What Does Denuclearizing The Korean Peninsula Actually Mean?

On Monday March 9, North Korea “fired at least three unidentified projectiles,” over the Sea of Japan  These projectiles were detected by South Korea’s Defence Ministry, who reported that each “had a maximum flight distance of 200 kilometers (124 miles) and maximum altitude of 50 kilometers (31 miles).” The ministry announced that South Korea’s military will “[monitor] related movement in case of an additional launch, while maintaining thorough preparedness.” South Korea also claimed that Monday’s launch violates agreements made from 2018 denuclearization summits between Seoul and Pyongyang. A spokesperson from the United States State Department reported that it would be addressing the situation, while “[calling] on North Korea to avoid provocations, abide by obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and return to sustained and substantive negotiations to do its part to achieve complete denuclearization.”

Since February 28, “the one-year anniversary of Kim’s summit in Hanoi with U.S. President Donald Trump which ended without a deal,” North Korea has been conducting a wide variety of extensive military tests and exercises. In fact, just two weeks ago, the regime fired two other unidentified projectiles off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. Five European members of the current U.N. Security Council; the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, and Estonia, have formally condemned these “provocative actions.” However, North Korea responded by accusing these countries of engaging in “reckless behaviour… instigated by the U.S.,” and threatened to engage in a “momentous reaction,” revealed on Monday to be further missile testing. 

For decades, North Korea has been committed to developing a nuclear weapons program as a mechanism to establish a sense of legitimacy within the international community. Despite joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, and becoming a member of the U.N. in 1991, North Korea has nevertheless continued to open nuclear reactors and pursue the technology necessary to construct atomic bombs. Inevitably, relations between North and South Korea deteriorated rapidly, resulting in multiple maritime skirmishes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The United States has additionally become involved in the conflict, and in an effort to protect South Korea, as well as Japan, have stationed thousands of troops throughout the region, and have also placed several naval warships in coastal waters. By 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test and repeated this in 2009, drawing international outrage, as well as an official U.N. resolution ordering the regime “to abandon its missile program.” 

The death of Kim Jong Il in 2011 presented a time of uncertainty regarding the future of North Korea. Kim Jong Un, the young and politically inexperienced son of Kim Jong Il, assumed control the following year, and wide scale speculation grew that a possible “coup” or “regime collapse” was imminent. However, by “ruthlessly purging potential rivals and consolidating power,” Kim Jong Un took hold of North Korea’s political power with an iron grip and transformed the state into “one of the most reclusive and repressive governments in the world.” Kim successfully revamped North Korea’s image of being a militarily capable threat to not just East Asia, but to the entire world. In October 2012, the regime reported that their missiles could “hit the U.S. mainland after South Korea and Washington [announced] a deal to extend the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles.” In 2013, North Korea successfully conducted its third nuclear weapons test, sparking a fresh wave of distress and U.S. sponsored sanctions. Meanwhile, the living conditions throughout North Korea deteriorated and civilians have been subjected to nationwide famine, as well as viral and unquarantined infectious outbreaks. 

Within weeks of President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, North Korea announced its intention to test another Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capable of striking parts of the United States. While Trump firmly promised on Twitter that such a test “won’t happen,” fear and uncertainty perpetuated throughout the U.S. and around the world. For the next year, North Korea routinely flexed its military capabilities by conducting regular ballistic missile testing, of which in August, raised serious concerns regarding the security of civilians living in the U.S. territory of Guam. Thankfully, tensions de-escalated in January 2018 after a series of meetings between Seoul and Pyongyang, with both sides mutually “[agreeing] to end hostile action and work towards reducing nuclear arms on the [Korean] Peninsula.” Several historic progressions took place, including North and South Korean athletes marching united under one flag at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Additionally, Kim Jong Un announced he would be “open to dialogue” with American officials, and President Trump jumped on the initiative to help bring peace to the region and end the nuclear crisis. While summits in Singapore and Vietnam produced much publicity, it was President Trump personally stepping over the Korean Demilitarized Zone and into North Korea that prompted the world to hope that maybe the Kim regime would indeed consider a path towards denuclearization.  

Unfortunately, these various meetings and negotiations have failed to produce any lasting or meaningful change. North Korea continues to provocatively demonstrate its military strength and nuclear weapons program, which poses a direct threat to South Korea, Japan, the United States, and the rest of the world. As frustrating as this is, there is a clear reason why no resolution has yet produced indefinite peace; neither party is able to agree upon a mutual definition of what denuclearization really means. The United States and South Korea believe this solely involves committing the Kim regime to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. In 2003, the Bush administration achieved a similar feat by successfully leading the initiative to convince Muammar Gadafi to give up Libya’s atomic war capabilities. However, there is almost no way that Kim would ever concede his own arsenal in such a fashion. Without the leverage of deterrence and the ability to protect his regime from adversaries like the United States, Gadafi was powerless to stop an American backed coup which ultimately resulted in his own death. Kim would be risking his own political security by making such a compromise, and therefore, refuses to give up his nuclear weapons without substantial concessions from Seoul and Washington as well. 

According to a North Korean spokesman, Kim considers the term denuclearization to “[include] the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in South Korea and its vicinity.” This also involves the complete withdrawal of American troops from the region. With thousands of American military personal stationed within striking distance of Pyongyang, Kim is constantly kept in check with his ability to threaten violence on South Korea limited. Withdrawing these forces would leave South Korea at the mercy of the North, who unquestionably have the military might to decimate Seoul as well as the rest of the country. Likewise, the “nuclear umbrella” over North Korea keeps the regime under maximum pressure, and forces them, at least on a fundamental level, to comply with international organizations like the U.N. and abide by their legal doctrine and principles. It is uncertain whether or not North Korea would be pursuing any conceivable term of denuclearization if they were not under vigilant 24/7 oversight enforced by the most powerful military in the world, the United States. With Trump unwilling to withdraw America’s support force in East Asia, denuclearization talks have recently come to an abrupt halt. 

In order to demilitarize the Korean Peninsula, both parties will need to formulate trust for one another. However, considering that North and South Korea have been unable to make peace after 70 years of conflict, this will inevitably take an incredibly long period of time and no doubt will be quite challenging to achieve. Furthermore, the United States and other democratic nations have serious concerns over North Korea’s repeated human rights violations and frequent intolerance for international law. In order to establish an environment where even the slightest trust can grow, each party must consider making an interim compromise which can quickly reduce the military escalation in the region. It seems that neither the United States, North Korea or South Korea will be able to walk away having achieved their own ideal interpretations of denuclearization. Rather, each side will need to offer some sort of concession, as a gesture of good faith, and develop cordial relationships that can finally produce lasting peace.

Peter Koenigsbauer

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