The Road to Denuclearisation in Korea: Strategic Stability and Minimum Deterrence Now, Denuclearisation Through Economic Leverage Later

Zen Balancing Rocks o a Deck, New Zealand

Rather than focus on denuclearisation the emphasis for now should be on mutual and balanced conventional force reductions on the Korean peninsula. Washington’s economic clout gives it leverage to demand denuclearisation thereafter.

Denuclearisation continues to dominate the airwaves, with President Trump indicating that he is prepared to put denuclearisation on the, relative, backburner whilst Senate Democrats have written to him saying they won’t support sanctions relief for North Korea unless Pyongyang agrees to complete, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament which undercuts his negotiating position.

It is a pity that Trump’s seeming concession to reality, the Trump-Kim summit seems to yo-yo with the regularity of Galileo’s pendulum, has been met with this John Bolton like reaction from Senate Democrats because Trump’s new position is a positive step toward strategic stability on the Korean peninsula. The reaction of Senate Democrats doubtless reflects a political imperative to look tough on national security, not unlike Trump’s position on the JCPOA with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration, however it is also a reflection of an unhealthy obsession with denuclearisation in the broader public sphere.

North Korea’s position on denuclearisation is radically at odds with CVID, so much so that CVID at this point is consistent with an attempt to scuttle the diplomatic process. Joel Wit had a most illuminating piece recently published on Pyongyang’s approach to denuclearisation, however one must note that the article makes reference to the state of play in 2013. In July 2016 North Korea issued a statement on denuclearisation that was limited to nuclear weapons, with the geographic scope encompassing Korea and its vicinity. The response to that statement by the Obama administration was to enact further economic sanctions on North Korea, on the very same day no less. Sticking to CVID at this point of the game would be an equally irrational impulse.

A nuclear freeze now, and efforts toward achieving denuclearisation later, is a rational strategy as I shall argue. The focus of attention should be on the achievement of mutual and balanced conventional force reductions on the Korean peninsula pursued in the context of wider negotiations directed toward achieving a peace treaty formally ending the Korean war. On the nuclear front the emphasis should be on freezing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme, and formalising Pyongyang’s pledge not to transfer nuclear technology to third parties. Missile technology should also be included in this. This is the most rational way to proceed if strategic stability be our objective because it is the conventional military standoff on the Korean peninsula that forms the basis of crisis dynamics and escalation scenarios arising therefrom.

The mutual and balanced force reductions would be of a similar nature to those of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty regime. The idea would be to divide the Korean peninsula into definite military sectors, and the conventional arms control regime adopted would limit the disposition of forces in each sector. That would entail both the Korean Peoples Army and the Republic of Korea Army moving much of their forces, especially their mechanised infantry, armour, and artillery further beyond the DMZ. Currently the disposition of ground forces looks like so

This, not terribly detailed, little graphic of the disposition of North Korea’s army corps shows where the KPA deploys its armour

The Korean peninsula is quite mountainous and the main invasion routes go through the Munsan and Chorwon corridors, depicted below, so the mutual and balanced force reductions would be concerned with making it much more difficult to move joint operational level military forces through those corridors without significant strategic warning. That aspect would be similar to the flanking provisions of the CFE treaty regime. Note that North Korea’s mechanised infantry and armoured corps are well positioned with respect to the Munsan and Chorwon corridors

To make this work it may well be the case that US airpower within the Korean peninsula and its vicinity would need to be limited, as the fear of powerful rear echelon and deep rear area airstrikes goes a good way to explaining why much of North Korea’s ground forces are forward deployed along the DMZ. There would need to be provisions applicable to the maritime domain also.

The mutual and balanced force reductions might need to be asymmetric in two respects. Firstly, Seoul is much closer to the DMZ than Pyongyang so one imagines that North Korea’s ground forces, especially the mechanised infantry, armour and artillery would need to be pushed into sectors further back from the DMZ than would be the case for South Korea-US Joint Forces Command. Secondly, quantitative lists of APCs, IFVs, and MBTs obscure the technological gap that exists between North Korean and South Korean-US military equipment. One Abrams MBT would not equal one T62. Some mutually agreeable form of counting rule would need to be developed to account for this, something akin to the TACSFORM measure of relative effectiveness used by the Pentagon.

