The process of nuclear disarmament and confidence-building need not await the zone’s de-militarization. But it might serve to be a confidence-builder because the likely next step of inventorying North Korea’s nuclear enterprise might be the most sensitive. Pyongyang clearly has reason to fear that such an inventory would provide a target list for U.S. defense planners if problems develop in the disarmament process.
Here China, which has had a hollow military alliance with North Korea for decades, could offer the Pyongyang peace of mind by providing various assurance tripwires. Beijing could, for example, contribute inspectors to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s on-site nuclear data collection, facility lockdown and dismantlement monitoring. In this way, Beijing would be putting its own personnel in harm’s way to help ensure against any U.S. attack.
China could also make a far bigger contribution — if Pyongyang permitted — with a buffer force of several thousand lightly armed troops north of the de-militarized zone. These would serve as a significant tripwire to ease North Korea’s purported fears about military action from the South.
The process of nuclear disarmament and confidence-building need not await the zone’s de-militarization. But it might serve to be a confidence-builder.
Deployment of such a force could coincide with the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear infrastructure and could help justify the removal of the Kim’s immense concentration of rockets, artillery and chemical weapons. Because the South Korean capital is only a few dozen miles from its northern neighbor’s military batteries, the dramatic reduction of the South Korea’s defenses is unlikely.
To compensate, Washington could make a symbolic withdrawal of some of the 28,000 U.S. forces currently in South Korea, cut back on military exercises and exclude nuclear-capable B52 bombers from Guam.
Mutual withdrawals and disarmament require verification. Here the International Atomic Energy Agency, bolstered by intelligence from the United States and other nations, will deal with nuclear material. As in many other arms-control agreements, a dispute-resolution panel would help enforce rules.
This layered approach is not without pitfalls. It is likely to face a bumpy road, given the intense mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang.
To reassure that no party conducts secret conventional military increases, and in addition to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission playing a role, the United States could provide Pyongyang with a satellite-monitoring platform. The parties could also apply Open Skies, a Cold War program that permitted the over-flight of unarmed sensor-fitted-aircraft across both South and the North Korea.
Fully normalized U.S.-North Korean relations would cap the assurance effort — including the lifting of sanctions. An interim step to ease communication could be interest sections stationed at third-party embassies in both capitals
This layered approach is not without pitfalls. It is likely to face a bumpy road, given the intense mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang. But dire alternatives make it worth the effort. And these layered security assurances offer unprecedented safeguards to assure Kim’s survival without the bomb — while protecting both the United States and South Korea.
Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of three books on international politics.