Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula: An Arms Control Framework
Research Reviews | May 15, 2023
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University
Sharon Squassoni, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, provides insights on mitigating the risk of North Korea’s nuclear weapons while still aiming for complete denuclearization. The author proposes four approaches to achieve this: (1) preventing nuclear war, (2) improving crisis stability for conventional and nuclear forces, (3) weakening North Korea’s nuclear capability through treaties, and (4) removing the destabilizing elements of North Korea’s nuclear program. Professor Squassoni highlights that successful use of nuclear threats by Russia in the Ukraine War could embolden North Korea to engage in strategic provocations. Therefore, she suggests prioritizing discussions on how both North and South Korea can ensure their safety without nuclear weapons and convincing North Korea to renounce its reliance on nuclear weapons as a viable military instrument.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose a growing challenge to security on the Korean peninsula, the Asia-Pacifc, and, potentially, worldwide. As North Korea continues to make operational improvements to its nuclear arsenal, prospects for denuclearizing the Peninsula have significantly diminished. Furthermore, despite North Korea’s declarations to the contrary, the risk of proliferation of sensitive technologies useful for nuclear weapons programs remains ever-present. To mitigate this risk, non-proliferation approaches such as cooperation, interdiction, deterrence by denial, or deterrence by punishment will still be required. However, it is now essential to focus on developing negotiated solutions that can enhance both crisis and arms race stability. What began as a non-proliferation task close to thirty years ago – to cap and rollback the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities – can no longer plausibly be treated as such. Non-proliferation tools and policies alone are no longer sufficient to contain the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and must be complemented, if not supplanted, by measures that have traditionally belonged to the genre of arms control.
In the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, North and South Korea agreed not to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons. They also agreed to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes and to refrain from possessing uranium enrichment or reprocessing facilities. The establishment of a South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission (JNCC) was also agreed upon to develop inspection procedures and methods to verify denuclearization. Despite the creation of JNCC in March 1992, both sides could not agree on the terms for bilateral inspection. Making the situation worse, international cooperation deteriorated due to North Korea’s refusal to allow IAEA inspections access, the Team Spirit exercise reinstated by the U.S., and North Korea’s threats to withdraw from the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The bilateral denuclearization agreement was ultimately replaced by the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program until it violated the agreement in 2002.
Over the last decade, North Korea has taken steps to institutionalize its nuclear weapons program by establishing doctrine, policy, and research and development (R&D) institutions. Meanwhile, prominent South Korean commentators more recently have suggested that in fact, South Korea’s “re-nuclearization” would help deter North Korea from its stated plans to use nuclear weapons early in a conflict. While some use the term “re-nuclearization” to refer to plans to reinstall U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in South Korea, two other options are also popularly discussed: nuclear-sharing between the United States and South Korea, akin to what is done within the NATO alliance, and South Korea’s pursuit of its own indigenous nuclear weapons capability. All three options are controversial.
Buoyed by the adoption of laws and recent statements by Kim Jong Un, skepticism that North Korea will negotiate away its nuclear deterrent has grown. If North Korea views denuclearization as revisionist or akin to regime change, the risk of conflict increases. Despite the uncertainty of the practicality of denuclearization or disarmament as an outcome, it is possible to focus on the process of denuclearization. Therefore, while the goal of denuclearization may remain inviolate (just as disarmament remains a global objective, enshrined in Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)), the process and methods may shift over time.
The claim moving forward is that denuclearization can no longer be considered a nonproliferation objective but rather a disarmament task. This shift has significant implications for policy formulation and implementation, including key participants. It also means that some of the approaches and methods developed for arms control purposes may be valuable.
Nonproliferation Policy Tools for Reducing Risks from North Korea
Numerous analyses have highlighted the shortcomings of the nonproliferation regime when dealing with states that pursue nuclear weapons. To begin with, the NPT is silent on violations and how to handle them. Violations are not tied to the treaty itself, but to safeguards agreements that contain vague language drawn from the IAEA Statute on dispute settlement. Reportedly, in the case of Syria’s noncompliance, the Board of Governors could not even agree on a definition of safeguards noncompliance because no objective definition exists. None of this is helped by the fact that even if the Board of Governors of the IAEA reports that a state is in noncompliance to the UN Security Council, the UNSC is equally free to ignore the issue or to condemn the state and punish it to the fullest extent.
