The North Korea nuclear issue: Finding a way forward 

Presentation by Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans AO QC, Co-Chair, International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament

World Knowledge Forum, Seoul, 15 October 2009

I come to this session wearing three relevant hats. As Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 I was involved in the original 1994 Agreed Framework/KEDO negotiations. For most of the last ten years – from 2000 to June 2009 – I have been following Korean Peninsula issues closely as President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. And now, as co-chairman of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament – an independent global panel sponsored by the governments of Australia and Japan, due to report at the end of this year – I am deeply involved in trying with my commission colleagues to identify practical ways in which the world can not only stop further proliferation but move rapidly toward, and ultimately achieve, complete nuclear disarmament.

In each of these roles I have argued for the necessity, and achievability, of a negotiated solution to the North Korean problem, however difficult Pyongyang has made that course. I was, and remain, a strong supporter of the original negotiations in the early 1990s: I believe the agreement delivered real benefits, and broke down not necessarily because the DPRK was hell-bent on becoming a nuclear-armed state, but because of avoidable defaults on both sides. I continue to advocate a cooperative rather than confrontational approach as the best way to achieve non-proliferation and disarmament objectives generally. But that doesn’t mean being in any way soft-headed about the nature of the risks involved in any new state acquiring, and retaining, nuclear weapons, and we need to be quite coldly realistic in the way in which we approach the DPRK.

The guiding theme of the Commission’s work is essentially that stated by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in 1996, and repeated many times since:

    So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, it defies credibility that they will not one day be used, by accident, miscalculation or design. And any such use would be catastrophic for our world as we know it.

The DPRK has seemed for a long time to be a textbook example of the first proposition. But the beginning of wisdom is that, in this still very opaque system, we still don’t really know just how absolutely and finally determined Pyongyang is to become, and remain, a fully-fledge nuclear-armed state. Does it want nuclear weapons to deter any possible attack, or attempt at regime change? Does it still nurse some hegemonic ambitions over the whole peninsula and see nuclear weapons as a means to that end? Does it see an international market for its fissile material, bomb technology and hardware, in Syria, Myanmar and who knows where else, and use tests to demonstrate saleability? Is the whole program ultimately just for negotiating coin, with denuclearisation to be granted in exchange for aid, trade, investment and security guarantees. Or is it - particularly the recent extreme steps taken earlier this year -- about internal succession politics and the Songun military-first establishment? There is probably an element of truth in each of these explanations, and we cannot wait to find out how much in each before we act.

What we do know is that North Korea is an extremely difficult, cantankerous and erratic negotiating partner, adopting as threatening and intimidating a posture as possible and revelling in sending mixed signals which it is very difficult for anyone to respond with restraint. But there is a way forward, and it consists of and approach with the following five elements.

First, recognise the reality that it is the present government in Pyongyang, or one very much like it, with which we have to deal. Waiting for the fall of the regime, as in Romania or East Germany – or worse, meddling to try to catalyse it – is not a responsible approach. History is full of nations and empires that have persisted for centuries despite general misery, and the self-preservation instincts of a regime that has already lasted more than half a century should not be underestimated.

For the countries of North East Asia, as opposed to the think-tanks of the West, the sudden collapse of the DPRK, with accompanying refugee flows, economic dislocation and wrenching instability, is a prospect even worse in many respects than that of rogue-state nuclearisation. North Korea’s neighbours are as anxious as the regime itself to forestall radical disruption, as this is something of which Pyongyang should be reminded whenever it shifts into high-gear paranoia mode.

Second, do not accept the so-called “reality” that North Korea is already a nuclear-armed state. Technically, there is no strong reason to do so: at most it has a handful of nuclear explosive devices, probably not yet weaponised in a form in which they can be carried on the missile delivery systems it has now and is further developing. Politically, the best reason for caution is that Pyongyang craves recognition as a nuclear-armed state on a par with India, Pakistan and Israel – and should be denied it, not least to avoid making even harder the task of winding it back to the complete and verifiable denuclearization position of the whole Korean Peninsula that the rest of the world wants. Negotiating with North Korea to achieve that wind-back – or engaging in any other discussions with it about the way forward -- does not mean any acceptance or vindication of its present claimed status, and that should be made clear on every relevant occasion.

