Engaging North Korea and promoting disarmament and non-proliferation in Northeast Asia

North Korean border soldier

The State of Play Now

The US (and its allies) have engaged in efforts to stop North Korean nuclear program at least three times, every time ending up with a sense of betrayal. Now, it has become clear that North Korea did not really have the intention to abandon its nuclear program. It has been its core national security goal going back to the days of Kim Il-sung, the grand-father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. It is now written into its Constitutional Preamble, and there is no indication North Korea is prepared to submit it for negotiation even though it recently expressed its readiness to engage in dialogues with South Korea and the United States. The fact that North Korea is prepared to re-engage in the Six-Party Talks might as well mean that the other parties should not consider a North Korean submission of the abandonment of its nuclear program as a precondition for negotiations - a prospect that is not conducive to the U.S. and its allies.

The recent spate of missile tests, nuclear explosive tests and virulent provocations has turned many away. The offer of a dialogue should always be welcome. But, for the U.S., South Korea and Japan there has to be a reasonable certainty that they will not be betrayed once more in order to engage in a serious dialogue again. In that sense, there is a kind of credibility gap that needs to be filled.

The Poisoning Effects

Such developments have driven South Koreans to consider acquiring their own nuclear weapons or asking for the redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, a prominent example being the series of statements made by the one-time chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party Representative Chung Mong-joon.[1] The public opinion polls indicate a majority of South Koreans favoring such options. For example, an opinion poll conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies which was made after the third North Korean nuclear test found out that 66.5 percent of the public supported a domestic nuclear weapons program. The support has been steadily increasing since 2010.[2]

Even though still a small minority in Japan, some politicians and security experts sporadically advocate considering a future nuclear option for Japan. Right after the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006, the late Shoichi Nakagawa, Chairman of the Policy Research Council of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party at the time stated that Japan should consider arming itself with nuclear weapons as an option, which received severe rebukes from media. Then the Foreign Minister Taro Aso (currently Deputy Prime Minister) tried to defend Nakagawa by saying it was important to consider various policy options when a neighbor has come to possess nuclear weapons, and such freedom of expression should not be suppressed. This led to a call for a vote of no-confidence as Foreign Minister by opposition parties.

Retired Air Self-Defense Force general Toshio Tamogami goes even further and openly advocates the nuclear armament of Japan, most prominent one at Hiroshima City on August 6, 2009. [3] His open advocacy of nuclear armament may have been prompted by the North Korean nuclear tests, but he seems to have had more concern about China on his mind when he said, “In order to establish a force to match China and let China recognize its existence, Japan may have to become a genuinely independent state and arm itself with nuclear weapons” at another occasion soon after the statement in Hiroshima.

The fast economic growth of China recently surpassing Japan in its economic size, its fast-growing defense spending, acquisition of aircraft carrier and other advanced weapon systems as well as the increasingly assertive activities around the Senkaku Islands are alerting Japanese public and encourage reactive arguments for a more robust defense capability for Japan.

Certainly, the series of actions by North Korea and the reactions in South Korea, Japan and the United States, added with the fast growing and increasingly assertive China, are not conducive to the promotion of disarmament and arms control in the region. On the other hand, China criticizes the American pivot to Asia-Pacific, the Japanese nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, emerging nationalistic movements in Japan and efforts to put the Japanese right of self-defense on a firmer and wider legal basis to be threatening to China. North Korea accuses the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, the sending of strategic bombers and fighters from the U.S. carrier, and the South Korean defense buildup efforts as threats to it.

Left alone these events have the potential to prompt the arms competition in East Asia. Each action seems to be reactive and defensive, but collectively they all push the countries in the region towards focusing more and more on defense buildup rather than on concerted efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and move towards realistic disarmament and arms control.

“No Exit” but No Way to Give Up

Ideally, North Korea should put itself on the course to renounce its nuclear weapons program so that neither the U.S., South Korea nor Japan feels the need to strengthen their military capacity in the region to counter the threat from North Korea. However, the reality seems to be, as Jonathan Pollack put it, that there is no easy exit out of the North Korean nuclear issue.[4] Should we pay or do we keep on paying an exorbitant price for the North Korean abandonment of its nuclear weapons program? Or should the U.S. and its allies give up that attempt and instead concentrate on defense and deterrence options? But, accepting the North Korean nuclear possession and legitimizing it will give a strong base for nuclear option arguments in South Korea and Japan. Unless you look for the demise of nuclear nonproliferation regime in Northeast Asia, this is not really a viable option.

