and dangerous. New motivating factors within DPRK and the arms race in Northeast Asia (NEA) are diminishing the chances of voluntary disarmament. It has become clear that sanctions and pressure against DPRK do not solve the problem, but only lead to a dead end. Under certain conditions, this approach can even lead to the outbreak of conflict or nuclear proliferation. Thus, it is necessary to look for new ways to address the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. For this purpose, the international community must move away from old approaches and towards new initiatives. One of the most promising ideas at the moment is the creation of a NEA Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ). This initiative implies a fundamentally new approach to DPRK that cannot be underestimated by its leadership. With flexibility and due consideration of the interests of all NEA countries, the implementation of NEA NWFZ initiative could really contribute to the peaceful solution of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.

Over the past year, the tensions in Northeast Asia increased and the crisis on the Korean Peninsula escalated significantly. The nuclear and missile programs of DPRK accelerated drastically since the beginning of 2016; joint US-ROK exercises in the region have become even more provocative, taking into account the presence of nuclear weapons and the simulation by the United States of America (USA) and Republic of Korea (ROK) of a “decapitation strike”, designed to take out the top leadership of the DPRK. USA and ROK have agreed on the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systemsi on the Korean Peninsula and countries whose interests are threatened by these systems have already undertaken military-technical countermeasures. Russia and China are improving their strategic capabilities, developing hypersonic weapons to overcome US missile defenseii and their expert communities are discussing ideas such as collective missile defense systemsiii. China has deployed mobile Dongfeng-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)iv in its Heilongjiang province, bordering DPRK, and conducted tests of long-range DF-5C missile with 10 warheadsv, while Russia has completed a work on its “Barguzin” railroad ICBM system vi able to zero in on US missile defense. Finally, DPRK successfully tested its “Pukguksong-2”vii missile capable of overcoming the enemy’s ballistic missile defense and “Hwasong-14”viii, still raising questions about its range and classificationix. Thus, another arms race is already taking place in Northeast Asia (and beyond), threatening to last for a long period, increasing the conflict potential of the region and diverting resources and forces of the countries involved from more important and constructive issues.

The situation was aggravated with the induction into office of the current President of the USA. Amid increasing mutual demonstrations of force and military threats, the statements about redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea beganx, and some high-ranking officials even admitted in their public statements the emergence of (their own) nuclear weapons in ROK and Japanxi. In such an atmosphere, the resolution of the long-standing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has become ever more urgent. However, before attempting to work out an approach to settling the crisis, it is necessary to understand its essence and causes. The process of working out approaches to the crisis on the Korean peninsula at all its stages was hampered by the perception of this crisis as a solely “North Korean nuclear issue”. In reality, this issue is just a part of the complex of regional security problems. It is also the result rather than the cause of the crisis. At the same time, there is no concept of a “North Korean nuclear problem” for Russia and China; their officials refer to the “nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula”xii. This automatically implies that its solution lies in simultaneously addressing other issues, such as the expansion of the US military presence in the Korean Peninsula and the destabilizing US-ROK joint exercises.

It is natural that approaches aimed at solving not the entire problem, but only parts of it, have failed and will continue failing. A stark example of an inevitably unsuccessful approach is the implementation of sanctions against the DPRK. Its inefficiency has already been recognized by Russia and the United States. Indeed, sanctions have had no effect on the sphere at which they are targeted, i.e., nuclear and missile programs of DPRK. This is evidenced by the country’s technical and technological progress subsequent to the tightening of international sanctions and its isolation.