Past proliferation crises–Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya–evoked a variety of responses because they evolved differently and carried different security implications. In the case of North Korea, the first allegations of a clandestine program arose as IAEA inspectors prepared in 1992 to confirm initial baseline declarations submitted after it joined the treaty in 1985. The solution that resolved the first proliferation crisis almost thirty years ago–the Agreed Framework–sought not only to bring North Korea into compliance with the NPT, but also to use incentives outside of the NPT to persuade North Korea to cooperate, such as the creation of the Korean Economic Development Organization (KEDO) to construct two light water reactors for electricity. A second proliferation crisis arose when North Korea abandoned the Agreed Framework in 2002 and withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Subsequent rounds of negotiations under the Six Party Talks ultimately failed. North Korea first tested a nuclear device in 2006 and then five more times, lastly in 2017.
Over time, the challenge of bringing North Korea into compliance with the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state has grown as its nuclear weapons program further developed. It is now not just a question of fissile material or fissile material production facilities–a reactor (or two), reprocessing plant and uranium enrichment facilities–but also a nuclear test site, missile testing, and actual warheads, missiles and other delivery platforms. Given a political will to disarm, none of these verification challenges is insurmountable. The problem, however, is likely to be that North Korea, even if it decides at some point to give up nuclear weapons, has strong motivation to resist being treated as a proliferator. In fact, of all the noncompliant NPT states, North Korea has been the most successful–it is not, at the moment, subject to any international restrictions on its program, although it is heavily sanctioned. For two decades, North Korea has kept international inspectors more or less at arm’s length. Despite myriad UN Security Council resolutions, and at least two agreements to freeze elements of its program, North Korea has managed to produce enough fissile material for some 20-60 weapons, test nuclear devices six times, test short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles as well as cruise and hypersonic missiles, and test sea-launched varieties of missiles.
Continuing to view North Korea’s nuclear program through the lens of nonproliferation has policy implications that may limit freedom of action. As long as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is regarded as violating its nonproliferation commitments (even though it withdrew from the NPT in 2003), the international community must punish North Korea for its actions. Anything less would undermine the rule of law and eventually erode the global nonproliferation regime. One byproduct of this is perspective regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons as “illegal,” a term that is not conducive to negotiated solutions. It is also difficult within a nonproliferation context to acknowledge security motivations for the development of nuclear weapons. Under the NPT, nuclear weapon states argue that non-nuclear weapon states achieve greater security benefits by foregoing nuclear weapons, despite their own continued reliance on nuclear weapons for security. Although many understand that a solution to peace on the Korean peninsula will require security guarantees and assurances, these must be separated from denuclearization within a nonproliferation context. These have all contributed to the focus on denuclearization first, a process that North Korea has rejected.
An Alternate Approach
An arms control framework could facilitate a wider range of measures aimed at reducing risks from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while keeping the ultimate goal of denuclearization. It would need to avoid legitimizing North Korea’s nuclear weapons, particularly the perception that anything that not covered by arms control agreements would be fair game for competition. It would absolutely have to avoid aiding North Korea’s WMD programs in any way and it must not spur proliferation by North Korea’s neighbors, based on the perception of acceptance of the North’s arsenal. Denuclearization of the Peninsula cannot be discarded and should be reaffirmed by all parties as the ultimate objective. Avoiding some of the language reserved for peer competitors, including “strategic stability,” and instead describing the process as “risk reduction” more broadly could be helpful.
On a practical level, arms control is one of several levers to reduce nuclear risks. The classic Schelling-Halperin definition of arms control is, “all forms of military cooperation between potential enemies in the interest of reducing the likelihood of war, its scope and violence if it occurs, and the political and economic costs of being prepared for it.” Essential prerequisites include a recognized common interest and the possibility of reciprocation and cooperation. In the Schelling-Halperin context, military forces would deter aggression while avoiding the kind of threat that may provoke desperate, preventative, or irrational military action on the part of other countries. With respect to North Korea, this is no small task. There must be collaboration to avoid the kinds of crises in which withdrawal is intolerable and provide reassurance that restraint will be matched.
Rising tension on the Korean peninsula, competition between the United States and China, and growing conventional deterrence capabilities by Japan and South Korea suggest a need for mechanisms to relieve pressure to act. Crisis stability measures that prevent misunderstandings should be a first order of business – especially communication channels, notifications, and Track II talks. Avoiding war requires dampening both unintended and intended escalation, which is in turn not just a question of military capability but of perceptions of risk and intention. Bilateral and multilateral mechanisms such as hotlines for crisis communication or an automatic referral system to international adjudication can create a structure to channel and contain actions and reactions, without which stability would be wholly reliant on personalities in power.
