[Viewpoint] Elements of a new deterrence planIn my last column, I wrote about how the U.S.-Korea alliance lacks a broader strategic framework. As the Lee and Obama administrations reach the end of their terms in office, the relationship has boiled down to trying to finish specific issues. When one talks to senior policy makers on both sides today, Seoul is focused on revising the 123 nuclear agreement and new missile guidelines. Washington is focused on these issues as well, but these are all difficult negotiations. Neither side is budging in hopes that they can wait out the other side’s time in office.
But the problem is that these are all tactical discussions that lack a strategic vision. Difficult issues such as these must be dealt with not just at the working level, but must be seen by senior decision makers as pieces of a larger strategic vision to take the alliance to the next level. The first element of a new alliance vision, as I mentioned last time, was global in the sense of the U.S. and Korea working together to provide public goods to the international system. It is in this context that the 123 negotiations could be seen as a way for the U.S. to support Korea as a full nuclear-fuel cycle state that is a leader in setting the global norms and rules of transparency, nonproliferation, trustworthiness and safety as a nuclear energy supplier in the world.
The next element of the new alliance vision relates to defense and security. Here, the new operational strategic concept should be to adjust the military alliance to deter a nuclear North Korea. With Pyongyang’s recent constitutional declaration that they are now formally a nuclear weapons state, the alliance can no longer live with the misunderstanding that denuclearization is within reach once we return to the six-party talks. The last round of these multilateral talks was in 2008, effectively rendering them not dormant, but dead. While diplomatic efforts should continue, the real task in the alliance is retooling the relationship to ensure effective and stable nuclear deterrence.
One element of this would be to engage in serious discussions about extending the South’s missile ranges. The South has been pushing hard to extend their missile ranges beyond a U.S.-South 2001 bilateral agreement to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines of 183 miles. Given the North’s efforts to develop missiles ranging as far as 2,500 miles, the Lee government wants a revised agreement that would permit development of longer-range missiles. Such an agreement solely on missile ranges would not, however, enhance deterrence without a South’s commitment to strengthen intelligence surveillance and command and control systems as the alliance prepares for wartime operational control transition in 2015. Seoul’s comprehensive commitment to missile defense as well as an agreement on joint operational guidelines for a new missile force would also be critical to enhancing deterrence.
There are other unorthodox elements of a new deterrence strategy. One would be to engage the North in a serious discussion about nuclear deterrence. The point here would be to convince the North that they are in the worst of two worlds with their handful of weapons. First, this cache, absent a demonstrated long-range missile re-entry capability, and any evidence of warhead miniaturization, does not come close to the definition of a credible nuclear deterrent. So they get no added security from these weapons. And second, Pyongyang’s mistaken belief that they have a credible deterrent can get them into deep trouble. The string of unprecedented provocations against the South in 2010 gives one the uneasy feeling that Pyongyang may believe that they are invincible to retaliation given their nuclear capabilities. This erroneous belief is a recipe for escalation as Seoul is determined to respond militarily and lethally to the next provocation. Responsible parties need to sit down with the North and explain the basics of nuclear deterrence, just as we did with the Soviet Union at the beginning of the nuclear era.
Another area of engagement with the North might be on nuclear safety. The nuclear meltdown that took place in Fukushima, Japan, was at an old but relatively safe complex. By contrast, the Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea is anything but safe. The IAEA almost one decade ago deemed North’s nuclear facilities, radiation shielding systems, cranes and waste disposal sites as seriously defective. Construction practices at both the old plutonium complex and at the modern centrifuge enrichment facility revealed in November 2010 are not compatible with international reactor safety standards, according to an American scientist who visited the site. One nuclear expert, who served in the Obama administration, stated after a 2007 visit to Yongbyon that the levels of radioactive contamination leaking at the site because of past operations and poor upkeep would force its closure in any U.S. city. North Koreans admit to Southern nuclear experts that their design team of young, North Korean-trained engineers learn by “trial and error.” Experts at the Nautilus Institute cite the locating of spent fuel rods near the reactor cores or inside reactor secondary containment buildings as an incredibly dangerous design flaw and contributing factors to a possible meltdown. North Korea’s unreliable power grid has also been shown to be an identified pathway that could lead to accidental crash shutdowns for nuclear power generation.
Engaging in a discussion on nuclear safety would be in the interests of all parties. Reactors and their related facilities in North Korea need to be made safe before they can be safely dismantled. The last safety management training session for North’s officials by international experts took place in July 2002. Disasters, either artificial or natural, of much lesser magnitude than the Fukushima tsunami and earthquake, could result in an unstable nuclear complex. A meltdown at Yongbyon, though smaller than the Fukushima Daiichi complex, would have broader implications by virtue of the plant’s proximate location to the Asian mainland.
Finally, a third avenue of engagement relates to energy. What the North has wanted in the past two nuclear agreements is light water nuclear reactors. The 1994 agreement promised them two and started a process to build them. The 2005 agreement followed the spirit of the previous agreement. In the aftermath of Fukushima, light water reactors should not be in North’s future. They were never a viable energy source for the North, and after Fukushima, it would be hard to sleep at night knowing Pyongyang were operating safely. It would be in everyone’s interests to find an alternative energy quid pro quo for denuclearization. When I participated in the six-party talks, one alternative put forth by the South was conventional electricity. The recent talks between Russia and the North about gas pipelines might be another. But nuclear energy for the North should be off the table.
These ideas are admittedly out of the box. But the point is that advancing any of these issues outside a strategic framework for the alliance is unlikely to reach resolution. Whether in the remainder of the two administrations’ terms or as a start to the next administrations’ tenures, both sides must take a step back and devise broader strategic objectives. Only then can Seoul and Washington address the specific alliance issues on the table in a way that strengthens the relationship.
*The author is D.S. Song-Korea Foundation professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
by Victor Cha