The Problem of the Resumption of the Six-Party Talks

The settlement of the Korean Peninsula crisis through negotiations seems to be the most desirable approach. Russia and China remain committed to the resumption of the six-party talks (6PT), though they understand that it would be virtually impossible without a change of the initial objectives and agenda. Other former 6PT participants seem to be uninterested in the resumption of this multilateral dialogue as they put forward unrealistic preliminary conditionsxiii. Now it is clear that possibilities for the voluntary disarmament of the DPRK have been missed over the years since the suspension of the 6PT. Sine qua non of DPRK’s nuclear disarmament is global denuclearization. Otherwise, the threats to its security, which pushed it to develop nuclear weapons many years ago, would remain. It is assumed that the new military doctrine of the DPRK relies on nuclear weapons as the main deterrent potential. In this case, nuclear disarmament would endanger the country’s security, as it would reduce the DPRK’s possibility of responding to large-scale enemy aggression, even that which uses conventional weapons. At the same time, security is not the only factorxiv that motivates the DPRK to develop its own nuclear potential (otherwise a non-aggression agreement with the US would be enough, to reverse its nuclear stance; this seems unrealistic now). The nuclear and missile potential of the DPRK was originally aimed solely at ensuring national security. However, it has now become part of the country’s ideology, an element of its domestic policy and a symbol of prestige. Kim Jong Un named DPRK a “nuclear power in the East” xv in his New Year address, thus confirming the special status and role of nuclear weapons in the country. Undoubtedly, nuclear weapons are not only the main deterrent for the DPRK, but also a symbol of its prestige and indicator of the efficiency of the current political course. The abandonment of nuclear weapons in the current circumstances would undoubtedly have serious consequences for the image of DPRK’s leadership within the country.

The abovementioned points demonstrate that nuclear weapons are no longer a negotiable point for the leadership of the DPRK and cannot be exchanged for any economic benefits. DPRK’s position and rhetoric on its nuclear potential has hardened. Putting forward unfeasible prerequisites to the USA and its allies indicates that DPRK is no longer interested in nuclear disarmament. Moreover, its leadership has no more chances for this disarmament. Since the nuclear status of the country was enshrined in its constitution, no possibilities remain for a political dialogue on the disarmament of DPRK, including the 6PT. This impossibility, along with new motivating factors within DPRK as well as its technical progress, shows that DPRK will never give up its nuclear weapons. As DPRK has all the motivating factors, formulated by researchers studying problems of nuclear proliferation (technical progress, threats to security, political consideration, etc.), its nuclear status is an inevitable and natural outcome. After achieving the final goal of its program (reliable nuclear forces sufficient to deter USA), the country will work on the legalization of its nuclear status and recognition on the international arena.

On one hand, the changed circumstances security environment in NEA and the new position of DPRK leadership on nuclear weapons put the countries interested in stability and security in NEA in a difficult position. On the other hand, it gives them powerful an impetus to work out new approaches to the nuclear crisis of the Korean Peninsula. Old approaches should be abandoned as they led to the appearance of a new nuclear state in NEA, though this has not yet been recognized by the international community.

New Approaches

Currently, the international community has not so many options at its disposal for the resolution of this crisis. Until recent years, DPRK was expected to abandon its nuclear weapons in exchange for easing sanctions and pressure; these expectations were never met. A military approach can be immediately excluded, as it is so risky in terms of security and geopolitics, that even the new US administration abandoned it soon after having voiced their threatsxvi. However, there is still a choice between continuing current sanctions and pressure tactics and new approaches. As already mentioned, sanctions and pressure did not contribute to the curtailment of the DPRK’s nuclear program, but instead produced the opposite effect. This approach, if continued, is likely to lead to nuclear and missile proliferation, rather than to nuclear disarmament of DPRK. So, the old approach is dangerous, both for security and the non-proliferation regime in NEA. However, the option of a negotiation process remains, with the primary purpose of guaranteeing security in the region, not nuclear disarmament of DPRK. It should not take the form of the six-party talks on the notorious “North Korean nuclear issue”, but rather, a new dialogue on the settlement of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Among these new approaches, the idea of creating a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NEA NWFZ)xvii is particularly noteworthy. A NEA NWFZ in its initial format assumes that nuclear weapon states — China, Russia and the United States of America will provide negative security assurances to DPRK, Japan, and ROK, which, in turn will undertake appropriate obligations to stay non-nuclear. Creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the 3 + 3 format, undoubtedly meets the interests of NEA states on the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, its implementation is impossible given the changed, and yet unrecognized status of the DPRK as a nuclear weapon state. Since six-party talks were suspended, the North Korean nuclear and missile program has significantly advanced. The country achieved visible technological progress, recognized by IAEAxviii and USAxix, which had previously not considered DPRK nuclear weapons as a threat to their own security. Some experts estimate that North Korean missile and nuclear programs are too advanced and associated risks as too serious for a passive approach or the continuation of inefficient measures towards the DPRK xx. According to foreign observers, DPRK is currently capable of equipping Rodong missiles with a range of 1,300 km, with nuclear warheads. The completion of ICBM development is expected by 2020, and deployment of SLBMs for combat duty — by 2023xxi. Along with technical work and tests, the country is likely developing new strategic planning documents. In particular, the revision of military doctrine was announced last yearxxii. The status of DPRK’s nuclear missile program no longer allows for the consideration of DPRK as a non-nuclear country, especially given the fact that its nuclear power status is enshrined in its Constitution.