A related issue is accepting whether North Korea is now out of the NPT, or should rather be characterised as still a member, but one in bad standing. The DPRK has announced its withdrawal, but without clearly fulfilling the requirement in Article X of the treaty that it explain the exceptional circumstances which led it to do so. It is tempting to say as a matter of common sense that a country can hardly remain party to an agreement it has denounced and now flouts. Yet there is a similarly good argument for keeping a seat and a flag for the DPRK, so that a negotiated return to the fold is as straightforward as possible, and that all the previously-negotiated safeguards arrangements do not have to be renegotiated.

Third, don’t in any way concede that North Korea’s nuclear capability has bought it any immunity from attack. Assuming that it does eventually master a way of delivering them, Pyongyang still knows perfectly well that any first use of such nuclear weapons or devices as it has against any of its neighbours or the U.S. – opponents between them with overwhelming retaliatory capacity, not only nuclear but conventional, would be totally suicidal. And it is not going to be able to put in place in the foreseeable future the expensive and sophisticated defensive systems needed to keep their nuclear strike capacity intact in the face of a putative “regime change” attack (i.e. early warning of impending attack, or missile submarines). Weapons that are not likely to be able to be used in practice, or which it would be manifestly suicidal to use, are not usually seen as constituting a credible deterrent, and Pyongyang should be reminded of that as often as necessary.

From the perspective of both the ROK and Japan it is of course crucial that they be completely confident that they have all the deterrent capability they need for any conceivable threat contingency from North Korea – and that means unequivocal assurance from Washington. that they will continue to benefit from U.S. extended deterrence. (In the interests of generally reducing the role of nuclear weapons and making further progress on the global disarmament front, such extended deterrence should be understood in the future as meaning not the potential use of nuclear weapons against any security contingency, but rather the continued availability of nuclear deterrence against specifically nuclear threats, and the promise of massive conventional firepower being brought to bear against any other kind of threat).

Fourth, recognise nonetheless the virtues of restraint, and continue to look for a negotiated not an imposed solution, putting serious incentives on the table as well as disincentive. While the sanctions imposed by the Security Council – with full support from China, which very much caught Pyongyang’s attention – are an important demonstration of international intolerance towards those who defy its rules, it is clear that pressure of this kind alone is unlikely to bring about complete and verifiable denuclearization. It is also clear that any attempt to impose a solution by coercive military intervention would, even if successful in overthrowing the Pyongyang regime, be catastrophically and unacceptably bloody, not least for the people of South Korea.

The other participants in the Six Party talks have been admirably restrained in response to North Korea’s provocations so far, and should continue to be. That means recognising that whatever our lack of knowledge, or doubts, about nuclear motivations and intentions, we should deal with it as though a negotiated solution is possible. Pyongyang must know that all the things it most needs, including security, development, and the goodwill of its neighbours, are dependent on it moving away from nuclear weapons. But it is important that perception be reinforced by the other five parties making very clear – to the extent they have not already -- their willingness to give serious security reassurances and serious economic support in tandem with North Korea meeting its own denuclearization obligations. It is not a matter of rewarding intransigence, “selling the same horse twice” or doing anything else manifestly unacceptable: it just means intelligent negotiating behaviour.

As to process, all players need to work to achieve the necessary result through whatever combination or permutation of multilateral, plurilateral, bilateral or informal contacts will respect the pride, interests and concerns of all involved. The U.S. and others are right to insist that any bilateral talks which take place be within the general framework of the Six Party Talks, but within that broad constraint there is no virtue in being other than flexible, as the Obama administration has shown itself willing to be.

Finally, be patient. Buying time is something the North Koreans have clearly used to their advantage, in terms of testing their plutonium devices, developing their missiles, and probably now getting started, as they claim, on an enriched uranium route to further nuclear weapons. But on any view they can have nothing more for years ahead than a very tiny arsenal of not very survivable nuclear weapons, any aggression of any kind by Pyongyang would be suicidal, and buying more time will not relevantly change the overall security balance.

So the solution to the North Korean problem remains what it has always been: persistent, determined, intelligent and patient negotiation. This is certainly in North Korea’s security and economic interests. And frustrating as the process has been, and will no doubt continue to be, it is certainly in everyone else’s.

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