Nuclear Threats on the Korean Peninsula: APLN Offers Ideas for a New Start

Nuclear Threats on the Korean Peninsula: APLN Offers Ideas for a New Start

North Korea continues to defy the UN Security Council with its ever-improving nuclear and missile capabilities. APLN Research Director John Tilemann reports on the work of the APLN, and particularly a recent interview given by Co-Convenor Professor Chung-in Moon, on why the time is right to start anew and to think more creatively about solutions to the nuclear and broader security problems facing Northeast Asia, and threatening the world.   

There is no better time to look afresh at the complex of nuclear and other security issues in Northeast Asia: DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs have not been halted despite decades of effort; the introduction of new advanced military systems into the region, especially anti-missile systems threaten to widen the gyre of strategic responses; and overall levels of regional tensions are on the rise. At the same time we have political change in Washington and Seoul. It is time to try again.

APLN was created to do just that – document, analyse and seek the elimination of nuclear threats. Two new APLN Policy Briefs have addressed the issue from different angles:

  • Policy Brief 24 – “How to Deal with North Korea: Lessons from the Iran Agreement” of December 2016, by Norwegian academics Sverre Lodgaard and Leon V. Sigal; and
  • Policy Brief 25 – “A Chinese View of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis” of January  2017, by senior Chinese commentator on security affairs General Pan Zhenqiang.

APLN Co-Convenor Chung-in Moon, distinguished emeritus professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, has recently added his voice to the calls for renewed efforts and new ideas on how to break the spiralling cycle of nuclear fuelled tensions in Northeast Asia.

In a recent interview with the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, Professor Moon challenged all countries with a stake in the security of Northeast Asia to consider the dire implications of a cascade of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia which the current drift in events is threatening. To have more nuclear states in Northeast Asia is in the interests of no one – not of the countries in the region, but equally not of Moscow or Washington, or the wider international community which has such a high stake in the security and economic strength of the Asia-Pacific.   Simply put, the nuclear threats of Northeast Asia have global ramifications and demand global attention.

The way forward? Professor Moon argues that the first stabilizing step has been taken: the recent visit to Toyo and Seoul of US Defense Secretary Mattis has restored confidence in the US defence commitment, thereby removing one key trigger for regional nuclear proliferation. That done, the US and other key stakeholders should acknowledge that pressure and sanctions on DPRK has not worked. Rather, the DPRK’s capabilities have been steadily growing and surprising many experts with the growing sophistication of its nuclear and missile assets. There is therefore an urgent need for renewed efforts.

The key is engagement and dialogue. Moon offers some challenging thoughts on how this should occur:

  • the new US administration should dispatch a high-powered envoy to the DPRK to reopen official channels of communication, now long severed;
  • President Trump should broker a “unified” approach with China and Russia plus regional allies at the core, and more broadly through the United Nations;
  • engagement with the DPRK should exploit the ideas and strategies in the US president’s book “The Art of the Deal”; and
  • there should be “optimistic messages to North Korea and the world that the North Korean nuclear quagmire can be peacefully resolved.”

More specifically, the time had passed for imposing unilateral preconditions on North Korea. The aim now needs to be trust building. Negotiations should be frank, and step by step. And lessons must be learnt from the deal which has successfully contained Iran’s nuclear program (as analysed in our Policy Brief 24). Iran’s circumstances are very different to those of the DPRK whose economy is almost exclusively dependent on links to China. So China is a key and its interests must be weighed very carefully.There will be no solution without China.

Professor Moon also argued cogently against introducing new advanced missile defence systems at this time: to do so would unhelpfully alienate Beijing and Moscow by the potential for such systems to impact their strategic calculations. He pointed also to the domestic Korean opposition to such stationing, and hints at the well-known power of the street in Korea’s vibrant democracy.

It is now 10 years since the Six-Party Talks produced a package freezing the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for aid and an easing of economic sanctions. The IAEA confirmed in June 2007 that the Yongbyon plutonium production reactor had been shut down and sealed. But two years later all those gains were lost and subsequent efforts to restart the dialogue have failed.

Conditions are now right to learn from the past and to be creative in exploring policy options. APLN members are committed to efforts to find a solution for the eventual, and secure, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through the generation and advocacy of practical strategies including through outreach and representations to governments in the region. And in collaboration with its partner networks in the US, Europe and South America, the APLN strives to bring a global attention to the nuclear threats confronting Northeast Asia.

About the Author

John Tilemann is the director of research for the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a former career diplomat and former chief of staff to the Director General of the IAEA.

Moon Chung-in is the co-convener and Vice Chair of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), Chair of the Sejong Institute, and the former Special Adviser of National Security and Foreign Affairs to the ROK President. He is also a Distinguished University Professor at Yonsei University.

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to 

This piece was originally written for APLN’s Nuclear Threat Monitor.

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