Whatever the destiny of a US/North Korea summit, the nuclear issue and “denuclearization” will remain the key component of any negotiation. The subject merits more clarification. The language of the April 27 Panmunjom declaration adopted by the leaders of the two Koreas reads as follows: “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”. This phrase is ambiguous since it does not make the fundamental distinction between nuclear energy for civilian use or for weapons purposes.
What is to be denuclearized?
Denuclearization is a term usually used when non-state entities such as municipalities, provinces or regions, self-declare themselves as a “denuclearized area” in which no nuclear energy, be it civilian or military, is admitted. Such unilateral statements are purely declaratory and have no value under international law. As a matter of fact, they are in contradiction with the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear energy established by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Such a kind of prohibition would not be applicable to the Korean Peninsula since it would contradict a reality: South Korea has become a leading world producer of nuclear energy and nuclear technology. It would be nonsense for Seoul to abandon its civilian nuclear network.
The term “denuclearization” was previously used bilaterally by North and South in January 1992 when both sides agreed on a declaration on the “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in which it was stated that the parties “shall use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes”. This precedent makes it clear that a prohibition of nuclear energy was not meant to be part of a denuclearization deal.
The possibility of acquiring or maintaining the capacity to produce the nuclear fuel necessary to run nuclear power plants is a different story. In 1992 the two parties committed themselves not to possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. Such a capacity is neither authorized nor explicitly forbidden by the NPT. A few non-nuclear weapon states have acquired it. The DPRK has clearly not been abiding by the 1992 declaration: for more than a decade it has been producing both plutonium and enriched uranium. On the contrary, South Korea, which has one of the world’s largest fleets of nuclear power plants, has not engaged in these proliferation sensitive and costly activities. In 2004 it was revealed that some isolated activities of potential proliferation concern had been undertaken by a group of scientists: this was reported to the IAEA Board of Governors which determined that the activity did not constitute ‘non-compliance’ with the ROK’s safeguards agreement.
Despite its interest in establishing enrichment and reprocessing capacities to complete its national fuel cycle ambitions, Seoul has been unable to free itself from the US ‘golden rule’ prohibiting enrichment and reprocessing by countries wishing to cooperate with the US in the nuclear field. In its latest arrangement with the US, Seoul was only able to obtain ‘possible long-term consent to enrichment’ by the US. Whether the ‘golden rule’ will be applied to the Korean Peninsula as a whole within the framework of a future “denuclearization ” agreement, remains an open question. The solution found by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, was to establish a link between the production of nuclear fuel and the legitimate needs of for such fuel of Iran’s peaceful nuclear activity (thereby limiting the scope for stockpiling nuclear materials for possible non-peaceful activity). This model could be a useful point of reference for the Korean peninsula and help prevent accumulations of stocks of such materials beyond the needs of the power generation sector.
The core of denuclearization will obviously be the elimination of all nuclear weapons capabilities by the DPRK. The DPRK has already made a first step by blowing up the only nuclear testing site it had at Pungge-ri. No other facilities of this type are known to exist in the country. This step, for which the DPRK did not ask anything in exchange, was welcomed as “a strong signal and an important step in the right direction” by the Director General of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna (CTBTO). In spite of the fact that no CTBTO experts, only journalists, witnessed the destruction of the site, this step remains a significant nuclear confidence building measure. Its apparently irreversible nature goes beyond the simple moratorium on testing adopted by other nuclear weapons countries.
The “core of the core” of denuclearization will be the elimination by the DPRK of the nuclear warheads it is believed to possess. This process will inevitably take time. It is to be expected that the road map towards full denuclearization will evolve in parallel with the overall process of normalization in the Korean Peninsula, of which the two Korean states will be the protagonists. The open question remains how far the two Koreas can go on their own on the denuclearization path without the participation of other parties, in particular China, Russia and the US. The expertise of Russia and the US in eliminating their nuclear weapons and in verification would be essential. This does not necessarily mean that these two countries must be directly involved in the negotiation.
What the two Korean sides cannot do on their own is to address the issue of nuclear security guaranties. A denuclearized Korean Peninsula will need iron clad, legally binding, guaranties against the use or threat of nuclear weapons against it. The general declaratory Negative Security Assurances (NSA) already extended by the Nuclear Weapon States party to the NPT (China, France, Russia UK and US) in 1995 would not be sufficient. However, the more specific NSAs granted by Nuclear Weapon States to nuclear weapons free zones are a useful precedent. The DPRK will probably also ask (it might have already done so) for ‘NATO type’ positive security guarantees from China symmetrical to those already received by the Republic of Korea from the US. The Chinese stated ‘non first use’ doctrine would not be an impediment to such a commitment.
It is clear that such a complex negotiation cannot be finalized on the occasion of a first summit between the US and the DPRK. It will need time. During this period it will be the responsibility of all parties not to derail the process. It will especially be the responsibility of the two Korean sides to contribute as much progress as possible on the bilateral front to support the nuclear deal and maintain a climate propitious to the objective of denuclearization.
What will Europe Contribute?
Denuclearization is a term which hardly belongs to the European vocabulary. Rarely has the application of this concept been considered for Europe. During the early days of the cold war the idea of establishing a nuclear free zone was promoted by the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries (notably the Polish Rapacki Plan limited to central Europe). At the time the East was believed to have a conventional superiority which could only be countered by the West with nuclear weapons. Today it is Russia that feels conventionally inferior. The increased tension in Europe subsequent to the Crimea/Ukraine crises make a reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons less likely.
This does not mean that Europe objects to the general concept of denuclearization specifically with regard to the Korean Peninsula. The European Union has a growing interest in the stability of the region. In the early 2000s the EU and some of its member states were deeply involved in supporting the development of the inter-Korean “Sunshine Policy” and in overcoming the nuclear dimension of the crisis then at its early stage. Diplomatic relations were established with the DPRK. South Korea became a strategic partner of the EU.
The window of opportunity opened last year by the initiative of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which brought about the prospect of a direct negotiation between the US and DPRK leaders, offers an unprecedented opportunity. The recent meeting between EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha as well as the visit to Brussels by ROK chief negotiator are an indication of a renewed engagement by the EU. After the inter-Korean summit of last April, Mogherini stated EU’s readiness “to lend its full support to the denuclearization of the Peninsula”. She later stated that the European Union has “a huge expertise on nuclear non-proliferation, particularly thanks to the talks with Iran. We are now willing to support the Korean peace process in any possible way”. To give substance now to that commitment, Europe should now make more explicit the measures it is willing to take to encourage all sides in this endeavour.
Carlo Trezza was the Italian Ambassador to Korea, and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is Senior Adviser to the Italian Institute for International Affairs in Rome and coordinates the Italian Group of the European Leadership Network.
This was originally written for the Nuclear Threat Monitor.