Korea and Northeast Asia peace and security framework

The United States has few more important policy goals than eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The risk that the repressive Pyongyang regime could transfer nuclear weapons and materials to rogue states or terrorist groups weighs particularly heavy on the minds of U.S. policymakers.

Executive Summary

U.S. negotiators in February 2007 achieved a breakthrough in the Six Party talks towards the goal of reversing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The “joint agreement” – among the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia – set in motion a process for dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. But this agreement still leaves the parties a long distance from denuclearizing North Korea or resolving other fundamental security, political, and economic issues on the Korean peninsula. The report that follows describes a path and the elements of a comprehensive settlement to achieve the full range of U.S. strategic goals in Korea.

After more than nine months of deliberations, a nonpartisan working group, organized by the Atlantic Council, has concluded that the United States should now seek a comprehensive settlement in Korea – the major aspects of which are outlined below – that would not only build upon but go beyond the administration’s February 2007 political decision to move ahead on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

In the working group’s view, parallel negotiations to achieve a series of agreements on political, security and economic issues related to the nuclear deal will provide the U.S. with significantly greater diplomatic leverage for achieving its strategic policy goals of denuclearizing North Korea and establishing long-term peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Realizing a comprehensive settlement would also demonstrate the strategic value of making diplomatic common cause with an emerging China.

Enlarging the diplomatic agenda through parallel negotiations, alongside the nuclear talks, will strengthen the U.S. hand by enabling diplomats to assert additional pressures on North Korea as well as provide Pyongyang, and other negotiating partners, new incentives. By offering the prospect of a fundamental settlement of all outstanding disputes with North Korea (and by expressing a willingness to negotiate other military, political and economic issues together with the nuclear issue), the U.S. would significantly improve the political conditions for the negotiations. The history of negotiating with North Korea demonstrates that improvements in political conditions almost always precede and foster agreements on security-related issues.

Clearly, North Korea will be required to make major concessions in the course of negotiations on a comprehensive settlement. In the working group’s view, Pyongyang will be more likely to do so if it perceives that its concessions will help bring about a resolution of all major security issues, while furthering economic development and normalizing political relations with the United States. (A companion volume to this report, “U.S-North Korea Relations: An Analytic Compendium of U.S. Policies, Laws and Regulations,” addresses the steps that need to be taken by both sides to facilitate a change in existing U.S. laws, regulations, and policies that currently inhibit U.S. relations with North Korea, as part of the process of normalizing bilateral relations).

Given the unpredictable nature of diplomacy with North Korea, it may well be that only some of the proposed elements of a comprehensive settlement, outlined in this report, are necessary and they should be implemented in a sequence that is best determined at a future time. Nevertheless, the working group believes that all these elements are ripe for current consideration and the U.S. should move now toward a comprehensive settlement of security, political and economic issues on the Korean peninsula.


The working group recommends that the United States takes the following steps:

