*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
I often hear my progressive friends in Seoul argue that North Korea can be induced to abandon nuclear weapons if the United States would provide a security assurance. Even Donald Trump — who sounds more like an editor at Hangyoreh than a hawkish Republican these days — has argued that he will offer “strong protections” if North Korea denuclearizes. I have no doubt that North Korea will argue for a security assurance … and I have serious doubt that it would have any meaningful impact on the North’s nuclear program.
Consider the dubious history of the major security assurances with authoritarian regimes throughout history:
• June 1934: Nazi Germany and the Polish Republic sign a non-aggression pact pledging no military action against each other for a decade. Five years later Germany invades Poland.
• September 1938: Hitler agrees with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to a peace treaty if Germany annexes only the Sudetenland. Within a year Hitler has taken all of Czechoslovakia.
• May 1939: Germany and Denmark sign a non-aggression pact. A year later Hitler invades Denmark.
• August 1939: Germany and the Soviet Union sign the “Molotov-Ribbentrop” non-aggression pact. Two years later Germany attacks the Soviet Union.
• April 1941: Japan and the Soviet Union sign a non-aggression pact. Four years later the Soviets attack Japan in Manchuria.
The most interesting thing about this list was that it was first pointed out to me on the margins of the Six Party Talks by a senior North Korean diplomat. Since the Chinese and Russian delegations were urging the United States to offer a security assurance to Pyongyang at the time, the North Korean Foreign Ministry decided to do its own research on the history of security assurances. Their conclusion, this North Korean diplomat told me, was that security assurances “weren’t worth much.” The historical record since then is no better: Russia pledged not to use force against Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and then violently seized Crimea two decades later.
Of course, North Korea has already received security assurances, which some advocates of the idea seem to forget:
• In the 1994 Agreed Framework the Clinton administration pledged not to use force against North Korea; within a few years the North was cheating on the agreement by developing its uranium enrichment program.
• In the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks the United States agreed to a negative security assurance for North Korea; the next year North Korea tested its first nuclear device.
A social scientist looking at this data might argue that there is a clear correlation between security assurances and the outbreak of war or nuclear proliferation. I am certainly not making that argument, but the historical record should make us as cautious as the North Koreans are.
Even without reviewing the ironic history of security assurances, Pyongyang has multiple reasons not to place any faith in such declarations by the United States or South Korea. First, the North Koreans themselves honor very few international agreements, so why would they expect others to do so? Second, the North can see that democracies also reverse their commitments with changes of government, as Trump did with the Paris Climate Change agreement and the Iran deal. Third and most important, the United States can never guarantee the North Korean regime would survive against its greatest existential threat — the North Korean people themselves. Nuclear weapons are the reason Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are now having summit meetings with Kim Jong-un and talking about economic aid and greater recognition for the regime. Nuclear weapons are the reason Kim can possibly open enough to invite in McDonalds and cash from Kumgang tourists without exposing his country to the kind of global engagement that would empower his people to choose freedom.
Actual security assurances are not important to the North Koreans, but demanding them is an essential part of Pyongyang’s strategy. By arguing that the major obstacle to denuclearization is the American intent to destroy his regime, Kim can continue to press other parties to help him end the United States’ so-called “hostile policy.” A negotiation fixated on finding the right security assurances allows the North to demand that the United States end sanctions, military exercises, human rights criticism, the nuclear umbrella over Japan and Korea, and the other pillars of deterrence. A piece of paper that pledges denuclearization in exchange for security assurances will get stuck on North Korean intransigence over inspections and verification. In other words, Pyongyang will not have to implement the pledge because we will have limited means to know whether they are spinning centrifuges underground or fabricating nuclear warheads. On the other hand, commitments to scale back deterrence under a “security assurance” are far more visible and verifiable in democratic societies. Moscow and Beijing will happily pressure the United States and its allies to back away from deployments and joint exercises that are routinely publicized.
This does not mean that security assurances should be taken off the table in the diplomatic process with North Korea. Indeed, the United States has already twice made such assurances and has thus far kept them, in contrast to North Korean violations of its own commitments on denuclearization. Security assurances coupled with robust deterrence are fine. But let us not imagine that security assurances will open the path to denuclearization.