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NAPSNet Policy Forum

Recommended Citation

Morton Halperin, Peter Hayes, Chung-in Moon, Thomas Pickering, Lee Sigal, "ENDING THE NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR THREAT BY A COMPREHENSIVE SECURITY SETTLEMENT IN NORTHEAST ASIA", NAPSNet Policy Forum, June 26, 2017, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/ending-the-north-korean-nuclear-threat-by-a-comprehensive-security-settlement-in-northeast-asia/


Morton Halperin, Peter Hayes, Chung-in Moon, Thomas Pickering, Leon Sigal

June 28, 2017




In this essay, the authors argue “that a US-ROK coordinated approach can be built on the foundation of a plausible, concrete concept of a comprehensive regional security strategy that is actually capable of reversing and disarming the North Korean nuclear weapons program.   Unless the two allies propose to bring about a final state of affairs that is desirable to North Korea as well as the international community, nuclear brinksmanship in Korea is likely to continue for the foreseeable future; and North Korea will continue to acquire more nuclear weapons and to add delivery systems to its arsenal.  This essay explains how the United States might actually achieve its most important policy goal in Korea, stopping and reversing North Korea’s nuclear breakout.”

Morton Halperin is senior advisor, Open Society Foundations; Peter Hayes is Director, Nautilus Institute and Honorary Professor, Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University; Chung-in Moon is distinguished professor, Yonsei University; Thomas Pickering is retired US ambassador; Leon Sigal is Director, Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, Social Science Research Council.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Nautilus Institute. Readers should note that Nautilus seeks a diversity of views and opinions on significant topics in order to identify common ground.

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June 28, 2017



Many Americans and South Koreans are convinced that it is impossible to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, code for disarming North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and for ensuring that the South does not follow suit.  We argue that the opposite is the case.

However, as the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.  This logic applies as much to the North as it does to the United States, its allies, and international partners.

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet with President Moon Jae-in on June 29th, it is critical that they have a meeting of minds on the endgame.  Unless this occurs, it will be impossible to align the front line state with American policy.  Likewise, unless the two allies define a joint goal that makes sense to Kim Jong Un, he will have no reason to cooperate as against continue to confront the international community.  The administration has made statements that denuclearization is their goal. We agree, but with the careful caveats embedded in this article.

Now that North Korea unambiguously has demonstrated the ability to explode nuclear warheads—a condition that was not anticipated in the September 2005 principles—a new approach is required to match the scale and complexity of the North Korean nuclear threat.   Sometimes such wicked problems require that the problem be enlarged, in order to change the mix of stakeholders, sequence of outcomes, and ultimate result.  North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a case in point.

The key is to shift from managing North Korea’s bad behavior incrementally and reactively to a proactive, constructive policy by emphasizing a comprehensive approach that utilizes a set of interrelated elements agreed up front, and then implemented flexibly in whatever sequence best matches the asymmetrical capacities and interests of the six key parties to the Korean nuclear conflict. In particular, it requires addressing North Korea’s security concerns, not just the allies’.

In the six years since the comprehensive security concept to the North Korean problem was articulated in Tokyo by Morton Halperin,[1] Kim Jong Un has grown accustomed to ruling while concurrently reconstructing North Korean identity and security strategy around its nuclear weapons.  Consequently, it will be much harder and slower to freeze, dismantle, and eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons today than it was in 2011, let alone in 2005.

This essay argues that a US-ROK coordinated approach can be built on the foundation of a plausible, concrete concept of a comprehensive regional security strategy that is actually capable of reversing and disarming the North Korean nuclear weapons program.   Pressure may be useful, but thinking ahead to calculate and synchronize the pressure and critically to design a negotiable outcome is also essential.  Unless the two allies propose to bring about a final state of affairs that is desirable to North Korea as well as the international community, nuclear brinksmanship in Korea is likely to continue for the foreseeable future; and North Korea will continue to acquire more nuclear weapons and to add delivery systems to its arsenal.  This essay explains how the United States might actually achieve its most important policy goal in Korea, stopping and reversing North Korea’s nuclear breakout.


