Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA)Resolving the North Korean Nuclear Problem: A Regional Approach and the Role of Japan

Posted in Koreas , Japan | 28-Jul-05

Project for Northeast Asian Security


The North Korean nuclear problem is a multi-faceted problem with not just global implications for the non-proliferation regime and global war on terrorism, but also regional and local implications for the security of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula. Needless to say, the fundamental obstacle to the resolution of this issue is that North Korea has not fully committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of its nuclear weapons program. Another problem is that the other five parties---the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia---have not worked out a common definition of CVID or “comprehensive dismantlement.” For the Six Party Talks to be effective, the five parties need to work out a common position with regard to CVID.

The phased dismantling process seen in the Agreed Framework is still the most effective for this nuclear issue. Multilateral security assurance would be another feature of a new agreement. The nations involved in the Six Party Talks have reached a basic agreement on granting North Korea multilateral security assurances to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations. The “Libya model,” which induces a state to abandon its nuclear program without demanding regime change, is a good option for use with North Korea, whose leader is deeply fearful of pressure for regime change. Given the scarcity of economic resources in North Korea, a “North Korea model” would require a larger comprehensive package---security guarantees combined with meaningful economic incentives. The phased approach, security assurances, and economic rewards are out on the table, but we must keep in mind that there are still considerable gaps among the parties not only on a common definition of “complete dismantlement” as a goal and a process, but also on a timeframe for resolution.

Against this backdrop, there are three scenarios with regard to the future of the North Korean nuclear issue. Scenario 1 for a diplomatic resolution would be the most desirable for all, but we cannot exclude other less desirable scenarios of diplomatic stalemate and crisis. In the first scenario, the Six Party Talks result in a multilateral agreement that includes security assurances to North Korea provided by other members of the Six Party Talks. North Korea is given multilateral security assurances in return for coming back to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Pyongyang does so, “the continuity of safeguards” between North Korea and the IAEA stipulated in the Agreed Framework is restored, and North Korea accepts IAEA safeguards in accordance with the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and, ideally, the Additional Protocol. A roadmap is created to lay out a path that begins with a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and ends with its eventual dismantlement.

During and after the process of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear facilities, completion verification that Pyongyang does not secretly continue or restart its development of nuclear weapons will be conducted. While the IAEA will, of course, play a major role in verification in North Korea, dismantlement of nuclear weapons, which involves a great deal of sensitive information, would have to be conducted by nuclear-weapon states, particularly the United States and China. In addition, variants of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (the Nunn-Lugar Program) and the G8 Global Partnership for the countries of the former Soviet Union to support denuclearization, customized to North Korean needs, may be useful.

Next in this scenario is linking the above process with other regional security concerns, most notably North Korea’s medium- to long-range ballistic missiles. When the agreement on nuclear dismantlement is reached, an agreement for a phased reduction and ultimate elimination of North Korea’s No Dong and Taepo Dong missiles should be pursued.

Ideally the process outlined above will produce a basis for the establishment of a peace regime on the local level through resumption of currently suspended high-level military talks between North and South Korea, implementation of confidence-building measures included in the inter-Korean Basic Agreement of 1991, and the reduction and disengagement of conventional forces. Consequently, it will be beneficial if this ties in with a resumption of Four Party Talks that include the United States and China, which can guarantee such agreements.

Finally, as indicated in South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s speech in November 2004, South Korea recognizes the need to allow North Korea to maintain some level of deterrent capabilities. In this context, South Korea can consider ways to balance its need to better defend itself and North Korea’s need to maintain some level of non-nuclear deterrent in order to buttress multilateral security assurances.

In the stalemate scenario, both the United States and North Korea take a half-hearted approach, and the Six Party Talks neither succeed nor break down completely. The United States will increase pressure on the North Korean regime by bolstering the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) on North Korea’s arms exports, cracking down on its illicit activities, and encouraging anti-North Korea movements by aggressively using the North Korea Human Rights Act. However, North Korea’s nuclear development continues in the interim.

Behind this scenario is the widely held expectation that North Korea will not use nuclear weapons or export them to entities hostile to the United States since such a move would result in U.S. retaliation against the country. The “benign neglect” policy actually works to avoid a dangerous standoff between North Korea and other countries. However, unless the North Korean regime collapses, the “benign neglect” policy will inevitably create a situation where North Korea continues to obtain enough fissile material for two nuclear devices annually, and to min iaturize such devices in order to load them on ballistic missiles. Moreover, the North Koreans may prove to be more risk-taking than generally thought. It may actually export fissile materials and even nuclear devices to foreign nations or non-state actors to put further pressure on the United States and to make money. If the North Korean regime were to become destabilized or collapse, the regime’s ability to control nuclear weapons and weapons-grade fissile material might deteriorate. Finally, stalemate might undermine the U.S.-Japan alliance. If the United States continues the “benign neglect” policy and lets a heavily armed nuclear North Korea emerge, it will make it harder for the United States to intervene in regional contingencies for the sake of Japan, casting doubts on the credibility of the U.S.’ commitment to the security of Japan and the U.S.’ extended deterrence.