Arms race stability, particularly in missiles, could be a topic for South and North Korea to explore. The United States acknowledges the need to deter North Korean WMD, but it does not view North Korea as a competitor and almost certainly dismisses the possibility of a costly arms race with North Korea, not least of all because of its size and relative poverty. It is therefore likely that the United States will see little utility in discussions on arms race stability for a long while with regards to North Korea. Nonetheless, reducing the likelihood of miscalculation by both South and North Korea is critically important in order to avoid conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which the U.S. undoubtedly wants to avoid due to the danger of growing tensions on the Peninsula as well as in the region in general. Likewise, as China creeps closer to U.S. arsenal numbers, the perceived need for arms race stability will grow.
Risk Reduction and Arms Control Options
Regardless of how it is categorized, there is enough room for measures to promote predictability, balance military positions, and supplement deterrence. Such measures range from tension and risk reduction to confidence-building and formal arms control. While North and South Korea, as well as the United States are at the core of this analysis, participation by Japan, China and Russia in some areas will be critical to overall success. These measures are therefore not only designed to reduce risks and limit the capabilities of the DPRK nuclear program, but also to reduce overall risks of war and nuclear war on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia.
First, at the lowest rung of cooperation, tension reduction measures can form the basis for building trust within the security environment of Northeast Asia. North and South Korea have already had some limited success in implementing agreements, particularly the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in 2018. Even cooperation with North Korea in areas that are not necessarily related to its nuclear weapons might be useful for this purpose. For instance, given that the DPRK is not a member of the 1979 Search and Rescue Convention, outreach efforts to North Korea concerning collaborative search and rescue efforts in both the West and the East Sea by the ROK, China and/or Japan could be useful. While improving the safety of nuclear facilities used for the weapons program is out of the question until there is a negotiated agreement to either dismantle or repurpose them, encouraging the compliance of North Korea’s experimental light-water reactor with international safety standards could be useful. Regulators from China, Japan, and South Korea could host a forum, briefing on their own trilateral dialogue begun after Fukushima.
Second, risk reduction measures aim to mitigate the risks of military confrontation in Northeast Asia, specifically in and around the West Sea, East China Sea, and East Sea. Hotlines and codes of conduct such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and the ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct in the maritime environment have been established but could be reinvigorated, expanded or coordinated. The ROK-DPRK leadership hotline, put in place in 2018, was restored in October 2021 after Kim Jong Un severed it in August 2021 to protest U.S.-ROK exercises. It may be useful, however, to establish a lower-level hotline that could continue to function quietly through periods of tension and that is devoted specifically to maritime encounters that involve military or government vessels or forces. With regard to CUES, Japan, the ROK, China, Russia and the United States have endorsed the so-called “rules of the road,” which are based on COLREG regulations to prevent collisions at sea. North Korea is party to the COLREG convention, but attending the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, initially as an observer and potentially later as a participant, could strengthen its commitment to adhering to international norms of behavior.
The Comprehensive Military Agreement signed and partially implemented in 2018 contained significant risk reduction elements. Pending a broader political agreement, some elements such as consultations and the cessation of live-fire drills could be adopted relatively easily. A more significant step would be to create a risk reduction center, patterned after the nuclear risk reduction centers established by the U.S. and Soviet Union in 1988. In the case of the United States, the scope of the center was expanded beyond communicating with Russia to exchanging notifications across a wide range of treaties and security arrangements such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As for the DPRK, two prerequisites for such a center are missing – participation in a variety of treaties and agreements and the political will to reduce rather than escalate risks. However, over time, operating such center could help demonstrate how the provision of information can reduce uncertainties and misunderstandings.
Third, confidence-building measures take a step beyond avoiding conflict and improving crisis stability toward operationalizing constraints and develop transparency and modest verification. Potential measures include constraints on conventional forces like demilitarized or thinned-out zones, limits on exercises, pre-notification requirements for exercises, and aerial and/or on-site inspections to help verify limits. Any system of confidence-building would require continued engagement among the parties for the operation and implementation of the CBMs and likely at least political documents, if not treaties. While the Vienna Document or the Hague Code of Conduct provides a comprehensive template, parties may choose to start smaller. At a minimum, it would be useful to include in those declarations information about naval forces and missiles. More regionally tailored approach would also be of value, such as urging North Korea to issue prelaunch NOTAMs (notice to air missions) that would provide rough information to airmen and mariners in the vicinity of missile tests.
