‘Denuclearization’: What Does It Mean for the Korean Peninsula?

By Scott L. Montgomery - 18 June 2018
‘Denuclearization’: What Does It Mean for the Korean Peninsula?

Scott L. Montgomery explores the prospects of the latest talks between the USA and North Korea leading to complete denuclearization.

Now that the awaited meeting of the minds and mouths has taken place between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, wherefore the goal of “denuclearization”? Since the nuclear dimension to this drama defines the reason it took place, perhaps it makes sense to focus here a bit. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has made this a necessity, in fact, trying to restore some sobriety by stating, more than once, no sanctions will be lifted until “complete denuclearization” takes place. Moreover, Kim himself has used the term and agreed to its inclusion in the joint statement released during the summit with Trump.

Several questions therefore raise their heads. What does each side actually mean by “denuclearization”? Do we even know? If we do, how realistic is the demand? Before we even begin to talk about how any progress might be made, we need to understand where it’s supposed to be going. So behind the smiles and handshakes, the wary optimism and smug pessimism, what must be negotiated?

The first thing to know is that the key player in everything is not Trump but Kim. Even if a deal were sealed to build the next Trump tower in Pyongyang, complete with great golden letters of the eponym’s name, the power center would remain with the North Korean leader. This, of course, is due to the simple fact that he possesses what the world wants him to give up.

It’s important to see this for what it really is, a spectacular and deeply troubling victory. Kim fils has fulfilled what his father and grandfather desperately hoped would one day be possible—creating a nuclear arsenal that would bring U.S. leaders to acknowledge the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a peer force on the international stage. That the current Kim was able to do this by provoking a meeting with a sitting U.S. president who called him “honorable” raises the achievement to a still higher plane, unimaginable to his forefathers. Thus the fateful dimension to this meeting: satisfying Trump’s vanity has informed all other real and potential pariah nations that gaining nuclear weapons really does work as a way to realize certain aims, including security.          

What, then, of “denuclearization”? While the joint agreement signed by Trump and Kim mentions “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” it offers nothing more specific. But the U.S. and U.N. Security Council definition has not changed since even before the first nuclear test in 2006. It is spelled out as “complete (or comprehensive) verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (also sometimes ‘dismantlement’), known as CVID. It means the total elimination of all weapons and “existing nuclear programs,” i.e. all fissionable material and all facilities that contribute to the production of nuclear fuel and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It also involves rejoining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), therefore becoming open again to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), something the DPRK forbid when it withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

To the untrained ear, this sounds pretty all-inclusive. To rabid hawks like John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security advisor, it won’t come anywhere close to inclusive. For that to happen, the deal would have to also do away with all missiles, all missile launches, any manufacturing plants used to build missiles, as well as any and all stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Given that every other country and military force in the region—South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the U.S. 7th (Pacific) Fleet—all have multiple missile systems, it isn’t likely Mr. Kim will agree to de-weaponize to such a degree. Making demands of this kind, as Bolton knows, would be sure to render any negotiations impossible or fruitless.        

Even without such demands, we need to take note of difficulties and complications. North Korea has spent many years, tremendous effort, and hundreds of $millions building its nuclear infrastructure. Kim’s celebrated destruction of the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and ballistic missile test facility at Iha-ri, important as it may be, counts as not much more than a few feet off the top of the proverbial iceberg. According to expert sources, the DPRK has more than a dozen nuclear sites, including research centers, encompassing more than a thousand buildings. It has several uranium enrichment sites, plutonium production facilities, at least one reprocessing center, possibly two lithium-deuteride production sites (for h-bomb making), significant stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, all in addition to somewhere between 15 and 60 actual weapons. By comparison, Iran’s total program was not much more than a sandbox, a tiny fraction of what the Kims had created. It’s more than probable we don’t even yet know the full extent of what exists in the DPRK. To inspect and inventory, then dismantle this vast array of infrastructure would (will) be an enormous and utterly unprecedented undertaking. Nothing of the kind has ever been done.            

Complexities don’t end here, however. There is the “irreversible” standard, after all.  As Robert Gallucci, longtime expert on non-proliferation matters, has gently pointed out, to satisfy this criterion you’d need to either liquidate or imprison for life every North Korea nuclear scientist and engineer (plus, a few Russian or Chinese mentors). Then there is the matter of any future use of nuclear energy for electricity or research. Should the DPRK be forbidden from having any nuclear reactors of any kind, whether built by their own people or by a foreign country (they now have three small reactors mostly used for plutonium production, the first built by the Soviets, two others by North Korean engineers)? Will they be prohibited from ever generated their own fuel in any form? But nuclear technology is also essential in medical, industrial, and agricultural areas. Will all these possibilities be banned? Any radioactive substance, whether for cancer therapy or pest control, can be employed in a so-called dirty bomb. So how far should “complete” or “comprehensive” be taken? All of this would need to be worked out over time through negotiation.            