In the crisis scenario, the Six Party Talks break down, and collective pressure is brought to bear on North Korea in stages by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) through the adoption of a presidential statement, a resolution criticizing North Korean actions, and finally a resolution authorizing sanctions. Even if the UNSC were to consider a resolution on sanctions, however, it is conceivable that China would attempt to buy time by getting involved in the process of crafting a resolution, and try to use the time to guide the United States and North Korea into a new agreement. In this case, South Korea may go along. However, such an effort might mislead the North Korean leadership to believe that brazen defiance will be the best way to survive the crisis and obtain the optimal outcome.

At the same time, despite the challenges that a crisis on the Korean Peninsula might pose, we have to remember that a crisis could be an opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the problem. In fact, the Agreed Framework materialized following the crisis in May-June 1994. This was not a mere coincidence. On the one hand, the crisis created the situation where the North Koreans could “sell” their nuclear cards at the highest prices; on the other hand, it enabled the United States to convince its allies and friends that the negotiated settlement was worthwhile despite the political, military, and financial cost that might ensue. In this sense, although it is always good to avoid crises, we must not forget that they can be a catalyst for a diplomatic resolution.

One of the major differences between the 1993-94 crisis and the ongoing crisis regarding North Korea’s nuclear development is the role that Japan plays. Contrary to its passive approach in the past, Japan took a more proactive approach as manifested in Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang and the Pyongyang Declaration of September 2002 and since then has taken both positive and negative measures to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. On the positive side, Japan has offered normalization of bilateral relations and provision of economic assistance if North Korea properly addresses nuclear as well as other issues of Japanese concern.

On the negative side, Japan has taken steps to pressure North Korea militarily and economically. Japan can now prevent the flow of money and sensitive technologies to North Korea, unilaterally impose economic sanctions on the country, effectively deal with limited attacks from the country, and support the United States in case of an armed conflict. Taken as a whole, Japan is carrying a bigger stick with a bigger carrot in facing North Korea.

It is in the interest of Japan to pursue a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem through the Six Party Talks in parallel with the Japan-DPRK bilateral channel. Being prepared for other scenarios would also be an essential part of Japan’s strategy, but pursuing a regional diplomatic resolution through the Six Party Talks would be the optimal option.

If North Korea agrees to “comprehensive dismantlement” and returns to the NPT, it will certainly claim its inalienable right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy stipulated in the treaty. In that case, we can decide to suspend these rights for a certain period of time until it is deemed appropriate for North Korea to resume legitimate peaceful nuclear activities while allowing it to retain its rights as a signatory to the NPT. Tokyo, along with Washington and Seoul, should then propose using the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) framework as a means of providing alternative conventional energy such as heavy fuel oil, while keeping the construction of the light-water reactors frozen. In the long run, if North Korea has faithfully fulfilled verification and dismantlement requirements, the construction of light-water reactors could be resumed. In this case, North Korea has to be provided nuclear fuel for its LWRs by, and return spent nuclear fuel from, supplier countries. Such an expectation will serve to give Pyongyang an incentive to remain a responsible actor in the verification and dismantlement process.

Given the current stalemate in Japan-North Korea relations over the abduction issue, adoption of multilateral security assurances at the Six Party Talks would likely become an important starting point for Tokyo and Pyongyang to resume normalization talks. Looking at the matter from the perspective of a potential comprehensive package, it is desirable for a multilateral agreement to explicitly link the beginning of normalization talks with the provision of convincing evidence on abductees’ whereabouts and North Korea’s pledge to fully satisfy reasonable Japanese demands on the matter. If Tokyo and Pyongyang normalize relations and decide to incorporate phased economic assistance into this process, it will greatly promote North Korean compliance in accepting verification measures and in moving from a freeze on its nuclear facilities to eventual dismantlement.

In addition, Japan should pursue a bilateral agreement to eliminate North Korea’s medium- to long-range ballistic missiles. As Japan does not possess offensive ballistic missiles, any agreement will involve Tokyo improving relations with and providing economic aid to North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang eliminating No Dong and Taepo Dong missiles.

Large amounts of economic aid will not flow into North Korea simply with the establishment of diplomatic relations. Japan’s economic assistance to North Korea will be linked with the process of Pyongyang’s compliance in a multilateral denuclearization arrangement and with a bilateral Japan-DPRK arrangement to reduce and eventually eliminate North Korea’s medium - to long-range ballistic missiles.

