The Northeast Asian region is an important crossroads of strategic, political and economic interests of the United States, Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas. It is also one of the most dynamically developing regions, while technically the states are nuclear capable and still have territorial disputes. That is why there is a push for more stability and making the region, including the Korean Peninsula, nuclear-weapon-free.
However, denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula would not automatically make the region nuclear-weapon-free since it includes nuclear Russia and China as well as Japan under the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” and the latter’s forces nearby. That is why there is a need to turn a part of Northeast Asia, until nuclear weapons are completely abolished, into a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ), like Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, the entire African continent and Central Asia.
What is meant by Northeast Asia (NEA)-NWFZ is that three states of the region, i.e., the two Koreas and Japan would agree not to possess or allow nuclear weapons in their territories, while the three nuclear weapon states would provide to them legally binding security assurances, known as the 3+3 formula.
The idea of turning the Korean Peninsula or the region into a NWFZ has acquired a new relevance since early 1990s, when the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons from South Korea. Various ideas of denuclearizing the peninsula or establishing the NEA-NWFZ have been under discussion, the latter only unofficially, at the levels of individual scholars and think tanks.
The latest one was the 2019 Sejong-RECNA (Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University) policy proposals that incorporated many previously flagged and discussed ideas and proposals. Nevertheless, despite the richness of ideas, thus far none of these proposals have involved North Korean experts, which makes these proposals seem half-baked and incomplete for practical negotiations.
Though the risk of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia is increasing, establishing such a zone is still not on the regional political agenda nor there is a proper regional mechanism to address it, despite the 2013 recommendation of U.N. advisory board on disarmament matters to take action to establish such a zone and an offer by Mongolia, which is part of the region, to promote informally a practical search, believing it as being doable.
The responses to NEA-NWFZ proposals have usually been that the conditions were not ripe, despite the fact that the situation is not getting any better ― to put it mildly. Mongolia’s experience acquiring the pledge to respect its nuclear-weapon-free status and not to contribute to any act that would violate it, made in a form of a joint declaration and duly recorded at the United Nations, has shown that instead of waiting for the conditions to become “ripe,” if ever, it pays to be active and work to create appropriate conditions.
Creating conditions to start discussing the NEA-NWFZ would need first and foremost bold conceptual approaches, especially from the U.S. and North Korea. Since the world is changing, logically so should approaches to the issues.
Thus, should deterrence or the security umbrella for allies always need to be nuclear, especially when the U.S. and each one of its two allies have strong conventional arsenals and alliance support to counter any non-nuclear threat? Shouldn’t deterrence be tailored to the changing circumstances and serving the ultimate goal? Isn’t it time to think seriously about sole-purpose and no-first-use policies, and would North Korea ever agree to unilateral denuclearization? On the North Korean side, would it agree as a first step to an arms freeze or limitation as a response to reduction and removal of bilateral and multilateral sanctions?
Conceptually, it seems that North Korea might be amenable to serious arms freeze negotiations if the U.S. normalizes relations with North Korea as agreed in the very first paragraph of the 2018 Singapore joint statement. That would promote confidence and enable both sides to look at various options of addressing the issues in question. Once the two sides come to a political understanding on how to address the issues, it can easily be multilateral so as to involve other big and small stakeholders and their respective contributions.
Blue Banner, a Mongolian non-governmental organization (NGO) that does research on regional security issues, believes that an agreement to denuclearize the peninsula would be an important step toward establishing the NEA-NWFZ based on the 3+3 formula. It is undertaking, together with peer civil society organizations, to see how an inclusive process could be launched that might be amenable for initiating practical discussion of the issues involved. The conceptual breakthroughs would open the way to constructively discuss the issues.
It should be pointed out that Russia’s and China’s roles would be important not only in providing nuclear security assurances to Japan and the Republic of Korea, but also in reassuring North Korea that the U.S. assurances would be credible. There is also the possibility of providing international economic support to North Korea in a form reminiscent of the postwar Marshall Plan from which all stakeholders would win separately and jointly.
Dr. Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan, a former ambassador of Mongolia, is currently chairman of an NGO named Blue Banner. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). His article is published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).
This article was published in The Korea Times on 7 July 2021 and is part of dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.