The original 2011 comprehensive security settlement proposal and subsequent articulations argued that the United States take the initiative in resolving the North Korea nuclear problem and that a clear pathway to doing so successfully could be envisioned.[2]  The strategy has six, inter-locking essential elements:

  1. Set up a Six Party Northeast Asia Security Council.
  2. End sanctions over time.
  3. Declare non-hostility.
  4. End the Korean Armistice; sign a peace treaty in some form.
  5. Provide economic, energy aid to DPRK, especially that which benefits the whole region (that is, complete many types of energy, telecom, logistics, transport, mobility, trading, financial networks via the North Korean land-bridge from Eurasia to ROK and Japan).
  6. Establish a regional nuclear weapons free-zone (NWFZ) in which to re-establish DPRK’s non-nuclear commitment in a legally binding manner[3] and to provide a framework for its dismantlement; and to manage nuclear threat in the region in a manner that treats all parties, including North Korea, on an equal basis.

This approach was based on the following premises:

  • The United States is a reliable and responsible provider of global and regional security.
  • The United States is a sole supplier of the leadership needed to solve the North Korea issue.[4]
  • North Korea’s fundamental strategy—to change US hostile policy to one that allows it to lessen dependence on China, improve its security, and survive as an independent state—remains the same under Kim Jong Un as his predecessors.
  • The Six Party Talks is the only negotiation framework wherein all six parties could come together today given their respective frictions.

To some, the first premise may no longer be a given because of President Trump’s sometimes shocking statements and some US actions, especially those surrounding the March-April 2017 US-ROK military exercises which included “decapitation” dry runs and the botched deployment of an “armada.”  The optics of latter was particularly unsettling to US allies and other parties.

Yet President Trump’s willingness to drop US insistence on an immediate DPRK commitment to denuclearization, his tantalizing references to meeting with Kim under the “right circumstances,” the near issuance of visas for a track 2 meeting in New York, and the quiet early approval of his Administration of provision of food aid to North Korea, suggest he may be open to striking a deal with the DPRK.  No one knows what this deal might be, although most American analysts suggest that a suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile testing and perhaps fissile material production is the most that can be achieved for now

Given the priority appropriately accorded to overcoming North Korea’s nuclear threat by President Trump, we believe that striking an in-principle deal is at least on the cards.  By “deal” here, we mean an agreement to start “talks about talks” on a deal, not the precise content of an acceptable deal which may take years and several stages to hammer out.  But after President Trump mentioned meeting Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances,” one presumes that some officials in the administration, if not President Trump himself, have some clarity as to what might constitute such a deal, even if they are not sure yet how to get there.

The death of American Otto Warmbier on June 19 2017 after his eighteen-month-long detention in North Korea reminds us that timing is everything in politics, and that now is hardly a propitious time to be rushing to strike a deal with the North. Yet the strategic import of the North Korean threat is so great that the United States’ ability to turn around this deteriorating situation has become a key test of its global leadership. It can no more walk away from dealing with North Korea than it can retreat to its own borders.

Two parties have already positioned themselves to exploit the possible Trump opening to Pyongyang.  China has made its own military deployments including bomber alerts, an aircraft carrier exercise, and border troop deployments.  These deployments signal to Kim Jong Un and remind the United States and its allies that China could conceivably re-enter a new Korean War to preserve North Korea.  Xi’s private talks with Trump have clearly impressed upon the US president that American policy is the main driver as to whether there will be more or fewer nuclear weapons in North Korea.  China stands to gain from a Trump deal that would stabilize the Korean Peninsula to its benefit, avoid the unpleasant aspects for both of them of US secondary sanctions affecting Chinese firms’ dealings with North Korea, and allow the two great powers to move onto even more consequential issues that they must solve together.

North Korea has become a pivot point for US-China relations.  These two great powers must choose between increasingly competitive versus cooperative world orders.  Unless the United States is careful, by default China will become the locally strongest military power, the United States increasingly will be offshore and disengaged, and North Korea will continue to act as a spoiler state projecting nuclear threats. For North Korea that includes the ability to attack the United States itself with nuclear weapons.  The alternative is a more fluid cooperative-competitive and multipolar world with a strong element of US-Chinese concert that uses North Korea’s dependency on China to block and then reverse its nuclear breakout.[5] If they are jointly to resolve the North Korean threat, the North Korean issue demands that the United States and China make choices about the nature of their relationship that have implications well beyond the Korean Peninsula.

For its part, in spite of its shrill and outrageous propaganda campaigns, North Korea has been profoundly silent in the way that matters most: it has neither tested a nuclear weapon nor a long-range missile since Trump’s election.  It seems likely that Kim Jong Un is waiting to see if Trump is capable of adjusting US policy to the point where it is in North Korea’s interest to re-enter talks, and to take the concrete steps needed to do so. In short, Kim Jong Un will not put his head in a noose unless it is made clear how he can slip through it.