While it would not be wise for Japan to unilaterally impose economic sanctions as long as the Six Party Talks continue, Japan should take part in multilateral sanctions if the talks break down and the situation moves into the crisis scenario. Japan must also be prepared for the most extreme eventuality: collapse of the North Korean regime.

Additionally, the National Defense Program Guidelines released in December 2004 gave great weight to responding to ballistic missile attacks, attacks by special operations forces, and intrusions by armed special-purpose vessels. Japan has adopted the National Protection Law for civil defense, and is going to deploy operational sea-based and ground-based missile defense systems in 2007. These steps will bolster Japan’s security in times of crisis while at the same time reducing the effectiveness of North Korea’s “military card.” As time passes, North Korea’s missiles will have less diplomatic value. Thus this sort of pressure will likely lead Pyongyang to the conclusion that reaching a diplomatic solution quickly is in its interests.

The fact that Japan is carrying a bigger stick with a bigger carrot in facing North Korea suggests that we are facing a “high-risk, high-return” situation. Despite the growing tension, a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue is possible. Moreover, there is the potential for more substantial sets of agreements among the concerned countries in a “more-for-more” arrangement. If the abduction, nuclear, missile, and other pending issues are resolved, Japan would be willing to normalize relations with North Korea and provide substantial economic assistance, in accordance with the September 2002 Pyongyang Declaration. In the best-case scenario, Japan as well as the United States will normalize relations with North Korea; North Korea will acquire economic assistance from Japan and use it to rehabilitate its economy, which, if combined with an open-door policy, will facilitate regional economic integration and possibly growth; North and South Korea will establish peaceful coexistence in the political and military arenas and integration in economic terms.

The current situation involves higher risks, however. North Korea has more robust nuclear weapons programs and a much larger ballistic missile arsenal than ten years ago, while its political and socio-economic conditions have become more precarious. If North Korea continues to build up its nuclear arsenal and succeeds in putting nuclear warheads on No Dong medium-range ballistic missiles, it will send enormous political and military shock waves. Japan will not be able to accept such a consequence. If North Korea neither returns to the Six Party Talks nor demonstrates willingness to make concessions, Japan, in conjunction with the United States, will have to use a coercive approach. We should first strengthen PSI and bring the matter to the UNSC to discuss imposing economic sanctions on North Korea.

If we are to take such coercive measures, however, it is not clear whether we could secure support from South Korea, China, and Russia. Moreover, if sanctions are actually implemented, North Korea might decide to conduct flight tests of medium- to long-range ballistic missiles and a nuclear explosion test, making the worst scenario come true---an isolated nuclear North Korea.

It is for this reason that Japan and the United States should first use a positive approach to the maximum extent before resorting to negative sanctions. To implement the positive approach, the United States should first agree to hold bilateral talks with North Korea to seriously negotiate agreements. Such bilateral talks must take place within the Six Party framework, but do not have to actually convene when and where the Six Party plenary meetings are held. With the other Six Party members’ consent, the United States and North Korea can hold bilateral talks more frequently to negotiate concrete and detailed agreements, which will later be approved by all Six Party members in plenary meetings.

Despite the potential merits of U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks, the Bush Administration has long remained reluctant to fully engage North Korea. In this context, the role of Japan, particularly that of Prime Minister Koizumi’s, will be critical. Prime Minister Koizumi has been one of the most trusted allies of President George W. Bush. At this point, Koizumi is the best and only person who can persuade President Bush to have serious negotiations with the North Koreans.

Once Japan and the United States agreed to push ahead, they should carefully coordinate their policies in taking the positive initiative. Only the strong positive incentives, generated by Japan-U.S. joint action and backed by potential use of negative incentives, will convince the North Koreans to respond positively. At the same time, Japan should prepare to resume Japan-DPRK talks to discuss normalization in addition to the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues. Such an action will demonstrate that the regional solution to the nuclear issue is still on the table, and provide North Korea with the final but attractive offer to put an end to its isolation. By first taking these positive measures, we will be able to test North Korea’s willingness to come back to the Six Party Talks to have serious negotiations and, if need be, secure support from South Korea, China, and Russia in bringing the matter to the UNSC.

If the United States and North Korea reached an initial agreement for eventual dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs, Japan should resume normalization talks with North Korea and start discussing a comprehensive assistance program for North Korea’s socio-economic rehabilitation in conjunction with South Korea, China, Russia, and the United States. Japan’s most powerful policy tool is its ability to provide, when Japan-DPRK relations are normalized, substantial economic assistance indispensable to North Korea’s socio-economic reform. Phased provision of economic assistance, say, over ten years would play an important role in guaranteeing the successful dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs and resolving abduction and other outstanding issues between the two countries.

Avoiding risks will not provide security. Despite risks and dangers, we will have to take calculated risks and adopt the regional approach described above to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully. Japan has an important role to play in the process.

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