DPRK also changed its rhetoric on denuclearization. Earlier, the reciprocal denuclearization of ROK was enough. Now, DPRK would agree to nuclear disarmament only in the case of global denuclearization (an implicit guarantee of the absence of the nuclear weapons of its most likely enemy — USA) which should start with the denuclearization of the South of the Korean Peninsula. This, in turn, would entail not only the absence of ROK’s own nuclear weapons on its soil, but also its government’s refusal to deploy any other nuclear weapons within the territory of South Korea, as well as the termination of joint US-South Korean exercises involving this type of weapon. In recent years, these exercises have involved nuclear aircraft carriers and planes capable of carrying nuclear weapons, in addition to conventional troops and weapons. DPRK perceives these exercises as a total nuclear threat, especially given the aggressive nature of the exercises.

Moreover, ROK cannot be considered a non-nuclear state since it has the guarantee of USA’s “nuclear umbrella”. ROK and Japan came under the US “nuclear umbrella” on the condition that they would not produce their own nuclear weapons. These legal guarantees are formalized in a number of bilateral treatiesxxiii, which are prolonged from time to time. Nuclear umbrella guarantees became an integral part of ROK and Japan defense and security strategies and concepts. So, from a certain point of view, ROK can be considered as a state possessing nuclear weapons, or even a nuclear state. Ideally, for the purpose of complying with the principles of equality and balance of power, ROK should abandon US “nuclear umbrella” guarantees. Alternatively, DPRK should be provided such assurances (say, by Russia or China). However, this is completely unfeasible.

The first option is impossible because USA’s “nuclear umbrella has become an integral part of the security architecture of the countries which are covered by this protection. Abandoning it without damage and threat to these countries’ security is hardly possible. As for the second option, DPRK reasonably considers itself a nuclear state without need for anyone’s “nuclear umbrella”, which had never been offered to it by any country in the first place. Russia and China, which could give such guarantees to DPRK theoretically, would not provide a “nuclear umbrella” to DPRK, as it would automatically create a block, opposed to the US — ROK — Japan alliance, thereby reintroducing a “cold war” atmosphere to the region and escalating the crisis and arms race. In contrast to ROK, DPRK cannot rely on any other country’s nuclear umbrella guarantees and defense. The Treaty between North Korea and Russia, which was signed in 2000 to replace the 1961 North Korean-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, has no clause on military cooperation. The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed between DPRK and PRC in 1961, is still in force but the Treaty’s Section II stipulates that aid will be provided to DPRK only if it “is invaded by” a third country. Beijing has made it clear that if North Korea initiated an attack on South Korea, China wouldn’t help DPRK. Given the fact that it is extremely difficult to confirm or deny the source of provocation in modern conflicts, one can hardly predict how an ally will behave. Having own forces (including nuclear ones) seems more secure and reliable.

