Japan’s Security Concerns Over Denuclearization

Since North Korea’s denuclearization is primarily being negotiated between the United States and North Korea with South Korea as a facilitator, Japan’s direct role in this process is limited. However, Japan may be most affected by the consequences of the “denuclearization process,” since Japan may be the most plausible target of North Korea’s nuclear and conventional medium-range missiles. Therefore, it is natural for Japan to seek assured nuclear threat reduction through complete denuclearization and pursue a good management of the process.

This essay explains why and how the Japanese are concerned about the ongoing process of negotiation on North Korea’s denuclearization in light of the technical aspects of denuclearization and its close linkage with threat reduction/management, and argues for deeper coordination among allies for making the long denuclearization process sound and sustainable as well as beneficial for improving the East Asian security environment.

Nobumasa Akiyama
Nobumasa Akiyama is a professor at the Graduate School of Law and the Graduate School of International and Public Policy at Hitotsubashi University in Japan, and an adjunct research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Foremost, a growing but fundamental concern in the Japanese community is whether North Korea is really willing to completely dismantle its nuclear weapon program. Optimists say that given that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un needs a strong economic and strategic foundation for his long-term reign, for which economic cooperation provided as a reward to denuclearization would be very attractive, his intention to denuclearize is genuine. Skeptics say that since nuclear weapons are the most reliable source for security of his country as well as his regime, it would be only after the establishment of a solid and credibly sustainable peace regime and firm U.S. adherence to it that he would dismantle his nuclear arsenal. Additional skeptics say that since his priority is the survival of his regime, rapid economic growth may not be desirable as it may trigger domestic instability by raising political awareness among the public.

The Japanese security community also wonders if the United States has a game plan to set the process of denuclearization on its own terms and avoid playing a game where the rules are set by the other side. Earlier this year, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other partners of liberal alliances seemed to agree on pursuing complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID). However, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 9 rephrased it as “final, fully verifiable denuclearization (FFVD),” dropping “comprehensive” and “irreversible,” and adding “finally.” Does this suggest that we have to live with an unverified or self-declared denuclearization process until the last moment when the absence of the nuclear weapon program would be finally and fully verified?

Living With Uncertainty, and For How Long?

There are roughly two approaches to the denuclearization process. One is “eliminate mistrust first, and then denuclearize or, if lucky, disarm.” The other is “disarm first, and then it will eliminate the mistrust.”

If it is ever willing to abandon nuclear weapons, North Korea prefers the former approach, and its primary objective in engaging in negotiations is to achieve a security guarantee through the denuclearization process. The United States and Japan have historically taken the latter approach in order to first reduce the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

What North Korea offered in the Pyongyang Declaration at the Inter-Korean Summit on September 19   clearly showed that it was not willing to fully disclose information on its nuclear program and fully surrender its nuclear test site for dismantlement and verification procedures. The declaration says that North Korea will take additional measures “such as” the “shutdown” of Yongbyon nuclear facility “if” the United States takes corresponding steps in line with the spirit of the June 12 North Korean–U.S. joint statement, and that it is also willing to “shut down” the Tongchang-ri engine test ground and rocket launch pad.

These statements raised lots of clarification questions. With this text, we are not sure if North Korea is going to “decommission” and “dismantle” nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, and if so, which ones? In the Six-Party Talks agreement, “shutdown” ended up not meaning decommission but to deactivate and temporarily disable the facility, which was reactivated later. Furthermore, North Korea may selectively pick up some, but not all, facilities in Yongbyon.

Although actions based on the Pyongyang Declaration may limit the future production of plutonium and symbolically demonstrate North Korea’s willingness to engage, there remain very critical security concerns on North Korea’s nuclear weapon production capabilities (including the possibility of additional enrichment facilities, fissile material stockpiles, and thermonuclear material programs) and its existing arsenal.