Which brings us to South Korea.  The incoming president, Moon Jae-In, confronts urgent domestic political and economic issues that he must attend to as his first order of business in the aftermath of former President Park Geun Hye’s impeachment and the scandals demanding radical chaebol reform.  To do so, he also needs to be perceived as playing a critical role in overcoming North Korea’s nuclear threat precisely so he can focus on these domestic issues without being ambushed by inter-Korean issues or a US-North Korea confrontation.  Finally, President Moon must repair relations with China, and quickly, or lose one of the South’s most potent policy tools with regard to the North, its indirect influence on China’s North Korea policy.

With regard to the Trump Administration, President Moon faces a two-pronged dilemma.  The first prong is that South Korea, not the United States, is at immediate risk from North Korean nuclear and conventional attack, but only the United States can reduce the nuclear and conventional threat posed to North Korea.  In large part, this is so because North Korea will only deal with the United States on the nuclear issue.  Thus, in spite of fears of abandonment or entanglement by the United States in its dealing with the North, and being perceived as inferior in some respect to the North in inter-Korean competition, when it comes to the nuclear issue, South Korea has no choice but to line up with, but behind the United States.

The second prong is that to mollify President Trump and to secure a distinct role of its own in easing tensions with North Korea, President Moon may have to modify the KORUS trade deal in ways that are hugely politically unpopular with his key political constituencies.  However, South Korea appears to be willing to review and reform its trade with the United States and may avoid making this a hot issue between the allies.

President Moon must therefore decide which of these two priorities is most important—leading on North Korea issues and nuclear threat reduction; or realizing domestic social, economic, and political reforms.  There is little doubt which he will choose.

Likewise, President Trump will have to choose carefully how hard to push President Moon on trade issues in order to head off North Korea’s threat to move the front line from the DMZ to the continental United States.   He must also accept that if President Moon is to deliver on trade issues in ways that matter to the United States, he must first commence the truly arduous tasks of economic revival, reforming the chaebols, overcoming political corruption, and reducing inequality in Korean society.[6]  And he must embrace South Korea’s constructive and leading role in resolving the North Korea issue, a point that Moon Jae-in is sure to make during the Summit.   Although South Korea cannot be the conductor of the DPRK denuclearization orchestra, it surely must be lead violin and recognized as such for its contribution.

How both parties deal with the deployment and operation of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system is a lightning rod for all these issues.  At this stage, the prudent approach is for the United States and South Korea to forestall any precipitous decisions that may affect negatively an overall strategic approach to reducing North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Three Phase Korean Peninsula Denuclearization Process

After the Summit, the two allies need to develop jointly an operational concept for a phased dialogue and set of nested, reciprocal actions and commitments that would incorporate the six elements of a comprehensive settlement listed at the outset of this note.  To this end, we suggest that three distinct phases, albeit partly overlapping in implementation, will be required.  These are:

Phase 1:  Initial agreement is reached that:

  1. North Korea will freeze quickly all nuclear and missile tests and fissile material production, including enrichment, either simultaneously or in a defined sequence and timeline, allowing the IAEA and possibly US inspectors to monitor and verify these steps;
  2. In return for suspension of testing, the United States and South Korea will scale back joint exercises, especially deployment of strategic bombers, and lift the US Trading with the Enemy Act for a third time. In return for freeze on all fissile material production, the allies will commence rapid, sensible energy assistance to the DPRK for small-scale cooperation on power generation, provide some humanitarian food and agricultural technical aid, and medical assistance, and commit to begin a peace process during phase 2.

The Six Party Talks will resume on the on basis that (1) there are no preconditions; (2) all issues can be considered; and (3) each phase can be implemented as talks proceed with nothing agreed in each phase until everything in the phase is agreed.

Phase 1 can be done in a series of reciprocal steps over a relatively short time frame (roughly three to six months).

Phase 2:  Six Party Talks resume, and North Korea undertakes initial dismantlement of all nuclear materials production facilities, including enrichment declaration and disablement, verified by IAEA and possibly US inspectors.