Thus one side of the equation. What, then, does Kim Jong-Un mean we he speaks of  “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”? The phrase, in fact, is repeated three times in the joint agreement signed by himself and President Trump on June 12. Moreover, it was used in the past by his father. This is where things get still more intricate and, to a degree, uncertain. Mr. Kim’s view would include several main elements, without doubt, though not all of them have been made explicit. The meeting with Trump didn’t help in this regard. We do get a fairly good idea about what might be involved from other interactions with the North Korean leadership. Putting these together produces a list very close to the following.            

First, an end to the Korean War through a final peace treaty with the U.S., which at one point threatened the use of nuclear weapons during the conflict. Second, no further military exercises between South Korean and U.S. forces. Lacking that (though Trump has already promised it), no exercises that employ nuclear-capable bombers, missiles, or submarines—in short, denuclearized exercises. Third, no nuclear-armed ships, submarines, or planes in South Korea or surrounding waters of the East (Japan) Sea and Yellow Sea. Fourth, withdrawal or at least reduction of the nuclear umbrella that the U.S. maintains as part of its security alliance with South Korea and Japan. Needless to say, this will present real difficulties. America’s umbrella, after all, is hardly there for the sole sake of any threat from North Korea. Both China and Russia have land, sea, and air nuclear capability in the region. Any demand for the U.S. to back off a major deterrent would likely fall on deaf ears. Fifth, an establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S., thus recognition of the DPRK as a legitimate sovereign state. The reason this qualifies as part of “complete denuclearization” is that it has long been perceived by North Korean leaders that hostility from the U.S. comes with a nuclear threat. Recognition as a sovereign state comes as a high priority, directly attached to the idea of denuclearization.           

As if this were not challenging enough, there are complexities here too. South Korea has a long-standing agreement with the U.S. that it will not seek enrichment or reprocessing (nuclear fuel production). Yet its nuclear industry has been eager to change this. Highly successful at home and more recently abroad—it is now completing four reactors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is discussing other such projects in a number of nations—has a strong interest in developing technology for all aspects of civilian nuclear energy, covering the entire fuel cycle. The rationale for this looks to energy security (self-reliance), cheap and abundant power, and export potential. Current President Moon Jae-in has pledged to begin a phase-out of South Korea’s nuclear program in favor of natural gas and renewable sources, but there are signs his plan will not be fulfilled. Moreover, his decision to help celebrate South Korea’s completion of the first UAE reactor this spring suggests that the nuclear export industry may remain intact.            

Whether Kim Jong-Un will demand a prohibition on any nuclear fuel production in the ROK isn’t known, but it might be suspected. The U.S. is in no rush to grant South Korea such capability at present, and it seems probable that Washington will remain cool to the idea until North Korea has dismantled its own enrichment and reprocessing facilities. Japan, meantime, has reprocessed spent nuclear fuel for decades. China has lived with this and with the knowledge that the Japanese could build a weapon, if they so chose, in fairly quick order. The long-term situation regarding whether reprocessing in the ROK would be perceived as a threat or not is therefore uncertain.           

To whit, in talking about “denuclearization,” Trump and Kim are talking about significantly different things, even at the level of basic ideas. The U.S. is focused almost exclusively on North Korea, whereas Mr. Kim seems to be thinking in terms of the entire peninsula, “Korea” writ large. Because of this, the two sides are also invoking demands that will require some degree of ingenuity in order to be compatible or, more important, exchangeable. It is extremely unlikely that Kim will give up all of his weapons and nuclear material for mere pledges of non-invasion by the U.S., or for a treaty to end the Korean War, or for the cessation of joint military exercises involving the U.S. and South Korea. He might agree to dismantle some of his weapons and facilities for all of these. Of course, such barter scenarios are entirely hypothetical at this point. But they do suggest the kind of challenges that “denuclearization” will inevitably involve. Here’s another: how far might the U.S. be willing to reduce its naval presence or nuclear umbrella in NE Asia for complete dismantlement of North Korea’s uranium enrichment and plutonium production sites?            

At this point, however, it doesn’t appear as if Trump, Pompeo, or most other administration officials fully understand or realize what will be involved in the process they believe has begun. Mr. Kim, on the other hand, surely does. John Bolton’s approach, demanding that North Korea simply give up everything, without any trade-offs—CVID for free, so to speak, counts as a formula for failure or war. Mr. Bolton had a nearly invisible presence at the summit. Yet only two days after the June 12 Singapore meetingt, Mr. Pompeo sought to reassure Asian allies by firmly stating that the U.S. would have to see “complete denuclearization [for there to] be relief from sanctions.” Coming immediately after President Trump’s own promise of halting military exercises, this suggests an administration in utter conceptual disarray. To say that Mr. Kim has a stronger hand at present and reasons for his broad, cherubic smile is not to exaggerate the case. 




Image credit: CYRIL RUELLE via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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