With regard to the missile program, the dismantlement of the Tongchang-ri facility would have little impact on North Korea’s missile capability development. First, North Korea may have already established liquid-fuel missile capability, and not need further testing. If this is the case, there would be no damage posed by Tongchang-ri on its missile program. More important and substantial measures that Japan desires North Korea to take is to shrink its solid-fuel missile program, and a declaration of a moratorium on missile testing for MRBMs. Kim declared a stop to nuclear and missile tests at the Central Committee of the Korea Workers’ Party on April 20, referring to ICBMs and IRBMs, but not MRBMs. The U.S. announcement of withdrawal from the INF Treaty may affect North Korea’s rhetoric for justifying preserving its medium-range missiles. Even though the announcement is an expression of U.S. determination to cope with medium-range missile development by raising the stakes, it may be “interpreted” by North Koreans as a kind of tacit endorsement of existing medium-range missiles.

Even if North Korea follows through with measures in the Pyongyang Declaration, Japan has no positive reason to change its threat assessment of North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities, given that the measures that North Korea offers in the declaration would not contribute to a threat reduction for Japan. And without declaration and verification procedures based on internationally acceptable standards (preferably set by the International Atomic Energy Agency), we are not able to establish confidence in North Korea’s intention of its commitment to full denuclearization.

A full inventory of activities, facilities, and materials in its nuclear program will help us understand (1) what our goal is, (2) what kinds of threat we face, and (3) what the baseline is for assessing North Korea’s compliance with international nonproliferation commitments. In the meantime, from the viewpoint of the international nonproliferation regime, tolerating the absence of a declaration based on an IAEA safeguards agreement and applying a special procedure of verification to North Koreas without addressing nuclear weapons implies de facto recognition of North Korea’s nuclear-armed state status, at least for the time being.

For North Korea, however, a full declaration of nuclear activities and materials may mean providing a list of targets for U.S. attacks, and intrusive inspection reveals their vulnerability. In a sense, it is natural for North Korea to seek confidence building and arms control first rather than nonproliferation. In fact, North Korea had never referred to the IAEA during this phase of negotiation, and it is highly unlikely that North Korea would come back to the safeguards/verification arrangement agreed with the IAEA under INFCIRC/403, or agree on a newly negotiated procedure with the IAEA’s high standards.

Nevertheless, it is not in Japan’s interest to block the negotiation and denuclearization process by sticking to a strict application of an orthodox way of nonproliferation verification. In other words, submission of the entire nuclear inventory (or “declaration”) must come first, followed by verification in the North Korean denuclearization process. The international community should not miss this window of opportunity.

The Need for Robust Cooperation Between Allies

But a “flexible” approach to denuclearization poses the following prerogatives. First, Japan and other regional actors must live with North Korea’s nuclear weapon capability for the time being; second, the international community must live with the uncertain end game of the denuclearization process. It further suggests that we are not certain how much incentive we can afford to give to North Korea for a goal that we are not confident in reaching; third, therefore, we must have a strategy that induces North Koreans to declare their nuclear inventory and design a give-and-take scheme of gradual denuclearization that would give symbolic measures only proportionate to the scale of contribution to nuclear threat reduction.

If, as a result of this flexible approach, we have to accept a new normal—coexistence with a nuclear Korean Peninsula, at least for the time being—the role of the United States vis-à-vis its allies will become even more important. U.S. “corresponding steps” must be carefully considered to prevent undermining the credibility of U.S. commitment of extended deterrence in Asia, in particular with Japan, and not giving wrong signals to China on strategic calculations of how to shape the East Asian security environment. A clear and strong reassurance by the United States to its Asian allies and close coordination among allies and partners would help Japan form a more positive and flexible attitude toward North Korea’s denuclearization. More importantly, this would send a clear signal to North Korea that although the process is designed to be flexible, the final goal of denuclearization would never be abandoned as long as it retains its nuclear capability without appropriate, multilaterally acceptable safeguards and verification measures.

Additionally, close trilateral coordination between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is necessary to close the gap of threat perceptions among the three countries. Such discrepancy in threat perception or the sense of urgency makes a weak link that North Korea may exploit in negotiations. The United States may be forced to play the game under North Korea’s terms and conditions, which would be unlikely to lead to CVID nor FFVD. Rather, a unified position among the allies would strengthen the position of the United States in negotiating with North Korea.