  • Express a strong U.S. commitment to achieve a comprehensive settlement in Korea both to facilitate the success of the denuclearization talks and to resolve other critical security, political and economic issues on the Korean peninsula. Peace arrangements would take the form of a series of measures, outlined in further detail below, which includes a Denuclearization Agreement, a Four Party Agreement that replaces the 1953 Armistice, a U.S.-North Korea agreement for normalizing relations, a trilateral U.S.-South Korea- North Korea agreement on military measures, and an agreement establishing a multilateral organization for security and cooperation in Northeast Asia that could grow out of the current Six Party arrangement.
  • Proceed reciprocally and step-by-step in a Denuclearization Agreement toward the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, including the removal of spent nuclear fuel, the destruction of existing bomb and warhead stockpiles, and the implementation of a full protocol for verification and inspection to ensure ongoing compliance.
  • Pursue a Four Party agreement among South Korea, North Korea, China and the United States to replace the 1953 Armistice with a new overall political and legal structure for long-term peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Among other measures, this agreement would provide for a formal cessation of hostilities in Korea, recognize the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both Koreas, extend U.S. and Chinese security guarantees to North and South Korea, and affirm the goal of eventually achieving Korean national reunification. This agreement should be endorsed by a resolution of the UN Security Council.
  • Negotiate a bilateral agreement with North Korea – in close coordination with South Korea – to settle outstanding political and legal issues, normalize diplomatic relations, and provide U.S. assistance to foster economic development and economic reform in North Korea. The bilateral agreement would address the steps to facilitate a change in existing U.S. laws regulations, and policies that inhibit normal U.S. relations with North Korea, as described in the companion volume to this report. (Rather than negotiating a single agreement, the U.S. and North Korea might instead negotiate several agreements that, taken together, adjust and normalize the overall bilateral relationship).
  • Negotiate a trilateral agreement among the United States, South Korea and North Korea to implement military confidence-building measures as well as to adjust deployments and force levels on the Korean peninsula. In these talks, the U.S. and South Korea would first agree between themselves and then negotiate the implementation of military measures with North Korea.
  • Aggressively explore establishing a new multilateral organization for security and cooperation in Northeast Asia both to manage North Korea-related issues and to help realize U.S. strategic policy goals for the region as a whole. Modeled on OSCE and other existing multilateral security frameworks, the new multilateral organization would pursue an agenda focused on security, economic and humanitarian issues.
  • Convene an on-going series of meetings of foreign ministers of the countries involved in negotiating a comprehensive settlement – South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States – for the purpose of overseeing these negotiations and forming the nucleus of a new multilateral organization for regional security and cooperation. An initial meeting of foreign ministers, agreed to in the Six Party “joint agreement” of February 13, 2007, should take up these issues.
  • Immediately propose interim military confidence-building measures, from among those contemplated for a trilateral agreement, to foster the necessary political confidence among the parties for negotiating a comprehensive settlement.
  • Seek bipartisan consensus in the Congress on U.S. diplomatic objectives regarding Korea. While leadership on North Korea issues remains firmly with the administration, bipartisan Congressional support will be critical for realizing a comprehensive settlement and funding for any arrangements agreed with the North.
  • Synchronize U.S. strategy more effectively with South Korea. Clearly, a strong U.S. effort to achieve a comprehensive settlement on the Korean peninsula, in and of itself, would significantly improve U.S. relations with South Korea. Nevertheless, because a U.S. leadership role in pursuing a comprehensive settlement would once again thrust the U.S. to the forefront in determining a historical political outcome in Korea, Washington should exert all possible efforts to coordinate its negotiating positions with Seoul and strengthen cooperation through the Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership (SCAP), a new set of diplomatic meetings agreed upon in January 2006.

U.S. Strategic Goals

The working group believes that pursuing the elements of a comprehensive settlement forthe Korean peninsula will significantly help the U.S. achieve the following strategic policy goals:

  • Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and curtailing the threat of North Korean nuclear proliferation. Consistent with U.S. policy going back to the early 1990s, the working group reaffirmed the policy priority of managing, containing, reducing and, ultimately, eliminating the nuclear threat from North Korea.
  • Establishing regional peace and stability while avoiding a war on the Korean Peninsula. This broader U.S. strategic goal would be facilitated by normalizing relationships among the nations concerned, negotiating significant redeployments and reductions of conventional forces on the Korean peninsula to establish stable military postures on both sides of the DMZ, and replacing the 1953 Armistice with a comprehensive settlement that engenders both North-South and multilateral cooperation on security, economic and humanitarian issues. Significant progress in resolving North Korearelated issues would strengthen the U.S. relationship with China and by so doing, help to stabilize Northeast Asia.
  • Transforming the behavior of the North Korean regime. The United States has a strong interest in transforming the behavior of the government of North Korea, both by encouraging it to proceed with economic reform and by loosening controls over its people. Economic reform in North Korea will open its society to international norms of conduct and beneficial outside influences.
  • Enhancing Japanese security. Japan is more at risk from a North Korean nuclear attack than the United States because Pyongyang potentially possesses the means for delivering a weapon at a short to medium range, while it still lacks long-range missile delivery systems. A settlement with North Korea which furthers peace and stability in Korea would strongly advance Japan’snational interests.
  • Strengthening the U.S.-Korea alliance.  South Korea plays a critical role in the U.S. strategic alliance structure in the Asia Pacific. The non-military component of the U.S.-South Korea alliance has been expanding as well, based on common political values and the mutual desire to strengthen economic ties through a free trade agreement. A major policy goal of the U.S. should be consciously to promote measures that harmonize U.S. and South Korean policies and, in so doing, strengthen the alliance.

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