In return, the United States, China, and the two Koreas commence a “peace process” to bring about a Northeast Asia “peace regime.”  The Korea focus of this regime would be a non-hostility declaration and military confidence-building measures culminating in the replacement of the Korean Armistice with a peace treaty acceptable to all parties.[7]  At the same time, the six parties would establish a regional security structure including a regional Security Council, and would take initial steps to create a Northeast Asian security and economic community and cooperative security measures on a range of shared security concerns.

The United States and South Korea would adjust in an incremental and calibrated manner their unilateral sanctions to allow for a phased resumption of trade and investment with North Korea, among them, revival of the Kaesong industrial zone by South Korea.

The United States and the other four parties may commence confidence-building steps to cooperate with the DPRK on nuclear and energy security.  Such steps might include implementation after preparation of the DPRK’s 1540 nuclear security obligations, examination of nuclear safety requirements for fuel cycle operations in the DPRK, and/or initial joint work with DPRK on grid rehabilitation in the context of regional grid integration and tie lines with the ROK, Russia, and China.

One issue to be resolved early in talks would be whether missile production facilities will also be designated for dismantlement and controlled by the agreement in defined ways.

South Korea will also initiate discussions with the other five on a Northeast Asia Peace Regime.

Defining what Phase 2 would cover can be done in a few months, but implementation of measures required of the DPRK side will take several years to complete in verified manner. Initial nuclear safety and security measures, and early energy cooperation steps, may be undertaken in six to eighteen months.

Likewise, a peace and regional security process can begin in Phase 2, but completion of key elements of each of these interrelated elements will take years.  North Korea will want to see the result tested over multiple administrations representing both parties in the United States and South Korea to see if a peace regime is durable before they give up their weapons and weapons-usable fissile materials.

This leads into Phase 3.

Phase 3:  Declaration and implementation of a legally binding Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NEANWFZ) by the other five parties for eventual acceptance and entry by the DPRK in lockstep with agreed timelines and specific actions to eliminate nuclear weapons by the DPRK; and commitment to come into full non-nuclear compliance over an agreed timeline, in return for lifting of multilateral and unilateral sanctions, large-scale energy-economic assistance package as part of a regional development strategy, successful experience with no US hostile intent and conclusion of a peace treaty, and a calibrated nuclear negative security assurance to the North from the Nuclear Weapons States.

Such a treaty is a standard UN multilateral convention that both Koreas have had no problem signing in the past and would not confront the constitutional issue that otherwise makes the two Koreas loathe to sign treaties with each other that might affect their respective claims to exercise sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula.  Moreover, the other four parties may be skeptical as to the durability of a Korea-only denuclearization agreement and prefer the multilateral rather than unilateral guarantees provided by the Nuclear Weapons States to an NPT-compatible nuclear weapons-free zone treaty.

Phase 3 may take ten years to complete, maybe longer, during which incremental nuclear weapons disarmament may be undertaken by the North and verified by the other parties to the NWFZ as part of a regional inspectorate, accompanied by effective implementation of peaceful relations by the five parties. Phase 3 would enable a presidential summit to take place “under the right conditions” within two to three years from now.


North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons demands a comprehensive approach that is commensurate with the problem.  Even if phases 1 and 2, the freezing and dismantlement of its nuclear fuel cycle and delivery systems were achievable, it is not clear why Kim Jong Un would enter into such commitments except for short-term tactical reasons.  Although achieving such an outcome would be highly beneficial relative to where we are headed now with North Korean nuclear armament, limiting US and South Korean strategy to realizing only a freeze and dismantlement would fail to bring about the actual elimination of North Korea’s weapons.  And we are skeptical that such a deal would endure long precisely because the North would not have a long-run interest in the ultimate outcome and would be left with a small, relatively vulnerable nuclear weapons stockpile and ever increasing isolation.

To succeed, it is evident that a new element to the US approach is needed that was not anticipated in 2005 because of its subsequent rapid nuclear arming.  Simply insisting that the North disarm and rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is unrealistic as North Korea would have little confidence that putative benefits—in particular the ending of nuclear threat against the North by the United States—would be delivered.   Moreover, it will take time to actually disarm—and North Korea cannot actually rejoin the NPT until it is fully disarmed.  Meanwhile, a framework is needed to manage nuclear threat in the region, and most urgently, North Korea’s nuclear threats.  The elements that we have included in phase 3 are designed to address the need for such a management framework in a way that is legally binding, flexible enough to include all the parties to the Korean conflict and its resolution, and admits North Korea’s anomalous status until it is fully disarmed.

