DPRK Briefing Book: Enemy to Friend: Providing Security Assurances to North Korea

DPRK Briefing Book: Enemy to Friend: Providing Security Assurances to North Korea

Peter Hayes, Nautilus Institute, February 11, 2004.


Over the last year, as part of their proposed package settlement of the nuclear issue, the North Koreans have shifted their demands that the United States sign a “non-aggression pact” to a legally binding security treaty, and from the latter to a mere “security assurance.” The issue will continue to bedevil talks between the DPRK and the United States and its partners at the six-party talks.

Given their evolving demand, there are three basic ways to respond. These models are not mutually exclusive and can be used in combination:

1. Regional Nuclear-Free Zone (NFZ)

Over the years, NFZs have been implemented in a number of regions including the South Pacific and Latin America. With specific reservations, the United States has recognized and even signed some (but not all) of these NFZs. In East Asia, unofficial dialogue on a regional NFZ has been underway since the early nineties, convened by John Endicott at Georgia Institute of Technology. However, due to immense asymmetries in nuclear and state-military capacities, a fully regional nuclear-free zone was not a plausible proposal. Nonetheless, a credible regional arrangement was carefully crafted and published as the Limited Nuclear Weapon Free Zone for Northeast Asia in Seoul in October 2001 [ 1 ].

Such a limited NFZ would build upon the existing non-nuclear status of Japan, declared in 1960; and the North-South Denuclearization Declaration, declared in February 1992. It would cover some but not all of the region; would exclude over time some but not all classes of nuclear weapons; and (although this is not included in the draft) entail a host of ancillary commitments related to monitoring and verification and firing nuclear weapons into and out of the zone (although this last point is not mentioned in the draft text).

Such a zone is likely to be unacceptable to the Bush Administration which maintains the right of contingency deployment of nuclear weapons into and around Korea, and the right to transit and reintroduce nuclear weapons into Japan. Any agreements that constrain the United States’ unilateral ability to move dual capable or nuclear forces anywhere on Earth seem inimical to the Bush Administration’s national security policy. Thus, a regional NFZ is a non-starter.

However, the Joint Declaration of the DeNuclearization of the Korean Peninsula [ 2 ] signed in February 1992 is an existing legal commitment between the two Koreas. It excludes the possession or deployment of nuclear weapons in Korea, and the acquisition of plutonium and enrichment facilities. It created a nascent monitoring and verification regime that has never been implemented. As the US-DPRK Agreed Framework fell apart in 2003, one of the casualties was the Joint Declaration. As it was cited against the DPRK for having disallowed the enrichment technology that the DPRK had allegedly acquired, the DPRK declared it a dead letter.

Nonetheless, it may be possible to rapidly resurrect the existing North-South declaration, amend it by joint ROK-DPRK agreement (a triumph of Korean nationalism that may work in both political cultures) to include protocols that external powers could sign to preclude firing nuclear weapons into or out of the Korean Peninsula, to not deploy nuclear weapons into Korea, and so on. For such a proposal to be meaningful would require the existing inspection mechanism to be revised and expanded permitting much higher levels of intrusive inspections on both sides of the DMZ; and finally, the United States would have to be willing to allow DPRK or third party inspections of US military facilities in the ROK.

A practical political constraint on this approach is that the Bush Administration has no confidence that the Roh Administration in the ROK would negotiate and adhere to stringent monitoring and inspection requirements. Thus, this approach is also a non-starter in Washington and Pyongyang.

2. Common Security and Conflict Resolution

This model draws on the process of European integration that culminated in the 1975 Helsinki Treaty and the Organization for Cooperation Security in Europe, or OCSE [ 3 ]. Under this rubric, the OCSE provided a forum, developed a series of confidence building measures and a code-of-conduct between former and potential antagonists, enabled the negotiation and implementation of regional arms control and disarmament agreements, established conventional arms limitations in Europe, and allowed unarmed observational flights over the territories of states. Importantly, the United States was admitted to the OCSE in 1973, signed the Helsinki Final Charter in 1992, and the Charter of Paris in 1993.

At the six-party talks, the United States could propose a Beijing Decalogue, a set of comprehensive security principles along the same lines adopted in Helsinki [ 4 ]. Under this rubric, the United States would encourage a process of concerted bilateralism whereby each state in the region would negotiate bilateral agreements with other states regarding specific security issues based on these security principles. Undoubtedly, this regional process aimed at the creation of a common regional security architecture would take many years. In the short-term, the process would facilitate the United States entering immediately into direct bilateral negotiations with the DPRK on a range of security issues of mutual concern, most urgently, the nuclear issue, but also the humanitarian situation in the DPRK. Concurrently, the United States could resume multilateral talks on ending of the Korean War-itself a multilateral agreement that is urgent in order to re-establish a sound basis for routine and crisis management of the DMZ..

