Securing North Korea
To ban the bomb, sign the peace

Paul B. Stares
The International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON — Of all the crises facing the new United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, the fraying nuclear nonproliferation system is arguably the most consequential. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has warned of 30 "virtual new weapons states" on the horizon.

Obviously, the more countries that possess the bomb, the higher the risk of a nuclear accident, the theft of a weapon, sales of technology and hardware, and a serious miscalculation leading to nuclear war.

So where should Ban start? With North Korea having declared after its test last October that it now possesses a nuclear deterrent, the understandable temptation will be to focus on Iran.

This would be a mistake. North Korea is still some way off from having a reliable nuclear weapon, and to accept its having this capacity as a fait accompli would not only play into its game plan but also convince Iran and other countries that the international community lacks the will to prevent them from developing the bomb. A new approach is required.

The logical place to look is to examine the lessons of "nuclear reversal" — that is, what has made states in the past give up the nuclear option. At first glance, the historical record doesn't look encouraging: South Africa is the only country that has developed nuclear weapons and then destroyed them. Yet other nations have abandoned advanced research programs — including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan — or, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, given up the nuclear arsenals they inherited from the Soviet Union. One big reason for these countries' decisions, not surprisingly, was the efforts of major powers to reassure them about their long-term security, so that nuclear weapons offered no appreciable benefit.

How would this approach be applied to North Korea? The answer is not unilateral assurances from the United States.

American officials have vowed many times that they harbor no hostile intent; repeating that mantra will not make it any more credible to Pyongyang. Similar guarantees from all five of the permanent members of the Security Council, however, could be more persuasive. Enter Ban.

Diplomatic vehicle

The diplomatic vehicle for such security assurances would be a United Nations-sponsored initiative to formally end the Korean War and dismantle the present armistice arrangements. As part of a peace treaty, the principal signatories — the United States, China and the two Koreas — would commit themselves to establishing normal diplomatic relations, recognizing the territorial integrity of both Koreas and, most important, ensuring a nuclear-free peninsula.

To sweeten the deal, the Security Council's permanent five would extend security guarantees, similar to those given Ukraine, to both Koreas. These would remain in effect as long as each side fulfilled its nonproliferation commitment. If one or the other reneged, all bets would be off.

Complementary agreements involving conventional arms control, economic assistance, access to international financial institutions and humanitarian aid could also be discussed, but not as prerequisites for replacing the Korean armistice with a permanent peace settlement.

The United States has already signaled its willingness to sign a peace treaty — but only after North Korea verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons. Reversing the order, however, with upfront but still conditional security guarantees, would provide North Korea with immediate incentives to take the first step.

For Ban, such an agreement would be not only a gift to his native Korea but a much-needed boost to his organization's stature. Above all else, he might just save the nonproliferation system by using the same approach elsewhere, not least with Iran.

Paul B. Stares is vice president for conflict analysis and prevention at the United States Institute of Peace.