As North Korea operationalizes its nuclear weapons capability, talks on doctrine and strategic stability could be orchestrated on different levels - Track 1.5 (civilians on the U.S. side; North Korea officials) and Track 1 (government officials for both). These talks could address difficulties inherent in relegating control of nuclear weapons to battlefield commanders, risks of escalation, and ways to improve predictability regarding nuclear weapons. On strategic stability, discussions could focus on how to achieve stability at low numbers of nuclear weapons, a topic that will need to be broached if countries make progress toward nuclear disarmament.
North Korea has twice demonstrated its willingness to take steps aimed at building confidence in its intentions by destroying the cooling towers of the Yongbyon reactor in 2008, and by destroying some of the tunnel openings in 2018 at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. However, it was able to reconstitute its capabilities in both cases, and North Korea has also declared it would no longer be bound by its declared moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests, apparently to express its disappointment in the United States not meeting a December 31 deadline for concessions. If, however, North Korea considered reinstating the nuclear testing moratorium, it might consider allowing aerial or on-site inspection of Punggye-ri and any other potential sites, perhaps in exchange for scientific dialogue on environmental safety measures for closed nuclear test sites.
An important nuclear-related confidence-building measure possible even in the absence of a broader agreement would be a no-attack pledge for nuclear facilities, perhaps coupled with an agreement for demilitarized zones (especially no-fly, no-drone zone) around nuclear facilities. In this case, South Korea could benefit from assurances about protecting its nuclear power plants in the event of a conventional conflict. Although this kind of assurance, akin to a no-first-use pledge, always carries uncertainty about how events will play out in a crisis, some benefit may accrue to the civilian nuclear energy industry in terms of popular risk perceptions.
A longer-term confidence-building measure would be North Korea’s participation in the Guidelines for Plutonium Management, or INFCIRC/549. The motivation would be the need for greater transparency about plutonium stockpiles in Asia more generally—not just DPRK, but also Japan and China. Both North and South Korea should be invited to participate, given South Korea’s accumulation of spent fuel and potential plans for pyroprocessing or reprocessing. One of the benefits to bringing on new members is that participating states have used the guidelines also for declarations about their national nuclear fuel cycle policies and highly enriched uranium stockpiles as well as excess defense material. Providing voluntary declarations about fissile material holdings with the objective of providing greater accountability among those states would be a step toward more responsible nuclear behavior. This kind of measure would not merit any sanctions relief, although one could envision sanctions relief for joining the CTBT or other treaties meant to limit capabilities.
The last type of measures that can be taken are nuclear arms control. In theory, nuclear arms control can target the full range of nuclear weapons capabilities, including delivery vehicles, warheads, fissile material, and nuclear testing. In practice, the U.S. and Russia (earlier, the Soviet Union) focused on limiting or eliminating delivery vehicles under the INF Treaty, or by “capturing” warheads under the New START treaty by setting the number of warheads possibly deployed on a delivery vehicle by the number of reentry vehicles on missiles.
Measures related to fissile material have not been woven into U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control, but handled within the context of disarmament measures. Four of the five NPT weapon states (U.S., Russia, France, UK) declared moratoria on producing fissile material for weapons in 1995; China reportedly halted production of fissile material for nuclear weapons but has not declared such a policy. Efforts to get a multilateral fissile material treaty under negotiation at the Conference on Disarmament have been stalled for almost thirty years. Inside or outside the NPT, there may be little that can be done to freeze or halt North Korea’s production of fissile material for weapons within an arms control framework. The likely venue for addressing this would be regional or global restraints on fissile material for weapons.
Scenarios for Arms Control Approaches
Several scenarios can be devised to serve as starting points for negotiations with North Korea from an arms control approach. Each scenario’s objectives are limited, as they are intended to provide an entry into a process that becomes sustainable over time. Denuclearization must remain the end objective of this process, whether or not that term is used. Some common key messages must be stressed in any arms control approach: mutual interest in avoiding nuclear war; the humanitarian, environmental, and financial costs of nuclear weapons; nuclear capabilities causing higher risk of use; cooperative approaches that include transparency and enhancing stability; and the inclusion of all forms of military cooperation to reduce the likelihood, costs, and effects of war. Framing an arms control approach in this way is important to avoid giving the perception that North Korea is “off the hook” for eventual denuclearization, that North Korea is a peer of the United States, or that North Korea is a “responsible” nuclear state.
The first scenario starts from a minimal baseline, focused on reducing risks of nuclear war. The United States and South Korea would first approach North Korea as a partner to declare their intentions to avoid potential accidents and to prevent nuclear war, building on sources such as the 1971/1974 agreements and bilateral pledges on non-attack of nuclear facilities and non-use of biological/chemical weapons. The proceeding steps will be to establish a risk reduction center, and the final step will consist of creating a regional Helsinki-like dialogue to achieve political and military consensus.
The first two steps of this scenario will be relatively easy to accomplish if all parties agree that this can be accomplished at a fairly senior-level. North Korea may see such declarations as an implicit recognition of its nuclear status and attempt to exploit it, which should be avoided as much as possible. The third step is clearly ambitious and difficult. Yet many components of the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) were drawn from the Helsinki process. The goal is to connect nuclear risk reduction with conventional force risk reduction. It will be critical to persuade North Korea to agree to a regional approach, since risk reduction can be interpreted by North Korea simply as South Korea and the U.S. ceasing joint drills. China may pose the largest impediment, given its desire for freedom of action in the Pacific. However, tradeoffs such as conversations on missile defenses could increase the attractiveness of the Helsinki-type dialogue for China.
The second scenario aims to improve crisis stability for conventional and nuclear forces. To test North Korea’s capacity for cooperation in non-security related areas, it will initially strive to expand maritime cooperation in the West and East Seas through collaboration on climate change and environmental remediation. Mutual no-attack pledges on peaceful nuclear facilities, promoted by actions in Ukraine in and around nuclear power plants, could diminish risks even in a potential conventional war. Meanwhile, parallel tracks on North Korea’s understanding of nuclear safety concerning nuclear power plant accident mitigation and its nuclear doctrine will be pursued, with the former possibly taking the form of Track 1.5 with Japanese and Ukrainian nuclear experts, or even Track 1 with officials. Expanding the safety discussion to the environmental impact of underground nuclear testing would be a first turn toward security-related issues. Discussions about nuclear doctrine would be the most difficult yet essential. North Korea should be actively dissuaded from an “escalate to de-escalate” posture, and the dangers of tactical nuclear weapons should be addressed specifically. Two other more difficult elements of this scenario-approaching DPRK to join CUES and holding DPRK-ROK bilateral talks on renewed adherence to the CMA-could become more feasible if North Korea refrains from provocative tests and/or firings, and makes more regular use of its existing communication channels.
The third scenario involves steadily weakening North Korea’s nuclear capabilities via treaties, with an initial focus on getting North Korea to comply with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty (CWC). Formal approaches could be preceded by confidence-building measures such as engaging North Korea on the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear testing and chemical weapons use.
The most ambitious aspect of this scenario will be a trilateral agreement among the U.S., DPRK, and China to ratify the CTBT. Although North Korea is unlikely to join the CTBT on its own, a trilateral approach might be more appealing in terms of conferring it some status. A trilateral agreement will not, by itself, bring the CTBT into force, but establishing solid constraints on DPRK, the only country still testing nuclear weapons, could be attractive to the US – assuming that ratification obstacles in the Senate are overcome.
In terms of chemical weapons, a bilateral ROK-DPRK pledge not to use biological or chemical weapons on the Korean Peninsula may be the first step. While North Korea may see some value in joining the CWC because, for instance, it could open the door for technical cooperation and trade in the chemical area, major obstacles still exist, including the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam with VX agent and North Korea’s concerns about the costs of transparency. In terms of engaging North Korea on fissile material issues, partner states adhering to the international plutonium management guidelines could commence regional dialogue to assess common interests. The viability of this arrangement would depend partly on South Korea’s interest.
The fourth scenario seeks to dissuade further development of, and to limit or eliminate the most destabilizing elements of North Korea’s arsenal, including tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear warhead cruise missiles. For the ROK, the major task would be to re-establish adherence to some elements of the CMA, potentially by using financial inducements. In parallel, the DPRK, ROK, and the U.S. should engage in conversations about doctrine, deterrence, and crisis stability, involving China, Japan, and/or Russia as warranted. Talks to determine the kinds of capabilities both sides would like to limit in the future might address drones, hypersonics and cruise missiles, all designed to circumvent missile and air defenses.
Achieving limits on North Korea’s most destabilizing capabilities will require significant tradeoffs. At a minimum, North Korea should be urged to provide standard pre-notification of its missile tests to airmen and mariners (NOTAM), as this could be a small step toward providing more detailed information through the Hague Code of Conduct. Meanwhile, progress in the area of missiles may involve tradeoffs between ROK and the DPRK, such as an inter-Korean agreement not to develop Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) or any ballistic missiles.
