As we hold our breath about the pending nuclear test, everyone is trotting ideas about what should be done. Frankly, many of these ideas are disposable. But a proposal advanced by Mort Halperin deserves serious scrutiny. One version is posted on the Nautilus website; another version can be found in Global Asia, a highly-readable journal launched in 2006 by Chung-in Moon and the East Asia Foundation. The entire approach reflects deep thought and Halperin’s long experience in the region and with the nuclear question. His ideas have even been subjected to some serious public scrutiny and discussion; Nautilus’ Peter Hayes in conjunction with the Woodrow Wilson International Center organized a whole conference on it last October, replete with papers.
The core of the approach is highly reminiscent of the Perry process and Report of 1998-9. Perry’s “two track” way of dealing with North Korea reflected a domestic political compromise with ascendant House Republicans by combining elements of engagement and the default of a return to containment.
Halperin is no pushover: his first paragraph is worth quoting:
“Promoting security in Northeast Asia in the face of the military threat from the DPRK requires that the United States continue to implement a three pronged approach: (1) maintaining and strengthening military capability especially ready conventional forces and strengthening alliance relations; (2) maintaining and strengthening the structure of global sanctions against North Korea by the UN Security Council and other means until the DPRK verifiably dismantles all of its nuclear weapons capability; and (3) developing and seeking to implement a process of regional security cooperation in NEAsia which will lead to a denuclearlized Korean peninsula.”
Moreover, Halperin is explicit that element 1 of the approach is never going away, and element 2 will only be lifted when real progress on the new order is in place.
But his papers are devoted to how to make the third component of the approach work. His strategy rests on jettisoning the Six Party Talks and moving directly to a more comprehensive peace settlement or what the North Koreans would call a “peace regime.” The settlement would include:
- Termination of the state of war;
- Creation of a permanent council on security to monitor the agreement, perhaps scalable to other security issues;
- Mutual declaration of no hostile intent;
- Provisions of assistance for nuclear and other energy;
- Termination of sanctions;
- Creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, a template which exists in several other parts of the world (the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs has a useful primer) although none as charged as Northeast Asia (a list of the other major treaties is appended below).
The idea of a NWFZ is a distinctive feature of the proposal, and one that has long been championed by Peter Hayes; papers presented at his East Asia Nuclear Security Workshop, held in Japan in 2011 provide an introduction. The core of the idea is simple, and bears a resemblance to Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principals (1967). “The ROK, Japan and the DPRK (and possibly other states including Mongolia and perhaps Canada) would commit themselves not to manufacture, test (for any purpose) or deploy nuclear weapons, nor to allow nuclear weapons to be stored on their territory. The DPRK would commit itself to re-join the NPT and the other states making this commitment would agree to remain parties to the NPT if the provisions of this treaty were being observed.”
The key to the NWFZ concept, however, does not reside in the relationship among the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) members of the agreement, but between the nuclear weapons states (NWS, namely the US) and the target NNWS (namely, North Korea). The presumption of the NWFZ proposal is that the United States has never foresworn use of nuclear weapons on the peninsula, however remote the possibility of their use may be. The US maintains nuclear war plans that target North Korea and has occasionally used this fact—if not explicit nuclear threats—as a reminder of US capabilities. According to advocates of a Northeast Asian NWFZ, this implicit threat hangs over the prospects for an improved relationship and should be lifted by declaring—through treaty—that we have no such intent.
There are non-trivial issues in implementation. For example, the zone agreement would need to contain provisions on transit of nuclear-armed ships or planes and defining the territorial scope of the treaty in terms of international waters. But these barriers do not seem insuperable.
Yet despite the fact that the NWFZ is a novel feature of the approach, it is important to underscore that it is only one part of a much larger bargain. Indeed, the NWFZ can be seen as reflecting, rather than creating, the defining terms of that grand bargain. For example, “ending the state of war” with North Korea means recognizing them. Politically, the decision to recognize North Korea or to lift sanctions or to provide energy assistance will be as difficult as the decision to sign on to an NWFZ proposal and will be of equal if not greater interest to Pyongyang.
We are clearly stuck, and the boldness of the proposal is tempting. Next time, some reservations about the approach and a thoughtful response from Hayes.
Treaties establishing Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
- Treaty of Tlatelolco — Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean
- Treaty of Rarotonga — South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty
- Treaty of Bangkok — Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone
- Treaty of Pelindaba — African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty
- Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia