East Asia Nuclear Policy Project
Morton H. Halperin, The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Section 1, "Cooperative Security in Northeast Asia"


Cooperative Security in Northeast Asia before and after Korean Unification

What are the key elements of the security situation that the United States should seek to put in place in Northeast Asia to improve the security situation, including permitting the peaceful unification of Korea? One way to approach this question is to ask what situation the United States would like to see following Korean unification. I would suggest the following as a point of departure:

  • a unified, democratic Korea in all of the territory now controlled by North and South Korea;
  • the 1954 U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty continued and applied to the entire country;
  • U.S. troops in Korea maintained at current or reduced levels and in a location that avoids unnecessary conflict with civilian needs;
  • a Korea that is de-nuclearized and committed by international treaty to remain non-nuclear; and
  • satisfaction on the part of China, Japan and Russia that the outcome and the manner in which it was reached are consistent with each country's security interests as it defines them.

The objective of a unified democratic Korea in all of the territory now controlled by North and South Korea goes without saying. It is worth noting that this outcome is by no means assured. It depends at the least in creating a situation in which if the North collapses, China does not feel obliged to intervene in order to ensure a security zone under the control of a friendly government not allied to the United States. Even if China can be persuaded not to intervene to prevent the unification of Korea, a collapse in the north is by no means guaranteed, and unification may be the result of a very slow process of reconciliation between the North and South. Such a process may even include a period in which there is "one country but two systems" or even two governments.

The continuation of the security treaty between Korea and the United States is critical to ensuring that a unified Korea does not feel the need to develop nuclear weapons and does not come under the control of any one of its more powerful neighbors. The presence of some U.S. troops in Korea will make the U.S. deterrent more credible, including the commitment to respond to any nuclear threats against Korea.

In order to gain Chinese assent to this U.S. role in Korea, it will be necessary to provide assurances, particularly about the location of U.S. forces. The Chinese are unlikely to be willing to agree to any arrangement that permits U.S. forces to be stationed at the Chinese border, but might be willing to acquiesce to their presence in the lower part of the peninsula. The agreement on the location of U.S. forces should be accompanied by other confidence building measures (CBMs), including limits on the forces stationed by China and Russia in the border areas close to the Korean peninsula, notification of military exercises by any state in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, and restrictions on Japanese naval and troop deployments.

Although North Korea regularly threatens to resume its nuclear program if the framework agreement collapses, both Korean governments are now committed to not developing nuclear weapons. This understanding should be codified in an international treaty creating a nuclear free zone in Northeast Asia, which furthermore would transform the unilateral commitment by the Japanese government to its own people into a binding treaty obligation for Japan. It would also convert a commitment between the two Koreas-which will lapse at the time of unification- into a binding international commitment that would apply to a unified Korean state as well as any intermediate arrangement on the Korean peninsula. Specifically, the proposed treaty would obligate Korea and Japan to not develop nuclear weapons or permit them to be stationed on their territory, and provision might be made for international inspection of the obligations of the signatory states. The three nuclear powers would furthermore agree not to threaten to use-or to use-nuclear weapons against Korea or Japan or to station nuclear weapons in the territory covered by the treaty.

The value of the agreement could be enhanced by including a pledge by the three nuclear weapons states not to use nuclear weapons first against each other in the region. As with other nuclear free zones, the nuclear weapons states would remain free to have ships, including submarines, armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles operate in the zone. Taiwan could also be covered by the treaty by having both the PRC and the ROC on Taiwan agree that nuclear weapons will not be stored on the island, that the government of Taiwan will not develop nuclear weapons and that no state will attack Taiwan with nuclear weapons-all without prejudice to existing positions on the political status of Taiwan.

The objective of satisfying China, Russia and Japan with both the process and the outcome is the most novel and the most important suggestion made here.

The 1994 "Agreed Framework" between the United States and North Korea-which was aimed at resolving the nuclear proliferation threat from the North and thus at contributing to stability on the peninsula-came about only because the United States, South Korea and Japan were willing to seriously consider North Korea's security interests as its leaders defined them and then enlist the support of China and Russia.33 A similar but more explicit and transparent process is necessary to insure that Korea is eventually unified peacefully and that the result is to strengthen, rather than weaken, the sense of trust among the great powers in the region.

If the United States is truly interested in "engaging" China, it should work hard to draw it into a serious dialogue on cooperative security in Northeast Asia and to establish a security framework in which all key countries with interests in the region could seek to find solutions reflecting a cooperative security approach.

The first step would be to discuss bilaterally with each country U.S. long-term security interests, particularly as they relate to Korea. If agreement can be reached on the desired end points, then discussion can begin on what steps should be taken in the short term to ensure a peaceful transition on the peninsula.

The concerned outside parties should agree to not militarily intervene in North Korea and to consult urgently about appropriate steps in the case of a collapse of order in the North. At the same time, they should agree not to seek to isolate the North economically or politically but to provide it with humanitarian assistance based on needs determined by the appropriate international institutions. They should also agree to lift remaining economic sanctions and to provide assistance for economic development if the North institutes necessary reforms in its economic system.

One should not minimize the difficulties of moving in this direction. North Korea might easily see these steps as an effort to create a broader coalition aimed at thwarting its objectives in the region. China continues to be wary of any proposals for multilateral security cooperation in Asia. South Korea and Japan remain suspicious of each other and reluctant to cooperate on security issues. There is little sense of urgency of the kind usually needed to create new institutions or new ways of looking at issues. However, I believe that all of these impediments can be overcome if the United States is clear on what it is trying to accomplish and exercises sustained leadership.

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33 A comprehensive treatment of the 1994 "Agreed Framework" can be found in Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998): 195-204. Back


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