“Denuclearization”: The 21st Century’s Ongoing Disarmament Dilemma

An international symbol of peace, an olive branch- bearing white dove uses its wing to hold back the weight of nuclear arms
An international symbol of peace, an olive branch- bearing white dove uses its wing to hold back the weight of nuclear arms

Although many American citizens believe that the Korean War ended in 1953, armed conflict ceased merely by way of an armistice. This truce is one of the only things that “technically prevents North Korea and the U.S. – along with its ally South Korea—from resuming the war, as no peace treaty has ever been signed” (“The Korean War Armistice”). Since the Cold War, the conflict on the Korean Peninsula has been put on the back burner, but tensions still boil and the relationship with the United States still has friction (“The Korean War”). “Both sides regularly accuse the other of violating the agreement, but the accusations have become more frequent as tensions rise over North Korea’s nuclear program” (“The Korean War Armistice”). The diplomatic complexities of recent efforts to limit North Korea’s nuclear arms capabilities echo earlier attempts made in the 1930’s to attain disarmament.

In order to understand the geopolitical chessboard, it is important to understand different stakeholders and their issues add to the boiling tensions throughout the region. Since the armistice, the creation of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) has separated the peninsula into two different nations: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK (a.k.a. North Korea) and the Republic of Korea or ROK (a.k.a. South Korea) (Tilelli et al). In the decades since the Korean conflict, the northern nation has become a “Hermit Kingdom” (Strand), while the southern nation flourished in the modern world.

Besides the two Koreas, there are complex alliances among regional stakeholders. China, North Korea’s closest ally, “condemns its neighbor’s nuclear developments” but has opposed “harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding a regime collapse and a refugee influx” (Albert). Russia, a neighbor of North Korea, supports a halt on nuclear tests and calls for North Korea and the United States to cooperate and reduce tensions (“Russia ‘Welcomes’ North Korea’s Nuclear Declaration”). Japan, a United States ally, “has called the prospect of a nuclear-capable North Korea ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and said the security situation…is the severest since the Second World War” (McKirdy). Along with threats to North Korean allies and American allies, the Korean Peninsula has also threatened the United States itself (“North Korea Nuclear Timeline Fast Facts). “Despite the difficulty of the challenge, the danger posed by North Korea is sufficiently severe, and the costs of inaction and acquiescence so high, that the United States and its partners must continue to press for denuclearization” (Tilelli et al).

As of the writing of this blog, the world is holding its breath due to daily, sometimes hourly, developments in U.S. – North Korean relations. While always fraught, the relationship between the United States and North Korea has been especially complicated since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Using his unconventional (un)diplomatic tactics, he has made rude tweets and comments about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. For example, on September 22, 2017, upon agreement with South Korea to “increase economic and diplomatic pressure against North Korea, Trump provocatively called the North Korean dictator “Rocket Man” (Hamedy). North Korea, in turn, successfully tested an “intercontinental ballistic missile” that landed a mere 210 kilometers west of Japan (Hamedy). North Korea has even threatened that it has the technological capacity to “reach U.S. soil with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles” (“North Korean Nuclear Negotiations: A Brief History”).

Remarkably, however, there also have been positive developments in the U.S. – North Korea relationship. On March 8, 2018, after a meeting at the White House with the South Korean National Security Advisor, President Trump suddenly agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un if North Korea “pledged to refrain from further nuclear tests and move toward denuclearization” (Vitali). Six Short weeks later, the two Korean heads of state shook hands and together stepped across the DMZ as a gesture of peace on April 27, 2018 (CNBC). Recently, there has been preliminary talks among the U.S., ROK, and DPRK officials about a proposed peace summit scheduled to take place on June 12, 2018 in Singapore (Diamond). Progress towards the summit was advanced due, in part, to the release of three American hostages from North Korea (Holland). At a future summit, the United States will try to persuade North Korea to “abandon nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests” (Holland).