Thus, even though the chance may be remote, the doors for negotiating a denuclearization of North Korea should be kept open. Meanwhile, to keep defense and deterrence steps to a minimum, measured steps may have to be taken to keep North Korea sufficiently deterred from carrying out any more provocative actions such as the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island or blandishing its nuclear weapons whenever it feels unhappy about something. These defensive steps have to be of measured strength so that they are not taken to be too threatening to North Korea and drive it further to accelerate its nuclear weapons and other programs. The presumably defensive measures may also to be taken by China as a potential threat to it or may be used as a good excuse to justify its military modernization and buildup.[5]

Hopefully, another round of diplomatic efforts, perhaps within the framework of the Six-Party Talks, may take place with a serious commitment from North Korea that it is ready to submit the renunciation of its nuclear weapons program to negotiations. There are words of caution and strong skepticism based on the past failures. But, the temptations are great. “This time North Korea may be serious.” It is like Charlie Brown kicking a football and dismayed every time when Lucie pulls back the ball and he falls on his back. There are a number of advices to be given for negotiators who may venture into another round.

  1. Avoid a partial deal. The 1994 agreed Framework only closed one path to building nuclear weapons – plutonium producing graphite reactors – but did not explicitly close the other path – uranium enrichment which North Korea started working on soon after.
  2. Secure robust verification. Whatever deal has to be verifiable so that compliance/fulfillment of the commitments are secured. Otherwise, one may just end up with North Korea walking away with all the benefits of the deal including the lifting of sanctions, food and economic assistance, political recognition and security guarantee.
  3. Leave enough leverage to secure compliance and follow-on negotiations. An important way to make North Korea keep its promises is to keep enough leverage left. If all the rewards are given and no leverage is left, there will be no incentive to honor the commitments. This is particularly so when an agreement is made as a first step that leaves the main issues for future follow-on negotiations, or when agreement is to be implemented step by step.

Correct Security Perceptions for Regional Disarmament and Non-proliferation

The North Korean nuclear issue is not the only hurdle against the promotion of regional disarmament and non-proliferation in Northeast Asia. There has to be a regional environment that can facilitate it. First, in order to avoid escalation of mutually alarming security perceptions that feed into regional arms competition, the regional situation has to be seen in a proper perspective to have as much of an objective view of the respective military buildup. For example, the Chinese acquisition of its first aircraft carrier is much publicized as a threatening buildup. In turn, China counters by saying, the new helicopter-carrying Japanese destroyer is an aircraft carrier in disguise.

Chart 1 shows the fast economic growth of China in the past ten years surpassing the Japanese GDP. Concurrently, the military spending of China grew fast during the same period, but its ratio to the GDP rather declined even though the exact amounts of the Chinese military spending remain the matter of guessing. The U.S. has been by far the largest military spender in the world spending 3-5 percent of GDP on defense. The implementation of the Budget Control Act means a 487 billion US-Dollar cut of defense spending over the next 10 years, i.e. roughly 0.7 percent point reduction from the current spending trend, which will still be higher than the Chinese defense spending ratio of the GDP. Thus, even if China catches up with the U.S. in its economic size by 2030 as some economists predict, the U.S. will still be spending more on defense than China, unless China drastically changes the defense spending pattern raising its GDP ratio.

Japan strictly adheres to its self-imposed defense spending limit to 1 percent of the GNP. This seems to be difficult to change even for the conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who won a land-slide election victory last December. Thus, as the Japanese economy may grow only modestly in coming years and definitely a lot slower than the Chinese, its defense spending will lag behind the Chinese and the gap will continue to widen. Ultimately, it will greatly depend on the U.S. willingness to maintain its military spending to sustain its military might. It is also important not to put China in a situation that encourages it to change its course towards a fast military expansion with accelerated military spending.

Chart 1: Economic growth & military spending (US-Dollar) (IISS Military Balance)

Chart 2 lists the “aircraft carriers” of the U.S., China and Japan. The U.S. far outpaces the other countries by the number, displacements and deck sizes. The Chinese new aircraft carrier is a little bigger than the American helicopter carriers for troop landing purposes. The Japanese helicopter carrying destroyer with landing deck is even smaller. It must be worrying if China fast increases and improves its carriers, because they can offer a great force projection potential. The U.S. is planning to reduce the number of super carriers but will try to maintain an edge over any other power in the world.

Chart 2: “Aircraft Carriers”?