It should be noted that the idea of a NWFZ was discussed in DPRK during Kim Il Sung’s rule. Particularly, he said in one of his speeches: “For providing global peace and security, nuclear-free peaceful zones should be created and further expanded in various regions of the world”xxiv. The idea of an Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone was first discussed at the governmental level in DPRK in April of 1959. Later, in March of 1981, The Workers’ party of Korea (WPK) together with Japan’s Socialist Party, jointly promoted an initiative of establishing Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in NEA. Today, this initiative is discussed and studied in Mongolia, Russia, Japan and other countries of the region. The idea of a NWFZ could initiate the creation of a new regional security mechanism in NEA. However, the 4 + 2 format of NWFZ, implying DPRK’s participation as nuclear state, seems more feasible. Perhaps it would require or entail official recognition of its status in the international legal field. However, it would result in non-aggression guarantees from the DPRK to non-nuclear countries. It alone could significantly reduce tensions in the region and risks of further nuclear proliferation. DPRK’s negative security assurances to non-nuclear ROK and Japan would eliminate any threats to these countries, where politicians, from time to time advocate «going nuclear», specifically in reference to the “North Korean threat” as the main motivating factor for possessing nuclear weapons.

Despite all the difficulties of implementing the NEA NWFZ initiative, it has significant advantages over the 6PT. One of them is a revision of the place and role of DPRK. In the course of negotiations and discussions thus far, DPRK has been treated as an object, not a subject or equal participant in the dialogue. A NEA NWFZ initiative would involve the participation of DPRK on equal terms with other countries. This idea implies not unilateral concessions by DPRK to some “international community”, but concerted and reciprocal actions by specific countries of the region. From this perspective, this initiative could be seen as more attractive and viable, and DPRK representatives are rather ready to discuss it rather than the resumption of 6PT. With a certain flexibility of both the format and participants, the NEA NWFZ initiative has a high chance of being implemented, thereby settling a long-standing crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

