With the continuing nuclear and missile development by China and North Korea, amid a prolonged stalemate on nuclear talks with the North, the existential risk of a nuclear conflict ― either between China and the U.S. or between North Korea and the U.S. ― is lingering, if not rising, in Northeast Asia.
For a quarter of a century, the United States has tried and failed different forms and approaches to denuclearizing North Korea. It failed with the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2004 joint statement of the 6-party talks, the 2012 Leap Day agreement, and the 2018 Singapore summit agreement.
Did neither the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Pyongyang joined in 1986 and withdrew from it in 2003, nor well-intended arms reduction treaties help prevent North Korea’s breakout as a de facto nuclear state?
The NPT has three goals: non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states pledge not to acquire or manufacture nuclear weapons, and the five recognized nuclear states ― the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France ― agree not to transfer nuclear weapons to or assist non-nuclear states in developing a nuclear weapon.
The treaty also encourages good faith negotiations for total nuclear disarmament. However, no such negotiations have ever been held. Interestingly, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making a political statement in Prague in 2009 that he would work to build a world free of nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, the termination of arms control treaties can have a negative impact. Yet, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, and from the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty in February 2019, which banned all land-based mid and short-range missiles of 1,000 to 5,500 kilometers in range, and their missile launchers.
The New START that limits deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 will probably be terminated by expiration next February. Both parties ― the U.S. and Russia ― appear to have little interest in renegotiating an extension of the treaty. Without a new arms control mechanism in place, it appears that China, Russia, North Korea and the U.S. will be heading for an accelerated nuclear arms race.
The Trump administration has revealed some alarming signals in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Under the NPR, the U.S., while reserving the option of first-use of nuclear weapons, will modernize and enhance its nuclear capabilities. It will develop a low-yield nuclear warhead as a deterrent to a limited nuclear conflict. It also will sustain and replace the TRIAD ― a three-leg delivery system of land-based ICBMs, heavy bombers, and submarine launchers ― with new advanced systems.
The U.S. believes that its nuclear arsenal serves as a deterrence to nuclear and other types of war. It also believes its extended nuclear deterrence to its allies and partners has a non-proliferation effect, since their reliance on U.S. commitment should preempt the development of their own nuclear weapons.
While the U.S. says it will support non-proliferation and arms reduction efforts, it will not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which is not yet in force due to the rejection by some states including the U.S., China, and North Korea. However, the U.S. will keep a moratorium on testing and asks others to do the same.
Currently, North Korea is believed to possess 20 to 60 warheads and demonstrated delivery systems for short to long ranges. China’s arsenal ranges from 200 to 300 nuclear weapons according to varying assessments. China has announced a no-first-use policy, with its credibility in question.
Nevertheless, if the U.S. also declares a no-first-use policy, it will contribute to stabilizing the turbulent security environment in the region. Will this undermine the deterrent effect of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?
A denuclearized Korean Peninsula can serve as a buffer between the U.S. and China, minimizing the chance for an apocalyptic nuclear clash in Northeast Asia, if it is incorporated in the framework of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) that will include the two Koreas and Japan.
A key to a successful NWFZ is a protocol that legally assures the security of the Zone by the recognized nuclear weapons states against external nuclear threats. In the 1980’s, the North proposed establishment of an NWFZ on and around the peninsula.
A new denuclearization approach can borrow a positive input from the concept of an NWFZ, in addition to pursuing a familiar approach to three tasks: normalization; a peace regime; and a phased, reciprocal process to complete denuclearization with the conditions of lifting sanctions, with snap-back measures. It is time to try something different.
Tong Kim (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a visiting professor with the University of North Korean Studies, a visiting scholar with Korea University, a fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies, and a columnist for The Korea Times.