The idea of the nuclear freeze is to freeze North Korea’s strategic rocket forces at a level consistent with the concept of minimum deterrence. Whatever might have been North Korea’s goals for its strategic rocket forces, the reality is that the productive base of North Korea’s strategic programme limits it, for now, to minimum deterrence. The Hwasong-15 ICBM and the two-stage high yield thermonuclear warhead is consistent with a strategy of minimum deterrence based on countervalue targeting. Kim Jong-un in his new year address stated that North Korea would concentrate on the “mass production” of its strategic nuclear capability, and satellite imagery indicates that North Korea’s suspected long range missile factories continue to beaver away (with roof extensions being observed, revealingly) and satellite images of the Yongbyon nuclear complex are consistent with the onset of a plutonium reprocessing campaign to extract more weapons grade fissile material. The objective on the nuclear front, for now, should be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

Minimum deterrence is important because its existence is what would give North Korea the confidence to engage in mutual and balanced conventional force reductions of the type spoken of before. North Korea would have a powerful deterrent against aggression, which enables it to downsize its conventional forces and move much of it, especially the armour and artillery, to sectors beyond the DMZ. That’s one reason why CVID is not rational at this point.

One fly in the ointment could be ballistic missile defence. The Trump administration is due to publish its BMD policy review, and it may adopt language like that of a congressional resolution which calls for expanding BMD to openly size it with respect to Russia and China’s nuclear deterrents. What impact that would have on current GMD force levels and deployments is not known, but such an expansion in US BMD capabilities might affect Pyongyang’s calculation on the credibility of minimum deterrence. One saving grace here would be the throw-weight of the Hwasong-15. The re-entry vehicle of the Hwasong-15 is massive, which gives North Korean strategic planners plenty of volume for qualitative and quantitative augmentation of penetration aids. That means North Korea could retain confidence in its minimum deterrence despite foreseeable BMD expansion over the near to medium term without churning out more bombs and missiles.

But what of denuclearisation over the long term? The foregoing suggests that denuclearisation would be put on the back burner indefinitely. Note the reference to “vague declarations of disarmament” in The New York Times article linked above.

There are things that give the US powerful leverage to keep denuclearisation on the agenda. Firstly, South Korean forces are housed under Joint Forces Command with the US and the joint command is led by an American general. Secondly, Pyongyang likely will demand that US airpower on the Korean peninsula and its vicinity falls within the ambit of mutual and balanced force reductions. Thirdly, the US must be a key party in any process directed toward formally ending the Korean war. But, above all those, lies economic leverage.

North and South Korean rapprochement, if not unification, requires US economic support. The graph below depicts South Korean and North Korean GDP with respect to time, and so long as that gap widens so does the potential economic costs of reunification or of some form of inter-Korean rapprochement that includes an effort to assist in the development of the North Korean economy.

The graph below shows GDP growth rates between North Korea and South Korea over time. The North Koreans must surely be concerned with how long they can keep that growth rate in relative sync with that of the South. This, all things being equal, cannot be sustained over time.

Another important factor at play here is a false analogy often drawn with Korean unification and the Anschluss like unification of Germany. The Germans, to a certain degree, externalised the costs of German unification through the European monetary system but this is an option not open to South Korea, given the absence of a common monetary policy in East Asia. South Korea will find it very hard to meet the economic costs of reunification, or partial rapprochement, in the absence of international cooperation given its inability to externalise economic shocks associated with inter-Korean détente.

Finally, South Korean, European, Russian, and Chinese firms, especially financial corporations, will be reluctant to deal with North Korea if they face secondary sanctions from the United States whatever those states might want to do. One of the things about South Korean economic development that we forget is that although South Korea has grown economically in leaps and bounds that does not mean it is no longer economically dependent upon the United States to a significant degree. I’ve had myself a Hyundai and I’ve had a Samsung phone, happily too, but Washington if it wants could give both a good kick in the teeth. Just as significantly Korean rapprochement will require the support of international economic institutions, but without the backing of the United States that won’t be forthcoming.

The United States can impose a price on economic support for Korean detente, namely denuclearisation. That means strategic stability now and denuclearisation later is not a “vague declaration.” At some point Pyongyang will have to choose between the twin facets of its Byungjin Line policy of simultaneous economic development and nuclear deterrence.

Washington has and will continue to have economic leverage to present that dilemma to both Pyongyang and Seoul, and the more successful a conventional forces on the Korea peninsula arms control process is, and broader inter-Korean détente, the more likely it is that Pyongyang will choose denuclearisation.