Li Bin
Li is a senior fellow working jointly in the Nuclear Policy Program and Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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At the beginning of 2017, the Chinese government proposed the concept of “dual suspension,” suggesting that the DPRK suspend nuclear tests and missile activities while the U.S. and South Korea suspend large-scale military exercises. This proposition marked the first solid step in the Korean Peninsula's denuclearization and peace process this year, and was further reflected in the U.S.-DPRK summit. The Chinese government later put forth another prospective denuclearization concept, called “dual track,” which laid out a plan to denuclearize and establish a peace mechanism for the Korean Peninsula simultaneously. This is a feasible approach, and it is time to further examine it. Based on this concept, it is necessary to design a fair and reasonable road map that is politically sustainable, technically operable, and that can protect the long-term interests of all concerned parties.

Defects in the Respective Road Maps Proposed by North Korea and the U.S.

Recently both North Korea and the U.S. revealed some of their ideas about road maps to achieve denuclearization and foster peace on the Korean Peninsula. In July, the Korean Central News Agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson who claimed that North Korea had proposed a primary road map of its own. In the early stages of denuclearization, the DPRK promised to suspend the production of intercontinental missiles, the first step being the destruction of the testing site for powerful missile engines. It would also begin exhuming the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War as soon as possible. By the end of July, North Korea had already returned 55 sets of remains. In return, North Korea hoped to commence multilateral engagements to improve its relations with the U.S. and announce a truce declaration on July 27, the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which did not happen. This primary road map complied with China's “dual track”  approach, but it was obviously created to address U.S. concerns. In other words, the initial denuclearization step that North Korea was willing to take focused on the intercontinental ballistic missiles with which the U.S. was most concerned. But the road map did not mention nuclear facility safety, an issue with direct bearing on DPRK's neighbors. Illustrating this point is the face that the cooling tower of the 5MW nuclear reactor in Yongbyon was destroyed during the Six-Party talks, and the DPRK has been using river water for cooling ever since. This complicates the operation of the reactor and creates potential safety problems.

According to the plan proposed by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in June, the U.S. demanded that the DPRK dismantle its nuclear weapon projects within one year, a technically unfeasible task. Sure, North Korea can shut down its nuclear facilities soon, but one year is far from enough time to safely dismantle reactors and dispose of nuclear materials, including highly radioactive substances. As a neighbor of North Korea, China hopes that the dismantling of the nuclear facilities or their repurposing is conducted safely and without any risk of accidents. Meanwhile, Bolton did not make any promises about building the Peninsula’s peace process. This one-way denuclearization road map didn't comply with China’s “dual track” approach and was politically unfeasible.

Only the Trump Administration Could Propose a Technically Unfeasible Road Map

Traditionally, the American government, using its strong human resources and think tanks, would design a detailed road map before engaging in any important nuclear negotiations. It would put forth a plan so other parties had to negotiate using the American framework. But the current situation is special in that a large group of Republican-aligned foreign policy experts in American academia opposed Trump’s run for president and refused to work for him. Trump has not reconciled with them yet, so he cannot seek their advice. Most of the colleges and think tanks that put forth the current road map are not conservative, so it is difficult for them to convince the Trump administration to accept their ideas. Therefore, we cannot just assume the Trump administration would come up with a technically feasible road map, let alone a road map that would consider China’s interests and concerns. Both China and South Korea have encouraged the DPRK to negotiate with the U.S., the country that puts the lion’s share of international pressure on North Korea. Under such circumstances, it makes sense that the DPRK’s road map accommodates America’s aims and neglects its neighbors’ concerns. It is necessary for China to flesh out the “dual track” approach as soon as possible and steer the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization and peace processes in fair and reasonable directions.

When China first engaged in arms control diplomacy, it usually only put forth some principles rather than its own plans due to a lack of experience, and it would comment on the technical road maps proposed by other countries according to its own interests. Having accumulated some experience in recent years, Chinese diplomats specializing in arms control have become able to create their own constructive initiatives in this field. One example is that during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, China proposed a new design for the Arak reactor that would only allow Iran to produce a very small amount of plutonium. Using China’s suggestions, all parties reached a satisfactory agreement and, when the deal was finalized, China was lauded for helping to solve  the plutonium issue. This case shows that China does not lack professional resources in designing technical road maps. What China needs to do now is promote future road maps as diplomatic initiatives.

