Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
The world was stunned by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s rapid turnaround on the matter of peace and nuclear weapons. Only recently he was firing over the Sea of Japan and threatening to reduce the United States to ashes. As late as his New Year’s speech on January 1, he warned the United States that he has a nuclear button on his desk and is ready to use it. But with the stick, he offered a carrot, stating that he was open to dialogue with South Korea.
Since then events have proceeded at break net speed. First there was the participation of both Koreas at the Winter Olympics held at the southern city of PyeongChang. Then, on April 26 came historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at which the two leaders announced they would seek an agreement to establish “permanent” and “solid” peace on the peninsula and even to work for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” And two days later the South Korean President’s office said Kim Jong Un has vowed to shut down his country’s nuclear test site in May and disclose the process to experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States.
Typically, U.S President Donald Trump is taking all the credit for this accomplishment. There have even been suggestions that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace prize for bringing the two Koreas together.
A peace agreement would certainly be welcome news as the two countries never formally ended the 1950-53 war. They only agreed to a truce. North and South Korea are still separated by a 250-kilometre long and four-kilometer wide demilitarized zone. However, an official peace treaty would likely require the cooperation of both the U.S. and Chinese governments, as well as backing from the United Nations.
But the big question remains – how seriously can we take North Korea’s supposed commitment to “complete denuclearization”?
First, the comments regarding denuclearization contained in the “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” are the last item in a document containing three sections and 13 subsections are quite vague. They state that “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard.”
Second, there is no official timetable or method for the denuclearization.
Third, North Korea has, for decades, been pushing a concept of “denuclearization” that bears no resemblance to the American definition. It has laid preconditions that Washington remove its troops and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.
Fourth, the closure of the nuclear test site would be mostly a symbolic event. North Korea earlier announced that it has suspended all tests of nuclear devices and intercontinental ballistic missiles and plans to close its nuclear testing ground. Since North Korea has conducted six tests of its nuclear arms over an eight-year period (the same number of tests both India and Pakistan conducted before suspending their testing programs), they may feel the viability of the weapons has been verified and there is no need for further tests.
Fifth, this isn’t the first time North Korea has pledged denuclearization. It has done so before and never lived up to the promise. It reached an agreement with the United States and four other countries to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package worth about $400 million, in 2008. But that deal collapsed when North Korea refused to accept the U.S.-proposed verification methods.
But the biggest obstacle – and one which most commentators seem bent on ignoring – is the experience of Ukraine, which gave up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal in 1994 in return for promises of security that ended up becoming a mere illusion.
At that time, Ukraine was under intense pressure from the international community led by the United States to give up its arsenal. The nascent country did so under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum.
Under the terms of the agreement, Russia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom agreed to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty and the existing borders, refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics, and so on.
The signatories offered Ukraine “security assurances” which really were nothing new as Ukraine already had them under the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) Final Act, United Nations Charter and Non-Proliferation Treaty. Most important there was no legal obligation upon anyone to come to Ukraine’s aid militarily should that agreement be violated.
As every one is aware, that agreement was most blatantly violated by Russia – and not just with the annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014. As far as economic pressure on Ukraine in concerned, Russia has used this from Day One.
Thus, the blatant violation of the Budapest memorandum by Russia and the abject failure of the other signatories to prevent Russia’s aggression serves as a cautionary note to any other country considering denuclearization.
This most certainly applies to North Korea. Despite his recent peace overtures, Kim Jong Un remains a brutal dictator who will do anything to cling to power. In the past he has been described as “crazed”, but, in actual fact he is crazy like a fox. He has adeptly used provocations, harangues and nuclear tests to terrorize the world, and then abruptly pulled back to represent himself as a peacemaker and reap whatever rewards may come his way. But he will not give up his nuclear weapons because he knows they are his ace in the hole. And whatever negotiations may ensue, you can be assured he is aware of the Budapest Memorandum and will use its failure to his advantage. A quarter century after its signing, the Budapest Memorandum continues to cast a giant shadow over any denuclearization agreement that may be proposed.