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Commentary: North Korea's same-old, brand-new nuclear impasse

Specific security guarantees from the US and China could be key in ending the North Korean nuclear impasse, says Bennett Ramberg.

Commentary: North Korea's same-old, brand-new nuclear impasse

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping make a toast at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Photo: AFP)

LOS ANGELES: The failure to move North Korea away from its nuclear stance through summitry has left the Trump administration scratching its head in search of options. 

The challenge is all the more daunting since Pyongyang did not respond positively to classic inducements for nuclear elimination, namely sanctions relief and political normalisation. Given two prior failed applications embodied in the 1994 Agreed Framework and the subsequent Six Party Talks, the result is not surprising.

It may well be that there is no formula for inducing North Korea to give up the arsenal it touts as the ultimate security crutch. With military action that risks a new Korean war out of the question, perhaps all that is left is living with and deterring nuclear North Korea. 

READ: Trump’s floundering North Korea strategy, a commentary

Such thinking gives short shrift to the one approach Kim and Trump actually agreed to during the first summit in Singapore, namely security assurances for nuclear disarmament. The June 2018 Joint Statement speaks to the promise, with emphasis added: 

President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearsation of the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, neither party defined what a security guarantee amounts to, and neither did Russia’s Vladimir Putin whose government pushed the principle prior to and during his Vladivostok meeting with Kim, all of which begs the question: Is there any guarantee that would move the nuclear disarmament needle?


During the Cold War and beyond, the practice of security guarantees went beyond “paper” declarations. 

For the United States, these involved tangibles, namely commitment of substantial military forces to the territory and adjacent seaways of allies. The result materially linked US friends in the common defence. 

In the process, the United States kept the likes of West Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and others tempted to go nuclear from doing so. Unfortunately, North Korea never had a US-equivalent guarantor. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to seek closer ties at their summit in Vladivostok (Photo: AFP/Yuri KADOBNOV)

Instead, Pyongyang’s protector, China, pulled out of the North after the Korean War, signing the 1961 hollow alliance that to this day fails materially to bind the countries militarily.

These facts do not delineate what a Korea security guarantee would look like. Given the peninsula’s distinct political and military circumstances, such a guarantee would have to be very different from the US-ally precedent. 

Mutual assurance between suspicious interlocutors would call for multilayered safeguards that eliminate all North Korean weapons-of-mass-destruction assets – chemical and biological included with nuclear – as well as military capacity to conduct surprise attacks coupled with solid mutual safeguards and confidence-building measures that, if implemented, could cap with the diplomatic and economic normalisation of US-North Korea ties.


In September 2018, North and South Korea laid a foundation at the summit attended by Kim and Moon Jae-in, agreeing to remove guard posts, land mines, personnel and weapons from the demilitarised zone along with a no-fly zone and elimination of military drills within its vicinity. 

READ: Here are the real reasons why Kim Jong Un wants an end to the Korean War, a commentary

This is a mere beginning that could collapse should stakeholders fail to resolve other strategic matters. Enlistment of China, North Korea’s closest “ally,” evident in Kim’s multiple trips to Beijing and a country that supports denuclearisation, would generate momentum.

The path envisioned requires the commitment of Chinese resident monitors embedded with a team of international inspectors to identify, create an inventory of and oversee the destruction of North Korean nuclear and other weapon of mass destruction sites. 

The Chinese presence – a human shield of sorts – would relieve Pyongyang’s fears of US attack in the interim. 

For 16km or so north of the demilitarised zone including land invasion routes to the south, China would join a rejuvenated and dramatically beefed up 1953 Armistice Agreement Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, or facsimile, in placing up to several thousand monitors and peacekeepers to provide a buffer for the removal of the large North Korean offensive capability near the border. 

With Chinese personnel at risk, the result would provide an inoffensive human tripwire to defend the North and deter assault against the South.


Because Seoul is so close to the international boundary, the quid pro quo removal of forces would be less robust. 

A symbolic US reduction of troops, instead of withdrawal, would be needed to preserve deterrence. Military exercises, already attenuated, would continue to exclude nuclear capable B-52 bombers. 

READ: Denuclearising North Korea won't make it a normal country, a commentary

To further reduce the risk of surprise attack, both Koreas would adopt an Open Skies programme, allowing sensor-laden monitoring aircraft to fly over each to observe military activity.

To enhance Pyongyang’s intelligence and sense of security, the United States, China or a third party would provide a space-based satellite to screen military movements more broadly in and around the peninsula. 

File photo of South Korea and US Marines taking part in a joint military drill in the southeastern port of Pohang. (Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je) South Korea and US Marines take part in a joint military drill at a fire training field in the southeastern port of Pohang AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

Coupled with the permanent elimination of ballistic and cruise missile tests on the Koreas, security assurances would require pre-notification of military exercises beyond a threshold and their exclusion in a wide band near the border in addition to other confidence-building and transparency measures agreed to by the parties.

With an exchange of diplomatic liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang to facilitate communication as security guarantees fell into place, the parties would establish benchmarks for th lifting of economic sanctions, culminating in the exchange of US and North Korean ambassadors.


The layered approach overcomes a stigma of history that North Korea has commented on, namely risk to survival that comes from giving up nuclear weapons without concrete guarantees. That is the hard lesson of Libya and Ukraine. 

Coaxed by Washington to eliminate nuclear programmes for normal relations and economic incentives, both countries have suffered dire consequences. 

In 2011, a US-led coalition forcefully removed the Gadaffi regime in the midst of civil war, and in 2014 Washington’s Russian partner in the Budapest Memorandum that promised to secure Kiev’s territorial integrity scooped up Crimea while supporting rebels in East Ukraine as the United States looked on.

READ: A tale of one North Korea defector and hopes for peace on the peninsula, a commentary

The odds of terminating North Korea’s nuclear programme are long, given the nuclear crutch the Kim regime sees in the arsenal today. Getting to nuclear elimination “yes” requires a change of mindset to make both Pyongyang and Washington reliable arms controllers. 

Layered tangible security guarantees offer the path forward.

Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the US Department of State’s Bureau of Polititco-Military Affairs in the George H W Bush administration. This commentary first appeared in Yale Global Online. Read it here.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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