When transforming the “dual track” initiative into an operable road map, China must  take into account political rationality, sustainability, and technical feasibility, while urging all parties to achieve lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula through cooperative approaches. If the initiative is politically rational, it should benefit all parties rather than one or several parties. If it is politically sustainable, the plan should prevent any party’s withdrawal from the peace process. Finally, if the process is technically feasible, it should comply with scientific laws and the established international rules on nuclear safety, security, and non-proliferation and avoid any rash actions. Cooperative approaches are useful in lowering costs and improving efficiency and reliability.

What Kind of Road Map Can China Propose?

A good road map includes many complicated details and requires the concerted efforts of political, military, legal and technical professionals to operationalize. The reasonable sequence of steps for the Korean Peninsula denuclearization process would be to first eliminate North Korea’s potential for nuclear weapon development and then dismantle its nuclear arsenal. The country’s nuclear weapon development potential is its ability to produce fissile materials for weapons (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) and to develop and produce nuclear warheads and nuclear missiles. Its nuclear arsenal refers to the nuclear warheads and missiles that it has already produced.

There are both technical and political reasons for the abovementioned denuclearization sequence. Technically speaking, it takes a long time to dismantle radioactive production facilities, so that process must begin as early as possible. International regulations must be strictly observed when shutting down, dismantling, and cleaning those facilities and disposing of nuclear waste in order to avoid accidents. The measurement of nuclear materials in those facilities is also complicated and time and energy-consuming. In comparison, dismantling nuclear warheads takes much less time. Politically speaking, if North Korea produced nuclear warheads while dismantling them at the same time, the denuclearization process would hardly make any progress. From North Korea’s perspective, eliminating nuclear weapon development potential first and then dismantling its nuclear arsenal can give it confidence, and the DPRK will not have to worry about its rivals pulling out of the deal halfway and launching a surprise attack against it.

In establishing a peace mechanism, the U.S. should follow the following sequence when responding to North Koreas denuclearization process by first providing political rewards, then security guarantees, and finally economic returns. A political reward may include signing a truce declaration and normalizing U.S.-DPRK relations. Security guarantees include abandoning large-scale military exercises, withdrawing the THAAD anti-missile system from South Korea and stopping other military deployments that are obviously threatening and aggressive. Economic returns include lifting the sanctions and encouraging economic cooperation. Such a sequence could calm U.S. worries about regional nuclear proliferation and mitigate tensions caused by excessive military expansion in the region since the Cold War. Also, this process would not harm the security of the DPRK’s neighbors. Countries like China, South Korea, and Russia should urge the U.S. to help build the Korean Peninsula peace mechanism according to this sequence.

Although denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and creating a peace mechanism will be long processes, the aforementioned steps should be closely linked with each other. While some verification arrangements for the last phase of denuclearization may be conducted later on, declarations of nuclear items should be completed in the early stages in order to make the overall verification reliable and prove to relevant parties that North Korea is cooperating. While establishing the peace mechanism, the U.S. should commit to following the next step in the process before each step is completely implemented so as to avoid a situation similar to that which took place in 1994, when the DPRK-U.S. Agreed Framework failed to be put into practice.

Moreover, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula requires the active collaboration of North Korea. If it submits its nuclear weapon production log in the process, the verification work will be much easier and more accurate. South Africa destroyed its production log when abandoning nuclear weapons in 1989, and it took seventeen years to finish the verification process. Ten years ago North Korea submitted its plutonium production log according to the “Disablement Agreement.” Relevant parties should carefully design the checking arrangements while respecting North Korea’s sovereignty and give it reasonable and reciprocal rewards for abandoning nuclear weapons. Besides, when North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, many of its well-trained scientists and engineers will lose their jobs and have to shift from military to civilian work. Efforts should be made to train them in the use of civilian technologies and turn them into the backbone of economic development.

Transforming the China-proposed “dual track” initiative into an operable road map is an arduous task that should not be delayed. Designing a good road map does not guarantee the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the signing of a peace agreement. But without a road map, it will definitely be impossible to achieve those goals.

This piece was originally published in Chinese in World Affairs Magazine.