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A Long Road to Denuclearisation: Challenges to Security-Based Diplomacy with North Korea

Cristina Varriale
Occasional Papers, 6 December 2018
Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, North Korea, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Pacific
This paper sets out the case for a gradual, step-by-step approach to remove North Korea's nuclear weapons.

This study examines how mutual security-related steps could be undertaken in order to progress diplomacy related to limiting, rolling back and removing North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

Diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes has historically been rocky, but 2018 has seen a reinvigorated attempt at engagement. In 2017, tensions reached a high point as a result of regular missile tests by North Korea – which included the first tests of an ICBM capability – and the testing of what was most likely a thermonuclear device. However, at the beginning of 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in leveraged his country’s hosting of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to initiate engagement with North Korea over its nuclear programme. This engagement was bolstered by the absence of North Korean nuclear and long-range-missile tests, and North Korea’s closure of its nuclear test site.

Thus far, ongoing diplomacy has comprised two tracks. The first track is an inter-Korean process, through which Seoul and Pyongyang have worked to address the security environment on the peninsula. This is a result of South Korea’s acknowledgement that in order to advance denuclearisation, the security environment must improve, and that the country must make an effort to improve its own security through reducing the threats from North Korea’s conventional military assets. The second track, between the US and North Korea, is primarily focused on the nuclear issue, but is yet to produce agreed steps to significantly limit, roll back or remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

The inter-Korean dialogue has yielded steps towards a reduction of conventional military risks on the peninsula. These steps have been aimed at reducing conventional threats with a view to improving security. Mostly detailed in the Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain, both North and South Korea have agreed on a series of steps to improve the security environment and reduce military risks. These include jointly removing landmines from the demilitarised zone and implementing a series of no-fly zones near the Military Demarcation Line.

North Korea and the US have also taken independent steps to contribute to an improved security environment. North Korea has not tested a long-range missile or nuclear explosive device in 2018, and the US has announced and implemented the suspension of large-scale combined military exercises with South Korea.

Steps to improve the security environment and threat perceptions on the peninsula are vital if progress is to be made in limiting and rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities, as a way of reducing North Korea’s perception of an immediate military threat from the US – a threat perception that Pyongyang has used to justify its nuclear weapons. If serious efforts are to be made in denuclearisation, the US and South Korea will need to address North Korea’s security concerns.

However, the denuclearisation track has so far failed to make progress by agreeing steps to concretely impact North Korea’s weapons capability. At present, steps do not include efforts to tangibly alter North Korea’s nuclear programme. Nor do they significantly reduce the conventional threat that US forces could pose to North Korea, and there is a risk that the process will stall.

As a result of the step-by-step approach taken in diplomacy with North Korea this time around, it seems unlikely that a grand bargain agreement on the nuclear issues – in which North Korea would agree to relinquish its entire nuclear stockpile and supporting infrastructure in exchange for sanctions relief – will be achieved. Yet, a grand bargain agreement seems to remain as a policy preference for Washington. Therefore, a fresh approach that extends the current step-by step approach beyond efforts in the conventional military space is needed.

This paper proposes compartmentalising denuclearisation into steps that can be agreed upon and implemented separately, and do not need to form part of a comprehensive, grand bargain agreement.

Compartmentalising denuclearisation can be done in two main ways. In the first approach, the US and South Korea could take the individual components of denuclearisation that are considered most important, such as declarations or verification measures, and find ways to apply these to selected parts of the nuclear infrastructure. Because these components have high value, their acceptance by North Korea early on will be challenging, as a result of the level of vulnerability they necessitate. However, when applied at the lowest level, declarations and verification measures do not have to result in high levels of vulnerability. For example, satellite imagery analysis could be used to verify a cessation of uranium mining at North Korea’s open-pit uranium mines, which could limit future fissile material production and cap the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. A strategy could be taken of identifying aspects of these steps that would be more amenable to North Korea, such as satellite imagery verification as opposed to on-site inspections, and considering how they could be applied to North Korea’s nuclear activities early on. As progress is made, these components of denuclearisation could be expanded to more areas of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, broadening steps to denuclearisation.

Second, the US and South Korea could approach denuclearisation not by considering the components of denuclearisation, but the capabilities of priority, such as uranium enrichment. This approach would be phased across a capability of concern, to increase the level of declaration and verification measures through to dismantlement as time progresses. This would mean addressing North Korea’s capabilities in siloed agreements. For uranium enrichment, the phasing could begin with a low-level declaration of the number of centrifuges used to produce weapons-grade uranium, without a disclosure of the number of sites where they are located. This approach would, over time, increase in the depth of the agreement on this specific capability, all the way through to dismantlement.

However, North Korea will probably not agree to any such steps without assuring its own gains. Any steps towards denuclearisation will need to be tied to ongoing conventional security steps taken by the US and South Korea, bringing the two tracks together more explicitly. Opportunities do exist for further military risk-reduction measures. However, given that the overarching threat from the US has not diminished for North Korea, and the imbalance of conventional forces between the US–South Korea alliance and North Korea, these steps will need to be appropriately balanced. The next steps should therefore consider how aspects of the inter-Korean dialogue could be expanded to the US–North Korean relationship. For example, given the close range to North Korea, the US and South Korea should consider ceasing live fire drills at the Rodriquez Live Fire Complex near the border region, expanding part of the Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain beyond the inter-Korean process to include the US. Another option could be for the US to commit to not sending nuclear-capable bombers to the Korean peninsula outside military conflict, reducing the threat to North Korea and demonstrating commitment to the process. This could be balanced with North Korea’s cessation of uranium mining, verified through satellite imagery, as both measures are easily reversible and only constitute a small step to transforming the security environment and altering North Korea’s nuclear capabilities – but a step in the right direction nonetheless.

Security has been at the heart of the 2018 efforts of diplomatic engagement with North Korea. It will, however, be vital going forward that the conventional military risk-reduction measures to improve the security environment become explicitly linked to steps on denuclearisation. Without this, the two-track approach could result in North Korea having an improved security environment without experiencing an impact on its nuclear weapons capability. Furthermore, without progress on the nuclear file, there is a risk that diplomacy will stall and collapse.

Cristina Varriale is a Research Fellow in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy team at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: North Korean missiles at Victory Day celebrations. Courtesy of Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

Cristina Varriale
Research Fellow

Cristina Varriale is a Research Fellow with in Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at RUSI, where she focuses on North Korea’s WMD... read more

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