On Friday, we outlined the guts of a significant new proposal from Mort Halperin on how to move forward on the Korean peninsula. His strategy—buttressed by thorough vetting at conferences sponsored by Peter Hayes and the Nautilus Institute–rests on jettisoning the Six Party Talks. Rather, Halperin proposes we move 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;
- Mutual declaration of no hostile intent;
- Provisions of assistance for nuclear and other energy;
- Termination of sanctions;
- Creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ).
That we are currently stuck and need some fresh thinking goes without saying. That said, we confess that the NWFZ idea—one of the more innovative components of the proposal–has always puzzled us, and for three reasons. First, the United States cannot simply disavow its existing nuclear capability and pretend it is not there. While a firm no-first use policy might be a useful step in providing the kind of assurances the North Koreans sought when the nuclear crisis broke in 2002-3, we have seen declining interest in such guarantees over time as Pyonyang gets comfortable with its new capability. Rather, the North Koreans have gravitated toward the declaratory position that they will disarm only when the United States does—meaning never—precisely because they discount any assurances the US might provide. And we have offered plenty such assurances, by the way. In Victor Cha’s The Impossible State, he provides a comprehensive list of 33 US security assurances to the DPRK, with 15 extended by none other than George W. Bush. The argument rests on the presumption that the legal status of an NWFZ—in effect a treaty obligation—will provide the assurances the North Koreans have to date brushed off.
Critics of the Halperin proposal might also point out that the United States cannot disavow the extended deterrence commitments associated with its alliance commitments in the region. But this issue may be less troubling. Alliance commitments do not have an explicit nuclear component, repeated reference to a “nuclear umbrella” notwithstanding. And it is hard to even think of a scenario that would require us to invoke nuclear threats given conventional preponderance. Advocates of the NWFZ proposal note that by taking the nuclear option off the table, it focuses attention on conventional extended deterrence, which is presumably more stabilizing than nuclear extended deterrence.
In a private communication, Hayes summarizes the logic: “For the US and its allies, this means that the Taiwan Strait becomes more stable, because the Korean contingency is removed from both parties considerations as a possible zone of direct US-Chinese military conflict. For Japan, the implication is that US forces will remain in South Korea for the foreseeable future as a buffer between Japan and China. Both states would find this stabilizing.” (An essay by Eric Heginbotham for the conference outlines these arguments in more detail.)
A second problem is that the NWFZ proposal is no less asymmetrical than the demands placed on the North Koreans by current UNSC resolutions or the US approach to the Six Party Talks. The ROK and Japan are already in compliance with the demands of a NWFZ; neither manufactures, tests or deploys nuclear weapons, nor allows nuclear weapons to be stored on its territory. The only gain comes from elevating the status of these de facto commitments to de jure commitments. The United States may talk about nuclear options, but most military planners already think overwhelmingly in terms of conventional deterrence and defense, and even in the context of major war. Again, the gain from the NWFZ proposal is to elevate these commitments to treaty status on the assumption that this legal difference matters to the North Koreans. We are skeptical. The more likely response from Pyongyang will be that North Korea is being required to disarm and that the other parties are not giving up anything irreversible. We expect either “no thanks” or demands that they be paid handsomely and in advance.
Finally, the whole logic of the approach assumes that North Korean nuclear and missile policy is driven by what the US does. If the external security environment changed, Sparta would become Athens. This may seem obvious to some, but it is not obvious to us. The North Korean regime tells you what it is: it is a songun military-first state. And it is a songun military first state not simply because of its external environment but because it is increasingly some kind of hybrid personalist-military-party regime. The environment that created a songun North Korea is of very long-standing and the US probably bears some responsibility; indeed, we have argued as much. But we need to be clear-headed: it is increasingly songun North Korea that is creating the country’s unfortunate security environment rather than the other way around. Far from threatening to the regime, this self-created environment of perpetual crisis is exactly what the leadership in Pyongyang needs to thrive.
I took my puzzlement directly to Hayes, and he responded at length and with great thoughtfulness: we leave it up to you. Despite our doubts, the Halperin approach deserves serious debate. The alternatives are clearly not working.
Peter Hayes: “I start from the position that as a great power, the US has long-term interests in the region that mostly don’t revolve around the DPRK. The US should therefore strive to establish a framework that addresses primarily the nuclear insecurities of the five parties, not the DPRK, as the first step. When I look at the need to reduce the risk of Taiwan Strait-induced US-PRC nuclear use, the need to moderate the Sino-Japanese conflict axis and the potential for Japanese nuclear weapons, and the need to set the ROK up so that it remains non-nuclear in the long-run, there is only one framework that can manage the cross-cutting interests of the NPT Nuclear Weapons States and Non-Nuclear Weapons States, and that’s a NWFZ. To get there, you need a comprehensive security settlement of the type that Mort outlined…
Then there’s the DPRK . We simply don’t know how valuable a legally binding guarantee, a multilateral one at that, that they won’t be attacked with nuclear weapons is to the North Koreans. We haven’t listened to them on this score on the past, but they have been consistent on saying it’s one of the most important issues for them. That may have shifted now. There’s only one way to find out.
It’s perfectly feasible for the US to make a guarantee to NNWS [non-nuclear weapons states] in the region in a NWFZ, including the DPRK, that it won’t use nuclear weapons against the DPRK. Ditto for the other NWSs [nuclear weapons states]. Residual nuclear extended deterrence will still exist for the ROK and Japan, only rhetoric and legal form will realign (at last) with the restructured forces that no longer include any form of forward-deployed theater or tactical NWs on the part of the US. That’s good–it’s the essence of credibility that this alignment exist, and it’s currently badly out of whack, which affects the perceptions (negatively) of our adversaries, allies, and third parties. Meanwhile, nuclear deterrence will continue to flow “around” the NWFZ between the NWSs.
Should a NWS or a nuclear-armed state (DPRK) use or threaten to use NWs against a NNWS party to the NWFZ, then a) it faces residual nuclear extended deterrence; and b) it renders moot the US and other NWS’ guarantees to not use NWs in or against the Zone parties. What’s the problem?”