North Korean Denuclearization: What it Might Look Like

Blog | April 25, 2018


For over three decades, North Korea, South Korea and the international community have discussed the possibility of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. In 1991, with the Cold War coming to an end, forever eliminating the presence of nuclear capabilities on the Peninsula seemed within reach. Unfortunately, Pyongyang disregarded international opinion and pursued nuclear capabilities at great costs to its own people. In the three decades since, North Korea has invested considerable fortune to develop its nuclear and missile programs. Consequently, if Kim Jong-un is serious about denuclearization, he will demand a steep price in concessions from South Korea and its allies, including the United States (U.S.), to offset the cost of forfeiting his nuclear capabilities.

To be successful, North Korean denuclearization must be verifiable and enforceable. Over the last three decades Pyongyang has agreed to four arms control agreements only to violate each one. Additionally, it has a history of deliberate and woeful non-transparency, even with humanitarian aid. Denuclearization will require three things: regular and comprehensive information releases on North Korea’s entire nuclear program, the ability to conduct inspections throughout North Korea and the capability to conduct no-notice inspections. Because sanctions against North Korea are becoming increasingly successful, the international community’s credibility in reapplying sanctions if Pyongyang is found to be non-compliant will be critical to guaranteeing North Korea’s full transparency and compliance.

Denuclearization does not have to occur immediately. Rather, the first step should curtail the growth of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Later Pyongyang can reduce and eventually eliminate its nuclear weapon program. In parallel, South Korea and its allies should apply a tiered approach to their commitments. Admittedly, this gradual approach was tried in both the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks and failed both times. However, if denuclearization is to be realized, segmenting implementation will be crucial to establishing the mutual trust necessary to prevent hedging, thus improving the likelihood of verifiable compliance. Searching for one monumental agreement is ideal but circumvents the foundational trust needed to ensure all parties are willing to accept the risks entailed in their commitments.

Pyongyang has always been willing to denuclearize, but its demands are likely to remain exorbitant. From the North Korean perspective, nuclear weapons provide unique deterrence and military benefits. With North Korea armed with nuclear capabilities, its opponents may be less willing to oppose Pyongyang’s aggressive actions or escalate conflict once it begins, providing the Kim regime with a coercive capability. For instance, when North Korea sunk the Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, South Korea and its allies provided a minimal response. Kim Jong-un will want to ensure that what remains of the Korean People’s Army — an over one million strong force, with an expansive mix of missiles, armor, heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, as well as biological and chemical weapons — can continue to coerce South Korea and its allies. That will entail considerable concessions from Seoul and its allies.

Given past North Korean demands, several requests are obvious. Kim Jong-un will want a negative security guarantee and peace treaty. Such measures would formally end the Korean War and theoretically make it politically more difficult for South Korea and its allies to sanction and, more so, declare war on North Korea. Further, Kim Jong-un has probably abandoned the condition that U.S. forces leave the Peninsula to entice the South Koreans to pressure the Americans into negotiations. Once talks ensue, he will likely look for an opportunity to request the removal of all U.S. forces from the Peninsula and Japan as well. Although less likely, to reduce the costs of conventional force modernization and maintenance, North Korea could propose North-South conventional force limitations. Collectively, these measures would help preserve Pyongyang’s ability to coerce Seoul and its allies.

North Korea will likely attempt to place additional demands on South Korea and its allies to ensure that the deterrence and military benefits of its expansive missile forces — possibly armed with a range of conventional, biological, and chemical warheads — are maintained. Without nuclear capabilities, North Korea will need more of its missiles to reach their intended targets to produce similar effects: an assured strike capability. Therefore, Kim Jong-un will likely request that South Korea and its allies reduce their offensive missile systems, and reduce or eliminate their missile defenses, to possibly include U.S. homeland missile defense. Moreover, Kim Jong-un may try to limit the presence of U.S. nuclear capabilities in the region.

Considering precedent and the country’s isolation from the outside world, the Kim regime may look to link denuclearization with economic assistance.  Kim Jong-un’s willingness to sacrifice the welfare of his own people for military programs has compounded the negative impacts of recent droughts and overfishing. Thus, North Korea will argue that the sanctions laid down by at least ten United Nations Security Council Resolutions should be ended. Pyongyang may also  request that other sanctions not connected with the nuclear program be rescinded, such as those meant to address North Korean human rights violations, while securing food and energy aid, and economic investments to jumpstart its moribund economy.

Over the last three decades, South Korea, its allies and the international community have tried but failed to prevent the growth of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, the Kim regime has used arms control to gain concessions with no intention of compliance. Given North Korea’s expanding nuclear capabilities, Kim Jong-un will likely demand considerable sacrifices from South Korea and its allies. In response, Moon Jae-in must finalize an agreement that is both verifiable and enforceable. Further, if denuclearization is to be achieved, it will likely need to occur gradually to build credibility and trust among all parties involved. Ultimately, denuclearization is possible, but it will hinge on Kim Jong-un’s sincerity and South Korea’s ability to verify and enforce whatever agreement is reached.

Davis Florick is a James A. Kelly Non-resident Fellow with the Pacific Forum and a Senior Fellow with the Human Security Centre, a think tank based in London.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.


Photo: "North Korea Victory Day 091" (CC BY 2.0) by rapidtravelchai