However, recent remarks by President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, have hurt the possibility for the summit. On May 16, 2018, Bolton suggested “that the White House was looking at Libya as an example of how it handled negotiations with North Korea to denuclearize” (Stracqualursi). North Korea took this remark as an “’awfully sinister move’” to imperil the Kim regime” (Stracqualursi). Thus, as of yesterday (May 17, 2018), plans for the proposed summit, seem to have completely fallen apart. Coinciding with Bolton’s remark, annual U.S.-South Korea military drills were used as an excuse by North Korea to suspend the peace summit (Cohen). Fortunately, there is still hope, as South Korea is “attempting to salvage peace talks with North Korea and play mediator for the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un” (Sampathkumar). From personal insults and threatening missile tests to diplomatic handshakes and proposed peace summits, diplomatic relations have been a wild ride. “Diplomacy between the United States and North Korea has gone through familiar cycles of long stagnation, followed by brief bursts of hope and then inevitable disappointment, typically after North Korea reneged” (Landler).

Global denuclearization is a critical issue of our time. The anonymously illustrated cartoon atop this blog (which originally appeared on “A Nuclear War Planner’s Guide to Resisting the Bomb- Infoshop News,” a blog by Robert Levering) depicts a white dove holding an olive branch in its mouth. Both the dove and the olive branch signify “peaceful intentions” (“Dove with Olive Branch as Symbol of Peace”). The dove in the cartoon represents efforts to fend off nuclear destruction. The weight of nuclear weapons, indicated by the “radiation warning symbol,” (Frame) bearing down on the achievement of peace.

With denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea, we must know what each party demands. The original definition of the term “denuclearization” is “to prohibit the deployment or construction of nuclear weapons” (“Denuclearize”). Unfortunately, this is not the working definition that either side, the United States or North Korea, is currently using. The United States, for one, wants North Korea to hand over its nuclear weapons and missile systems and allow international inspectors to check whether denuclearization is being upheld (Fifield). However, for North Korea denuclearization means mutual steps to eradicate nuclear weapons and requiring the United States to remove its nuclear umbrella (Fifield). The “nuclear umbrella” (Lewis) is a security arrangement in which participating nations consent to the possible use of nuclear weapons for their defense (“Nuclear Umbrellas and Umbrella States”). This is a danger towards the stakeholders for the United States, as the nuclear umbrella of the U.S. protects Japan and South Korea, however, there has been some other compromises on the table. For example, North Korea will relinquish weapons only if the United States ends its military alliance with South Korea. Unfortunately, the compromise of denuclearization seems far-fetched, especially since both nations have fundamental differences on the definition of what they are trying to achieve.

Each side of the conflict has fundamental differences on the definition of denuclearization. For its part, North Korea has declared a halt to nuclear testing but views its nuclear arsenal as an insurance policy for defending peace for future generations (Borger). The United States, on the other hand, has decided to sustain a policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea until the demands of a completely denuclearized Korean Peninsula are met (Borger).

Jeffrey Lewis ponders the complexities of the term “denuclearization” in his opinion piece, “The Word That Could Help the World Avoid Nuclear War” (Lewis). Both “denuclearization” and “disarmament” are terms used in diplomatic negotiations to de-escalate tensions and prevent war. These issues are reminiscent of the early 1930’s when the victorious nations of World War I called for a discussion on arms reduction. Their attempts at international demilitarization, culminating in the Geneva Conference of 1932, were the subjects of an editorial – “Disarmament”—and an accompanying cartoon –“Sword is Needed”—published in the Dallas Morning News on October 29, 1932. The illustration, by John Knott, depicted the tax burden of maintain armaments to the common man and the difficulties or reaching widely agreed terms for disarmament. His cartoon illustrated the complexities of previous disarmament conferences and exemplified that the only way to solve the problem was with bold action to ensure peace. Both cartoons emphasize the burdens of armaments, the obstacles to global demilitarization, well as the fragility of peace.

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