The Word That Could Help the World Avoid Nuclear War

A military parade in Pyongyang in 1992 celebrated the 60th anniversary of the North Korean Army, as documented in a government photo. Credit Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service, via Associated Press
A military parade in Pyongyang in 1992 celebrated the 60th anniversary of the North Korean Army, as documented in a government photo. Credit Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service, via Associated Press

There has been a lot of talk lately about Kim Jong-un’s willingness to discuss the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. It’s a cumbersome word and one that has given rise to more than a few misunderstandings.

Many people, including President Trump, seem to hear “denuclearization” and imagine a promise by Mr. Kim to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, recently acquired at great cost. But the term means more than the North’s disarmament. It imposes obligations on the United States, too — even if Americans don’t want to hear that part.

The word “denuclearization” is more or less native to the Korean Peninsula. This wasn’t the term experts used to talk about the elimination of nuclear weapons programs in South Africa, Iraq or Libya. In those contexts, the word was almost always “disarmament.”

So why have diplomats this time chosen the far more complicated word “denuclearization”? Because the situation is, well, far more complicated.

The term itself is a relic from the 1990s, the moment in which the ongoing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions began. At the end of the Cold War, the only nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula were American. The problem, from an American perspective, was that North Korea wanted to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities of its own. Ultimately, President George H.W. Bush’s administration chose to withdraw American nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of an effort to seek a diplomatic solution to the North’s nuclear ambitions. For a moment, it seemed like it would work: After the 1991 withdrawal of American nuclear weapons, South Korea and North Korea signed in 1992 a joint declaration on “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“Denuclearization” was conveniently abstract. That allowed it to capture different aspects of what James Baker, Mr. Bush’s secretary of state, called “the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula.” It covered at the same time the nuclear weapons that the United States withdrew from South Korea, the so-called “nuclear umbrella” of extended deterrence provided by the United States, and North Korea’s own nuclear weapons ambitions. It was a shapeless, ill-fitting word. But the alternatives — “disarmament” or “nonproliferation” — were just too narrow. Diplomats couldn’t squeeze everything that mattered into them.

Today, of course, things are very different than they were in 1992. There are no American nuclear weapons in South Korea (although the North Koreans don’t believe that, and some South Korean politicians have called for their return). More important, North Korea has moved in fits and starts to build a nuclear weapons capability that may be as large as 60 nuclear weapons, including a small number that can strike the United States.

But diplomats rarely throw phrases away, even once they are outdated. During the 2000s, “denuclearization” stuck around because the Joint Declaration was North Korea’s only written commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons after Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. And so even as the situation has changed, many American policymakers have repurposed “denuclearization” as a synonym for North Korea’s disarmament.

But that’s not what it means — and that’s not how Mr. Kim sees it.

In his meeting last week with President Xi Jinping of China, Mr. Kim reportedly committed to denuclearization. But when he does so, he is not offering to abandon the bomb, at least not without very big changes like the withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula and the signing of a peace treaty. He is terrified of ending up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, two dictators who abandoned their weapons programs only to be forced from office.

When Mr. Kim says that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was his father’s dying wish, he’s repeating a line that his father used, too. It’s a nice thing to say, but it can’t happen outside of a comprehensive settlement that ensures the Kim family’s rule in perpetuity. Rather than agreeing to disarm, Mr. Kim is saying he is willing to engage in a process, headed toward an ambiguous goal.

How will Mr. Trump react when he figures this out? Already there are reports that members of the White House staff are uncomfortable with the idea that he might travel to Pyongyang, because they understand that any discussion of denuclearization between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim might well lead the president to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, if only tacitly.

The idea of learning to stop worrying and love Kim Jong-un’s bomb is not something that Washington will eagerly embrace. But we are where we are. North Korea’s disarmament is unlikely, except in the broader context of inter-Korean reconciliation and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. (Even then, it seems like a long shot.) And if Washington can’t persuade Mr. Kim to abandon his weapons, the United States and North Korea, as well as Japan and South Korea, still share an interest in reducing tensions and working to make sure we all don’t stumble into a nuclear war. Mr. Kim is not wrong about these things.

Disarmament is the simpler term, but it elides the complexity of the current situation. If the term “denuclearization” merely reduces the problem of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to a small challenge in the big context of a settlement of Korea’s division, then it is the right one.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

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