That said, we emphasize that in some sequence, all six elements of a comprehensive security settlement must be included in phase 3, not just a nuclear weapons-free zone.  These provide interlocking support to the realization of a comprehensive security settlement that can change the strategic calculus of a state, even one as “hard” as North Korea.  Anything less than such a comprehensive approach is liable to fail, with all the predictable consequences for American security, American global leadership, US-Chinese relations, US alliances in the region, and for the Korean peninsula.



[1] Morton H. Halperin, “A Proposal for a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia”, NAPSNet Special Reports, January 03, 2012, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/a-proposal-for-a-nuclear-weapons-free-zone-in-northeast-asia/

Updated here: Morton H. Halperin, “A comprehensive agreement for security in Northeast Asia”, NAPSNet Policy Forum, March 16, 2015, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/a-comprehensive-agreement-for-security-in-northeast-asia/

[2] Supplementary analysis includes: Peter Hayes, “Overcoming U.S.-DRPK Hostility: The Missing Link Between a Northeast Asian Comprehensive Security Settlement and Ending the Korean War,” North Korean Review,11:2, Fall 2015, pp. 79-102, at:   https://nautilus.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Overcoming-US-DPRK-Hostility-North-Korea-Review-2-2-fall-2015-pp-79-102.pdf

Binoy Kampmark, Peter Hayes, and Richard Tanter, “Summary Report: A New Approach to Security in Northeast Asia – Breaking the Gridlock Workshop”, NAPSNet Special Reports, November 20, 2012, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/gridlockworkshopsummary/

Peter Hayes and Richard Tanter, “Key Elements of Northeast Asia Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone (NEA-NWFZ)”, NAPSNet Policy Forum, November 13, 2012, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/key-elements-of-northeast-asia-nuclear-weapons-free-zone-nea-nwfz/

Leon V. Sigal, “Sanctions easing as a sign of non-hostility”, NAPSNet Policy Forum, February 23, 2015, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/sanctions-easing-as-a-sign-of-non-hostility/

Thomas Pickering, “Iran and a Comprehensive Settlement”, NAPSNet Policy Forum, February 10, 2015, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/iran-and-a-comprehensive-settlement/

[3] Such a NWFZ would recognize that the DPRK would come into compliance with full dismantlement only over time and after full restoration of its NPT non-nuclear status.  A NWFZ also deepens ROK and Japanese non-nuclear commitments (of value to China); and may facilitate management of nuclear threat by the three Nuclear Weapons States against each other in this region.  In return, calibrated to its dismantlement and full compliance, the DPRK would get legally binding guarantees of no nuclear attack by Nuclear Weapons States; and the ROK and Japan immediately get the same legally binding guarantees from China, Russia and US.  US nuclear extended deterrence to allies continues because if the NWFZ treaty is violated, the United States and allies can revert to reliance on nuclear threat.

[4] After consultation with Chinese colleagues, the authors recognized that China was not capable of assuming a regional leadership role to create such an institutional security framework, but would willingly partner in a regional concert to establish a regional comprehensive security framework with the United States including the elements outlined in this essay. South Korea would follow the US lead.  Japan would follow the US and ROK lead.  Russia would be a bit player but can provide important reassurance and buttressing of the concept in Pyongyang.

[5] These are two of seven regional orders conceptualized by the US National Intelligence Council; see D. Twining, “Global Trends 2030: Pathways for Asia’s Strategic Future,” December 10, 2012 at: http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/12/10/global_trends_2030_pathways_for_asia_s_strategic_future and “Global Trends 2030: Scenarios for Asia’s Strategic Future,” December 11, 2012 at: http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/12/11/global_trends_2030_scenarios_for_asia_s_strategic_future

[6] In this “transaction,” South Korea will gain from US leadership on the nuclear issue provided it delivers sufficient progress to enable President Moon to implement his domestic policies as his first priority; and the United States will gain from South Korean support in its strategy to avoid North Korea being able to inflict nuclear attacks on the United States itself as well as on Japan.  Thus, each party holds sway over the other’s ability to realize its highest policy priority.

[7] Since the constitutions of both North and South Korea do not recognize the other as a sovereign entity, the “peace treaty” would involve a DPRK-US normalization treaty and inter-Korean agreement.  A four-party peace treaty is possible, but in that case, there must be a new interpretation of constitution in each Korea.



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