Unblocking the North Korea Nuclear Impasse

North Korea has not responded to classic inducements for nuclear elimination, namely sanctions relief and political normalization, explains security analyst Bennett Ramberg. However, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un did agree on one issue during their first summit in June 2018: commitment on security guarantees. Absent definition, the promise remains a nonstarter. In this article, Ramberg lays out one path in a layered approach that includes North Korea’s acceptance of Beijing’s “tripwire” protection in addition to Chinese personnel to monitor international nuclear weapons elimination. “Enlistment of China, North Korea’s closest ‘ally,’ evident in Kim’s multiple trips to Beijing and a country that supports denuclearization, would generate momentum,” he writes. Additional assurance would come from tangible US, South Korean and North Korean confidence-building measures including the removal of offensive forces near the border, provision of air and satellite intelligence to stakeholders to eliminate the risk of surprise attack, and liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang to settle disputes. Ramberg concludes that carefully crafted security guarantees may offer a path forward. – YaleGlobal

Unblocking the North Korea Nuclear Impasse

Security guarantees from the US and China could be key in ending the North Korean nuclear impasse
Bennett Ramberg
Tuesday, April 30, 2019

North Korea's Kim stands by missile; Kim meets with China's President Xi
Finding a custodian: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects an intercontinental ballistic missile, but instead of relying on missiles and nuclear weapons for safety, could North Korea count on China as a protector?

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 normalization. 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 the DPRK 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. 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 denuclearization 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 defense. 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. 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/insurance 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 diplomatic and economic US-DPRK normalization.

In September 2018, North and South Korea 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 demilitarized zone along with a no-fly zone and elimination of military drills within its vicinity. 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 denuclearization, would generate momentum.

The path envisioned requires the commitment of Chinese resident monitors embedded with a team of international inspectors to identify, inventory and oversee destruction of North Korean nuclear and other WMD sites. The Chinese presence – a human shield of sorts – would relieve Pyongyang’s fears of US attack in the interim. For 10-plus miles north of the demilitarized 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 would be warranted but, to preserve deterrence, not withdrawal. Military exercises, already attenuated, would continue to exclude nuclear capable B-52 bombers. To further reduce the risk of surprise attack, both Koreas would adopt an Open Skies program, 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. 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 lifting of economic sanctions, culminating with 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 programs 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.

The odds of terminating North Korea’s nuclear program 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.

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