The second meeting of the Ulaanbaatar Process took place last November. In the course of this event such issues as creation of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NEA NWFZ) were discussed, as well as problems of Korean Peninsula and role of NGOs and academic community in supporting regional peace and stability. Mongolia is the best venue to discuss these issues since it declared itself a Single-State Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in 1992. This year the 25th anniversary of Mongolia’s unique and internationally recognized status of a single-state NWFZ will be marked.
Idea of NEA NWFZ creation assumes that nuclear weapon states — China, Russia and the United States of America will provide negative security assurances to DPRK, Japan, and ROK, which will undertake appropriate obligations as non-nuclear states. This idea, at first glance, seems to be a viable alternative to the six-party talks. The resumption of 6PT without changing initial objectives and agenda is virtually impossible, contrary to the official statements in Russia and China. On the other hand, efficient promotion of NEA NWFZ initiative requires long preparation, specific conditions or even changing format. Creation of nuclear-free zone in the 3 + 3 format, undoubtedly meets the interests of NEA states on the Korean Peninsula denuclearization, but it is necessary to take into account a number of internal (within DPRK) and external (within NEA) factors. Due to DPRK’s altered position on the nuclear issue and new challenges to the regional security, the approach to the Korean Peninsula denuclearization should be revised.
Since the suspension of the six-party talks many changes and progress have been made in North Korea and its nuclear-missile sphere. First of all, DPRK’s nuclear status was enshrined in the Constitution in 2012. This fact has radically changed the situation as it has made political dialogue on the nuclear disarmament of North Korea impossible. Any negotiations on DPRK nuclear weapons will be the negotiations on changing its Constitution, as the nuclear status of the country will be the first thing to start with any talks. It should also be remembered that DPRK has paid a high price for its nuclear weapons: for many years the country faced real military threats and pressure from the United States and its allies and sanctions of the entire “international community”, including friendly and neutral countries. It is difficult to imagine what international community can offer DPRK to make it voluntarily abandon its nuclear and missile progress and achievements. Along with technical progress, DPRK changed its rhetoric on denuclearization. Nowadays, the country would agree to nuclear disarmament only in the case of global denuclearization. Primarily, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is required, which implies not unilateral concessions by the DPRK, but mutual and simultaneous steps to reduce tensions in the region by both sides of the conflict – DPRK and USA. One of the sources of tensions is USA-ROK joint exercises, rehearsing scenario of invasion of DPRK. In recent years these excercises involve nuclear aircraft carrier and planes capable of carrying nuclear weapons apart from conventional troops and weapons. DPRK perceives it as a complete nuclear threat, especially given the aggressive nature of the exercise and tense situation in the region, where random error in the course of military maneuvers or aircraft deviation from the set course can easily trigger the full-scale armed conflict.
As for external obstacles to DPRK denuclearization and accordingly, implementation of NEA NWFZ initiative in 3+3 format, the most significant are US “nuclear umbrella” guarantees to Japan and ROK and the absence of peace treaty between DPRK and USA. ROK and Japan came under the US “nuclear umbrella” on the condition that they will not produce their own nuclear weapons and USA provided guarantee to defend them. These legal guarantees are formalized in the number of bilateral treaties which are prolonged from time to time. Nuclear umbrella guarantees became an integral part of ROK and Japan defense and security strategies and concepts. Despite occasional statements and appeals “to go nuclear” made by politicians both in ROK and Japan, it is assumed that in the nearest future the status quo will be maintained.
In contrast to ROK and Japan, DPRK can not rely on any other country’s nuclear umbrella guarantees and defense. The Treaty between North Korea and Russia, which was signed in 2000 to replace the 1961 North Korean Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, has no clause on military cooperation. Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed between DPRK and PRC in 1961, is still in force but the Treaty’s Section II stipulates that the aid will be provided only when DPRK “is invaded by” a third country. Official Beijing made it clear that if North Korea first attacked South Korea, China wouldn’t help DPRK. Given the fact that it is extremely difficult to confirm or deny the source of provocation in modern conflicts, one can hardly predict how ally will behave. Having own forces (including nuclear ones) seems more secure and reliable.
The idea of NWFZ can initiate the creation of a new regional security mechanism in NEA. However, for the purpose of complying with the principles of equality and balance of power in the framework of this mechanism, ROK and Japan should abandon US “nuclear umbrella” guarantees or DPRK should be provided such assurances (say, by Russia or China). Neither the first nor the second is feasible in the nearest future. The first option is impossible because US “nuclear umbrella”, as it was mentioned above, has become an integral part security system of the countries, which are covered by this protection. Abandoning it without damage and threat to these countries’ security is hardly possible. As for the second option, its probability is even lower. Russia and China, which could give such guarantees to DPRK theoretically, oppose to the very word “alliance” and support equal cooperation and strategic partnership, which, though perceived as essentially new form of alliance, does not have its clear outlines and name. Neither RF nor PRC would provide “nuclear umbrella” to DPRK as this step would automatically create the block, opposed to the US – ROK – Japan alliance and returning the “cold war” spirit to the region. DPRK’s position is also crucial argument. This country does not need anyone’s “nuclear umbrella”, as it reasonably considers itself a nuclear power and is guided by ideology of “self-reliance” in its policy.
The second major obstacle to the implementation of NWFZ initiative in Northeast Asia is long absence of peace treaty between the DPRK and the United States and gradual loss of trust to this kind of treaties. DPRK is still interested in direct negotiations with the USA, receiving security guarantees and signing peace treaty to replace Armistice Agreement of 1953. However, Ulaanbaatar process discussions revealed that DPRK mistrust of USA has reached the point where agreements are not enough. Along with treaty itself the mechanism of control over compliance with it is needed. North Koreans still remember the Framework Agreement of 1994 and failure of US to comply with their commitments. The latest example is process of 6PT, during which the United States did not cease to exert military pressure and provoke DPRK. Therefore, though the treaty is to be signed between US and DPRK, the efforts of other NEA countries is needed to monitor compliance with these agreements by the both parties.
Given all these constraints, 4 + 2 format of NWFZ seems more feasible. However, nowadays this idea is unlikely even to be discussed on the official level, because it means automatic recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear state. On the other hand, in the case of 4 + 2 format implementation, DPRK along with Russia, China and US would provide negative security assurances to non-nuclear ROK and Japan. Such commitments and guarantees by DPRK would certainly reduce tensions in the region.
Despite the complexity of the implementation any format of NWFZ initiative in Northeast Asia has significant advantages over six-party talks. First of all, NEA NWFZ initiative implies mediation role of Mongolia, the country that maintains friendly relations with all NEA states and enjoys internationally recognized Nuclear Weapon-Free status. Mongolia is positioning itself as a neutral country and efficient “platform” for international negotiations on such issues as nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, problems in bilateral relations between countries of the region and so on. Scientific and government activities, held in Ulaanbaatar, often involve representatives of both DPRK and Republic of Korea.
Another advantage of the NEA NWFZ initiative to the six-party talks is the place and role of DPRK. Usually in the course of negotiations and discussions DPRK was treated as an object, not a subject or equal participant in the dialogue so far. NEA NWFZ initiative, though having similar purposes, in contrast to the six-party talks involves participation of DPRK on equal terms with other countries. This idea implies not unilateral concessions by DPRK to a certain “international community”, but concerted actions and mutual steps by the quite specific countries of the regoin. From this point of view, the initiative seems to be more attractive and viable, and DPRK representatives are rather ready to discuss it than resumption of 6 party talks.