Hiroshima and the World: Pathways to the Denuclearization of North Korea

by Chung-in Moon

Chung-in Moon
Chung-in Moon was born in March 1951 in Jeju, South Korea. He has been a professor of political science at Yonsei University since 1994, and also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Global Asia, a quarterly journal in English. He has also been Dean of Yonsei's Graduate School of International Studies. He was Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Northeast Asian Cooperation Initiative from 2004-2005, a cabinet-level post, and Ambassador for International Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Republic of Korea, from 2006-2008. He has published over 40 books and 230 articles in edited volumes and such scholarly journals as World Politics and International Studies Quarterly. His most recent publication includes The United States and Northeast Asia: Debates, Issues, and New Order (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), with John Ikenberry. He attended the 1st and 2nd Pyongyang Korean summit as a special delegate in 2000 and 2007, respectively. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Maryland, a U.S. institution, in 1984.

Pathways to the Denuclearization of North Korea

Almost eight years have elapsed since the second North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002 over the issue of North Korea's development of a highly enriched uranium program. Despite successive rounds of the Six Party Talks and promising signs at various stages of that process, the situation has worsened. Whenever the Six Party Talks have stalled, North Korea has responded with provocative actions, amplifying a vicious cycle of distrust and confrontation. In the latest example, it test launched long-range missiles on April 5 of last year, and then declared itself the world's ninth nuclear weapons state after undertaking a second underground nuclear test on May 25. The international community's response was harsh. The U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1874 on June 12, and began to impose tougher sanctions on the North.

Despite the sanctions, North Korea is getting closer to becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. Although estimates vary, the North is known to have acquired at least five to six plutonium-based nuclear warheads. It is also believed to be on the verge of consolidating a highly enriched uranium program.

North Korea also has a credible strike capability. It currently possesses several types of missiles: Scud B (with a range 320 km, payload 1,000 kg), Scud C (range 500 km, payload 770), and Nodong (range 1,350-1,500 km, payload 770-1,200 kg). Even though the test launching of three long-range missiles (Daepodong-1 and II) was not successful, Pyongyang can inflict considerable damage on South Korea and Japan through its short- and medium-range missiles.

North Korea has conducted two underground nuclear tests, one on October 9, 2006 and the other on May 25, 2009. The first was considered a failure, because the explosive yield measured from seismic analysis was estimated to be 0.5-0.8 kilotons. A sub-kiloton yield cannot be considered successful. However, the second nuclear test was successful, with an explosive yield of more than 3 kilotons. Nevertheless, the North has so far not demonstrated the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads and mount them on its Nodong or SCUD missiles. Most intelligence analyses indicate that North Korea is short of developing such technology.

Judged by these developments, the nightmarish scenario of a nuclear North Korea is coming into reality, and this has far-reaching security implications for the peninsula, the region and the world. A nuclear North Korea is not compatible with the ideal of peace-building on the Korean peninsula because it would not only pose formidable non-conventional threats to the South, but also fundamentally alter the inter-Korean military balance. Under these circumstances, peaceful co-existence between the two Koreas is highly unlikely, and a conventional and non-conventional arms race between the two will intensify.

North Korea's nuclear venture can also easily precipitate a new arms race in the region. It could justify a move by South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers. Japan, in particular, has the financial and technological capability, and already has amassed a stockpile of 40.6 metric tons of plutonium. Its transformation into a nuclear power, should the Japanese government decide to pursue such a move, would only be a matter of time. Taiwan, as well, could decide to join the nuclear camp too, which would in turn foster a nuclear build-up by China. In short, a nuclear domino effect set off by North Korea's nuclear ambitions could trap the entire Northeast Asian region in a perpetual security dilemma.

Finally, a nuclear North Korea could also threaten global security. The North is reportedly able to produce small nuclear bombs which are hard to detect and easy to sell to others. Given North Korea's past behavior, there is a growing concern regarding the transfer of nuclear materials to global terrorists and rogue states. In addition, failure to block the emergence of a nuclear North Korea could critically undermine the existing Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty by tempting other states such as Iran to follow suit.

What then are the solutions to the nuclear dilemma? Some suggest military action, but I am doubtful about the effectiveness of that approach. A surgical strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities is unlikely to achieve the anticipated political and military objectives. On the contrary, it would result in a devastating escalation of conflict. Also, it would be inconceivable for the U.S. to undertake unilateral military action against the North in the face of opposition from China and South Korea.

Some suggest that the best approach is a strategy of hostile neglect based on isolation and containment of North Korea, in the hope that the Kim Jong-il regime will eventual transform itself. This approach also seems flawed. Such a move would worsen rather than improve the current nuclear standoff, leaving the North with fewer options while solidifying Kim's power base, strengthening the strategic position of the military, and prolonging the survival of his regime at the cost of added hardship to the populace. It is also unlikely that China would support such a strategy of isolation, containment, and transformation without justifiable reasons.

I believe that negotiated settlement through peaceful and diplomatic means and the gradual change of North Korea through engagement are the only viable options. In this regard, the Six Party Talks should be resumed, and agreements embodied in the September 19 Joint Statement of 2005 and the February 13 accord of 2007 should be implemented without delay. However, the North Korean nuclear issue has become much more complicated now that the North claims to have nuclear weapons. I would like to suggest a three-step approach.

First, there should be bilateral efforts within the Six Party formula. As Pyongyang and Washington agreed in October 2000 and the Joint Statement stipulated, the U.S. should cease its hostile intent and policy, respect the North’s sovereignty, pursue peaceful co-existence, and normalize diplomatic ties in return for a verifiable dismantling of the North’s nuclear programs, facilities, and materials. Diplomatic recognition should be used as a preemptive incentive, not as a gift reserved for the final stage of negotiation. Recognizing its sovereignty and identity and lessening its security concerns could serve as an important platform to build mutual trust.

Second, eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons will be a much tougher task. It is highly unlikely that the North will dismantle its nuclear weapons in a verifiable and irreversible manner without a concurrent assurance of its security. Thus, it becomes essential for all parties concerned (North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., and China) to transform the current armistice agreement into a new viable peace regime on the Korean peninsula. Tying the nuclear issue to the overall peace regime in Korea could facilitate the very process of negotiation. As the October 4, 2007 Korean summit declaration stipulated, if North Korea makes visible progress in dismantling its nuclear programs and weapons, the other concerned parties may well consider holding a peace summit to declare an end to the Korean War and to explore ways of establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula as an incentive for North Korea to undertake a verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear materials and warheads.

Third, a Northeast Asian multilateral security mechanism is essential for creating and sustaining a peace regime on the Korean peninsula. Thus, serious efforts should be undertaken to foster regional security cooperation within the framework of the Six Party process. Such deliberations should touch on not only a nuclear-free Korea, but also a nuclear-free Northeast Asia.

Let me offer a final note regarding the role of Hiroshima in resolving the North Korean nuclear quagmire. As a college student, I used to believe in the logic of nuclear deterrence. In August 1976, however, I had a chance to visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. After having witnessed there the horrible destruction wrought by the atomic bomb, I have maintained a staunch anti-nuclear position ever since. I would like to make a suggestion that a special session of the Six Party Talks be held in a conference room at the museum in Hiroshima. I believe such a venue would give all of the negotiators a different view of nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on Jan. 25, 2010)

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