This approach has the advantage that it does not single out the DPRK for “security” treatment, but deals with the DPRK’s insecurities and the insecurity created by its actions in the context of an emerging regional institutional framework. Japan is also interested in promoting such a process.

Its major disadvantage is that it begins with what is an “anti-region” in which integrative processes are either being dissolved by globalization or remain challenged by resurgent nationalism and the dead hand of history.

3. NPT Negative Security Assurance

The third approach is to re-offer the basic negative security assurance provided to all non-nuclear states that are in compliance with their NPT obligations and IAEA safeguards agreements, which guarantees that the United States (or any other nuclear weapons state in the region, that is, China and/or Russia) will not use nuclear weapons against the DPRK unless it were engaged in aggression and in alliance with a nuclear-armed state or was itself attacking the United States or its allies. The United States followed this formula with each of the three Eastern European states that inherited nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union, including the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan [ 5 ]. In the case of Kazakhstan, the US commitment included that no economic sanctions would be applied to it-an important issue for the DPRK (see below). The NPT negative security assurance is the same negative security assurance that was provided the DPRK in the October 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework.

As such, it is not likely to garner much interest in Pyongyang although it is politically and diplomatically a well-worn path-of-least-resistance for Washington. For such an assurance to come into effect, the DPRK would have to give up all its nuclear threat, resolve all outstanding issues with the IAEA, and overcome the division of Korea to ensure that a collision with US military forces is not conceivable. In short, such an assurance is next to meaningless to Pyongyang.


Each of these generic models offers a way forward, but considered alone, none is likely to be a feasible path for a “security assurance” between the parties to the pending talks and the DPRK. An expanded nuclear-free zone would tread too heavily on US force mobility, first-use prerogatives, preemptive war inclinations, alliance commitments, and security ideology. A common security process would take too long and offer too little to the DPRK to be workable. The standard “NPT negative security assurance” is a non-starter for Pyongyang.

Therefore, we should return to the basic question and ask what the DPRK seeks in demanding a security assurance from the United States, and why?

There are two answers to these questions. First, the DPRK has been staring down the barrel of American nuclear weapons for decades. Whether or not they are irrationally paranoid about American intentions to attack them with nuclear weapons, there is no doubt about their recurring fear of being targeted continuously. Indeed, it is a large part of the explanation of why they have built a subterranean society. They are strongly compelled to reduce the level of external threat to their existence.

The second answer is that the DPRK regime’s primary problem is the economics of stability and survival, given the parlous state of their economy. They know that without changes in US policy toward the DPRK, they cannot recover economically as investors and financial institutions will shy away.

Thus, rather than legalistic security assurances or face-saving fig leaves, the DPRK seeks irreversible changes in substantive US policies toward the DPRK [ 6 ].

Specifically, they want the United States to build a security relationship that is based on mutual respect between the leaderships and ends with US forces staying in Korea on a non-partisan basis to keep the other great powers at arms length from the Peninsula. This means a presidential-level emissary from Bush to Kim; establishing diplomatic relations; and ending the Korean War.

Second, they want the United States to stop obstructing their economy. This means removing them from the US list of terrorist states and allowing others (Japan, South Korea, the EU, and the World Bank) to do the heavy lifting.

Until that happens, they know that they will remain at the bottom of their hole supported by a lifeline from China but unable to climb out and rebuild their country.

Due to the stakes, it is urgent that United States move beyond formalism to substantive security negotiations with the DPRK.

[ 1 ] See Seoul Declaration, October 10, 2001, available at: BB url; see also J. Endicott, “A Limited Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia: A Track-II Initiative,” Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No 35, Needs YEAR, at: http://www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/asia/Endicott0399.html See also T. Suzuki, “A Proposal for Tripartite Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Korea and Japan: Possible Alternative for TMD,” Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, Tokyo, 2001 on line at: http://lxmi.mi.infn.it/~landnet/NMD/suzuki.pdf

[ 2 ] See the text of Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the related South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission at: http://nautilus.org/DPRKBriefingBook/

[ 3 ] See Section 9, Political-Military Aspects of Security in the OCSE Handbook available at: http://nautilus.org/DPRKBriefingBook/multilateralTalks/

[ 4 ] See OCSE Handbook, p. 10.

[ 5 ] See G. Bunn, “The Legal Status of U.S. Negative Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear Weapons States,” The NonProliferation Review, Spring-Summer, 1997, at: http://nautilus.org/DPRKBriefingBook/multilateralTalks/

[ 6 ] As emphasized in private discussions with US interlocutors found in the Report on the Round Table Discussion of US-DPRK Relations, Georgia Institute of Technology, February 2003; http://nautilus.org/DPRKBriefingBook/ and in discussions with the “Track 2 delegation” in January 2003; see J. Pritchard, The North Korea Deadlock: A Report from the Region, Brookings, January 15, 2004, at: http://nautilus.org/DPRKBriefingBook/nuclearweapons/