An approach encompassing tension and risk reduction, confidence-building, and modest arms control could lay the groundwork for progress towards denuclearization. To begin, North Korea should be dissuaded from reinforcing its trust in nuclear weapons as a coercive and useful military instrument. This necessitates a candid, open dialogue with one or more nuclear-armed state. Second, it needs to begin taking steps towards disarmament. Despite the U.S. and South Korean preference for immediate denuclearization, North Korea likely views it as inherently destabilizing. Insisting on North Korean denuclearization as a prerequisite for other integrative steps or treating it as the final outcome in resolving the proliferation dilemma is not practical. Instead, advocating for various practical mechanisms that eventually contribute to North Korea’s disarmament within a larger security framework could open the door to conversations among key regional countries to minimize nuclear concerns. While some argue that any measure that stops short of denuclearization legitimizes North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it is important to note that in the absence of negotiated restraints, the only feasible means of dissuasion are sanctions and export controls, both of which are incapable of stopping its program. The effectiveness of the existing nonproliferation regime is further put into doubt given worsening prospects of cooperation from Russia and China.
Crafting a Narrative
An alternative strategy to North Korea must avoid accepting North Korean nuclear weapons, harming the nonproliferation system, or weakening the legitimacy of the current sanctions regime. As a result, rather than arms control, the new approach should employ broad phrases like risk reduction or crisis stability. At least from the U.S. perspective, “threat reduction” might be more palatable compared to “arms control,” given that the latter gives rise to restraints on decision-making and may connote symmetrical reductions in forces. South Korea and its allies, on the other hand, will somehow have to make this attractive to North Korea.
An important element to control North Korea in any dialogue is the linkage between sanctions and progress in risk reduction. It is important to stress that arms control is a process leading toward denuclearization rather than a substitute for it. The implication is that other participants in arms control are also moving toward denuclearization, which is difficult for defense organizations to support, despite their obligation under Article 6 of the NPT. While North Korea will prefer the immediate lifting of all sanctions while slow-rolling denuclearization, a balance between the two will have to be found. The term “denuclearization” must also be preserved in some fashion, regardless of North Korea’s objections.
If a poor result for Russia in the Ukraine war leads to China withdrawing its support for Russia, Russia might see value in propping up North Korea and aiding its nuclear program. This would complicate the security calculations of both the U.S. and China, paving the way for a doubling or tripling of the North Korean arsenal in the medium term. Moreover, although Putin and Biden managed to extend New START for another five years in the beginning of 2021, it is completely possible for U.S.-Russian strategic arms control to collapse completely, freeing the United States from all restraints. Although it is highly unlikely the United States would build up its nuclear weapons, the ability to do so could potentially give the United States potentially greater leverage in dealing with China, if not North Korea. Whether this would exacerbate or calm current tensions is debatable.
Lessons about the utility of nuclear weapons and a “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine depend somewhat on whether Russia issues additional nuclear threats or uses nuclear weapons in the context of the Ukraine war. If additional, credible nuclear threats by Russia cause the U.S. and/or NATO allies to withhold or withdraw assistance and result in Ukraine’s defeat, nuclear coercion will be seen as a viable strategy. North Korea could be emboldened in that case. Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon causing Ukraine’s capitulation would break the nuclear taboo and likely spur proliferation by other states, including perhaps South Korea. Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon that prompts greater conventional assistance by other states would break the nuclear taboo but possibly disprove that nuclear escalation is inevitable. A nuclear response for Russian nuclear use would be devastating but potentially have a sobering effect on other nuclear crisis points around the globe, including on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, a resolution of the war that does not result in nuclear use or nuclear proliferation could suggest the fundamental disutility of nuclear weapons for coercion or strategic advantage.
Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin. 1961. Strategy and Arms Control. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.
Sang-Hun Choe. 2019. “North Korea Is No Longer Bound by Nuclear Test Moratorium, Kim Says.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/31/world/asia/north-korea-kim-speech.html.
Sharon Squassoni. 2019. “Coming to Grips with Plutonium Growth: A Roadmap for Expanding Collaboration.” International Institute for Science & Technology Policy paper, George Washington University. https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/c/2499/files/2019/10/INFCIRC-549-Roadmap.pdf
■ Sharon Squassoniis a research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, Elliott School of International Affairs, at the George Washington University. She has specialized in nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and security policy for three decades, serving in the US government at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department, and the Congressional Research Service. Since 2007, she has directed research programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A political scientist by training, she holds degrees from the State University of New York at Albany, the University of Maryland, and the National War College.
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