Chart 3 shows the U.S.-Japanese possession of Aegis warships. Japan concentrates more on acquiring Aegis destroyers that can be used for aerial and anti-ballistic missile defense. Except for the U.S., Japan already has the largest number of such ships and plans to acquire two more of those to counter the increasing nuclear ballistic missile threat from North Korea. However, China apparently views this as a threat to its nuclear deterrence based on ballistic missiles.

Chart 3: Aegis warships


Final Consideration

  1. North Korean denuclearization
    So far, the ways for achieving denuclearization of North Korea and promoting nuclear disarmament and arms control in the region have been considered. Achieving denuclearization of North Korea under the current tense and hostile environment is a tall order, if not impossible. While mutual distrust is deep and the security concern is high, both sides demand an-eye-for-an-eye, an inch for an inch deals rigid balance that have to accompany intensive verification mechanisms. The history of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War shows that nuclear arms control and nuclear reduction agreements are still possible under the immense pressure of the Cold War. Yet, it has to be recalled that the series of nuclear arms reduction and arms control agreements started with an agreement on confidence-building measures. The Russian four horsemen once wrote that “the world without nuclear weapons is not our existing world minus nuclear weapons.”[6]
    If there is a major change in international environment in favor of such disarmament and arms control attempts, the denuclearization of North Korea will be a lot easier. Or a change may come when the North Korean regime realizes the futility of maintaining nuclear arsenal and comes to a major policy change to renounce its nuclear arsenal. Other possibilities may occur when a regime change takes place in North Korea or when the regime collapses. There is no immediate prospect of any of these happening anytime soon. But, one cannot give up hope. Who could have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 or the Syrian agreement to abandon its chemical arsenal in 2013? Such a major change of policy or regime in a stark autocratic regime tends to come only all of a sudden.
  2. Extended deterrence
    For the foreseeable future the U.S. will continue to maintain a far-greater nuclear deterrence capability over China and North Korea. Therefore, China and North Korea will continue to be deterred on nuclear fronts as far as they think rationally. There is an increasing awareness, however, that nuclear weapons are virtually unusable weapons and, therefore, cannot deter conventional provocations anyway. Therefore, there is no practical, military need to emphasize the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence requirements, for it takes only a 5 percent possibility that extended nuclear deterrence may work to deter an adversary. However, it is also said that it takes a 95 percent certainty to convince the allies that the extended nuclear deterrence is credible. Practically, this will lead to strengthen the arguments in Washington to continue allocating a big share of military resources to the maintenance of the American nuclear deterrence capability when the U.S. military budget is placed under increasing constraints due to the financial difficulties. This, in turn, may reduce the available financial resources that the U.S. administration may use to maintain modernized effective conventional deterrence that will be more valuable in maintaining conventional military balance in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, de-emphasizing the dependence on extended nuclear deterrence will help both opening the way for nuclear disarmament and arms control in Northeast Asia and maintaining reliable conventional deterrence in the region.


[1] For example, Representative Chung Mong-joon stated, "North Korea’s declaration as a nuclear power in its constitution means that the North no longer intends to consider the dismantlement of nuclear weapons as a subject for negotiations. We need a comprehensive re-examination of our security policy.” “Peace cannot be secured without the balance of fear or nuclear weapon for nuclear weapon.” “Even if (South Korea) doesn't possess its own nuclear weapons immediately, it should secure the capability to possess them." “South Korea should get nuclear weapons.” Dond-a Ilbo, June 4, 2012,, Seoul, Korea.
[2] Kim, Jiyoon, Friedhof, Karl, Chungku, Kang (2013),‘The Fallout: South Korean Public Opinion Following North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test‘, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Issue Brief No. 46, Seoul, Korea, pp. 8-9.
[3] The first of such statement was made in Hiroshima City on August 6, 2009, in an adjacent podium next to the place where the Hiroshima Bomb Memorial Service was conducted.
[4] Pollack, Jonathan D. (2011), No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security, Routledge/IISS Adelphi Paper, Abindgon.
[5] As to the discussion of the ways to denuclearize North Korea and defense and deterrence measures as an interim step, refer to Abe, Nobuyasu (2011) ‘Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula: A New Perspective’, Korea Review, vol. 1, no. 2, December.
[6] Primakov, Yevgeny, Ivanov, Igor, Velikhov, Evgeny, Moiseyev, Mikhail (2010), ‘Nuclear disarmament: the end of the atomic option’, Izvestia, 8 December.