The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is known in the West simply as “North Korean.” Its nuclear weapons program is the most challenging issue in the region. Its far-reaching implications must have been the main topic of a recent lengthy discussion at the White House between President Biden and his visitor, President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (ROK), the country we call “South Korea.”
Certainly, Biden’s policy toward DPRK will differ sharply from that of his predecessor, who alternately threatened and courted the North Korean President Kim Jong-un, though it is not evident yet what new course the US will take.
In any case, other options should, and no doubt will, be considered; Call them Plans B and C. Here we present a “Plan D”—a proposal that originated in Mongolia as the contribution of “Blue Banner,” a Mongolian NGO which pursues policies to stabilize the Northeast Asian region.
Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula should not be addressed in isolation. It needs to be done mindful of the broader security and developmental interests of the entire region, since there are other states that technologically are capable of developing nuclear weapons or promoting regional cooperation. Bearing that in mind, as well as the interests of other regional powers and of the economic interest of the DPRK itself, Blue Banner believes that establishing a Northeast Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone (NEA-NWFZ) with legally binding security assurances and providing the DPRK with a credible mini-Marshall plan would be a win-win solution for all.
So far, NWFZs have been established in regions with political structures and where the nuclear weapon states had no direct geopolitical stake. However, establishing such zones in conflict areas where the nuclear-weapon states or other great powers have geopolitical interests would be much more difficult: for example, in the Middle East or in Northeast Asia. With the climate changing, the issue of establishing such a zone in the Arctic is becoming complicated.
Establishing a NEA-NWFZ is currently not on the political agenda of the region. Though the creation of such a zone is being discussed, it is being considered only on an informal basis in some regional think tanks and disarmament NGOs, including Blue Banner.
When one talks about NEA-NWFZ, this means a zone consisting of the territories of the two Koreas and Japan—not the entire region. In the post-cold war period, proposals have been made whereby the US, Russia, and China are expected to provide legally-based security assurances to these three states (commonly known as the 3+3 formula).
In 2011 a comprehensive approach to the issue was proposed that would include termination of the state of war between DPRK and ROK; provision of energy assistance; termination of the sanctions against DPRK; and establishing a NEA-NWFZ. However, that proposal is not on the region’s political agenda, nor does it clearly envisage the future roles of the major regional powers.
In July 2013 UN Advisory Board on Disarmament matters recommended that the United Nations Secretary-General “take action towards establishing a NEA-NWFZ.” In September of that year at the UN High-Level Meeting on Disarmament, the 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.” However, regionally no tangible measures have been taken to follow-up on these suggestions.
Blue Banner’s study of the most effective way of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula has led to a conclusion that a novel, regionally agreed and accepted approach, resulting in the creation of a NEA-NWFZ, may be a recipe for a permanent solution.
There is a wide conceptual gap on the issue of “denuclearizing the Korean peninsula” and on the effect of applying maximum political and economic pressures. Demanding almost unilateral denuclearization of the DPRK first without normalizing relations is not helpful for trust-building and the negotiation process.
Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is not only a bilateral US-DPRK issue. At some stage it must be linked to regional interests. Thus, the bilateral talks need, at some stage, to be expanded to include other former parties to the Six Party Talks—first and foremost the Republic of Korea, followed by China, Russia and Japan.
The conceptual approach should come first and foremost from the DPRK and the United States. Hence, the DPRK would need to make a strategic decision regarding its nuclear weapons, committing to go beyond “working toward” complete denuclearization of the peninsula, as mentioned in the Singapore joint statement. On the other hand, the US also needs to review some part of its almost half-a-century-old national security doctrine, especially regarding the “nuclear umbrella” and the purpose of nuclear weapons-use doctrines. Today they are part of the problem and not of the solution. Besides, the US and each one of its two allies have strong conventional arsenals and the alliance itself can address effectively any non-nuclear threats.
A sole purpose nuclear weapons use declaration in NEA by the US, Russia, and China can play a positive, reassuring role. Deterrence that excludes nuclear weapons, until an appropriate regional security mechanism is agreed upon, would still retain intact the basic bilateral security commitments of the US toward Japan and the Republic of Korea.
Such tailored “non-nuclear” extended deterrence and sole purpose use declaration would open a way to start discussing the issue of establishing a NEA-NWFZ whereby the three nuclear weapon states involved would be expected to provide treaty-based security assurances to the DPRK, the Republic of Korea, and Japan.
As per accepted NWFZ rules, Russia and China would be expected to provide assurances to Japan and the Republic of Korea as parts of the zone, which are important in themselves. Their assurances would also probably mean for the DPRK an additional political assurance that the US commitment to DPRK would be more credible and thus serve as a further incentive for an over-all agreement. Content-wise, the NEANWFZ treaty could also contain provisions on providing economic assistance to the DPRK, a form of an international mini-Marshall plan. Politically and business-wise, many states might be willing to participate in such a plan. The US President had on a number of occasions underlined the tremendous potential of the DPRK’s economic development and prosperity, while other states of the region believe that the DPRK, if allowed, can play an important economic role in the region.
Blue Banner believes that establishing a NEA-NWFZ would also reduce the pressure to introduce medium- or intermediate- range nuclear weapons in the region and thus contribute to the building of trust.
Dr. J. Enkhsaikhan is a Mongolian diplomat. Views expressed in this article are not those of the Mongolian government but of Blue Banner, a Mongolian NGO.