i THAAD is a system designed to shoot down short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase. A THAAD battery consists of launcher vehicles equipped with missiles, with two mobile tactical operations centers (TOCs) and the AN/TPY-2 ground-based radar (GBR) which is capable of detecting not only ballistic targets (missiles), but also aerodynamic ones (aircraft).
ii Gertz, Bill, Air Force: Hypersonic Missiles From China, Russia Pose Growing Danger to U.S., The Washington Free Beacon, November 30, 2016, accessed December 22, 2016, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/air-force-hypersonic-missiles-china-russia-pose-growing-danger-u-s/.
iii Sitdikov, Ramil, “Will Russia and China Build an SCO-Based Joint Missile Defense System?,” Sputnik, July 20, 2016, accessed, September 1, 2016, https://sputniknews.com/military/201607201043363315-russia-china-joint-missile-defense/;
Chen, Hanhui, China and Russia are to enhance cooperation to counter THAAD Jūn bào: zhōng é kĕ shēn huà fǎn dǎo hé zuò tōng guò duō zhŏng fāng shì cuī huĭ sà dé 陈航辉. 军报:中俄可深化反导合作 通过多种方式摧毁萨德, China News, August 1, 2016, accessed September 5, 2016, http://finance.chinanews.com/mil/2016/08-05/7962882.shtml.
iv China deploys DF-41 nuclear ballistic missiles “responding to US missile defense in Asia”, South Front, January 25, 2017, accessed February 5, 2017, https://southfront.org/china-deploys-df-41-nuclear-ballistic-missiles-responding-to-us-missile-defense-in-asia/.
v Orlov, Alexey, China tested a ballistic missile with 10 warheads Kitay ispytal ballisticheskuyu raketu s 10 boyegolovkami Китай испытал баллистическую ракету с 10 боеголовками, Defence.ru, February 1, 2017, accessed February 5, 2017, https://defence.ru/article/kitai-ispital-ballisicheskuyu-raketu-s-10-boegolovkami/.
vi Peck, Michael, Russia’s Nuclear Missile ‘Death Train’ Arriving in 2019, The National Interest, February 26, 2017, accessed March 3, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/russias-nuclear-missile-death-train-arriving-2019-19581.
vii Kim Jong Un guides test-fire of surface-to-surface medium long-range ballistic missile, Korean Central News Agency, February 13, 2017, accessed February 14, 2017, http://www.kcna.kp/kcna.user.special.getArticlePage.kcmsf.
viii Kim Jong Un supervises test-launch of Inter-continental Ballistic Rocket Hwasong-14, Korean Central News Agency, July 5, 2017, accessed July 7, 2017, http://www.kcna.kp/kcna.user.special.getArticlePage.kcmsf .
ix Schilling John, North Korea Finally Tests an ICBM, 38 North, July 5, 2017, accessed July 7, 2017, https://www.38north.org/2017/07/jschilling070517/
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xi Johnson, Jesse, Amid North Korea threat, Tillerson hints that ‘circumstances could evolve’ for a Japanese nuclear arsenal, The Japan Times, March 19, 2017, accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/19/national/amid-north-korea-threat-tillerson-hints-circumstances-evolve-japanese-nuclear-arsenal/#.WRZj0RheNmA
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xii See official sites of: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.mid.ru/en/main_en and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/.
xiii Yi Yong-in, US official reiterates conditions for resuming Six Party Talks, The Hankyoreh, April 6, 2016, accessed May 6, 2017, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/738496.html
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xiv For more details about factors motivating states to develop nuclear weapons see: Harald Müller, Andreas Schmidt, The Little Known Story of De-Proliferation: Why States Give Up Nuclear Weapon Activities, Security Index Journal. №1 (100), 2011, pp. 71–90, №3–4 (102–103), 2012. Pp. 69–84.
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xvii See also: Umebayashi, Hiromichi, A Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone with a Three-plus-Three Arrangement, Nautilus Institute, March 13, 2012, accessed April 5, 2016, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/a-northeast-asia-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-with-a-three-plus-three-arrangement/
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xviii Nuclear Progress of DPRK is Recognized by IAEA Yadernyy progress KNDR priznan na urovne MAGATE
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xxii Kim Jong Un Watches Ballistic Rocket Launch Drill of Strategic Force of KPA, Korean Central News Agency, March 11, 2016, accessed December 1, 2016, http://www.kcna.kp/kcna.user.special.getArticlePage.kcmsf.
xxiii See, for instance: The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, first signed in 1952; Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America of 1953.
xxiv Kim Il Sung. Report of the WPK CC to the 6th Party Congress, Collection of works of Kim Il Sung. Pyongyang: WPK Publishing House, 1987. Vol. 35. P. 368 (김일성. “조선로동당 제6차대회에서 한 중앙위원회 사업총화보고” (“김일성저작집”. 35권. 평양: 조선로동당출판사, 1987. 368페지).

Anastasia Barannikova
Researcher ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University

Anastasia Barannikova is the researcher of Center for Maritime International Studies, ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University. She is also the head of Young Pugwash Group, Russian Pugwash Committee Far Eastern Branch and member of a number of Associations and NGOs. She has a background in Linguistics & Intercultural Communication, National, Information, Military Security, International Relations, and History & Political Sciences from the Far Eastern National Technical University (1999–2004), Russian Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Russian Federation (2004–2006), ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University (2010–2013) and numerous workshops and trainings. Her research interests include Arctic strategies and cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states; Korean Peninsula, DPRK foreign and domestic policies, problems of unification; problems of economic, energy, military, security and political interaction and cooperation of Russia, China, DPRK, Japan, ROK, USA. She was a speaker in a number of international conferences in China, DPRK and Russia and has more than 60 publications in scientific journals, newspapers and blogs, including articles in Russian, English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese languages.