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Parallel Deal with North Korea? Lessons from Ukraine

On April 27, 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula”[1]. The two leaders, according to the declaration, acknowledged their “joint efforts to alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula”. In fact, the declaration itself reflected North Korea’s long-standing claim: that Pyongyang would not have nuclear motivation any longer if the acute military tension on the Korean Peninsula is eased and North Korea’s security is assured by great powers, notably the United States. Since then, international audiences have paid much attention to the terms such as “alleviation of military tension”, “denuclearization” and “security assurances to North Korea”. When it comes to addressing these issues in the foreseeable future, I believe that the case of Ukraine, which represents a precedent of abandoning its nuclear weapons in the past, provides us with lessons.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Ukraine with massive nuclear weapons on its territory. Until mid-1992, Ukraine possessed a total of 1,656 strategic nuclear forces, to be more specific, 130 SS-19s (6 warheads each), 46 SS-24s (10 warheads each), and 30 Bear-H and Blackjack bombers (together carrying 416 bombs)[2]. It was Ukraine who unexpectedly became the “third largest nuclear power” in the world. To prevent global proliferation of nuclear arsenals and technologies after the breakout of the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and Russia urged Ukraine to belong to regimes under Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as one of non-nuclear states. Ukraine, however, was hesitant to give up its nuclear arsenal since it had strategic motivation to deter a giant neighboring country, Russia who possessed overwhelming nuclear and conventional forces. Military tension was not completely alleviated there. In this regard, Ukraine wanted its security assurances provided by great powers. To satisfy the concerning parties, on December 5, 1994, the United States, Britain and Russia signed the “Budapest Memorandum”[3], pledging that the three parties “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”. In case that Ukraine should come under nuclear attack, the three parties would “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to” non-nuclear Ukraine. The spirit of the Budapest Memorandum follows that of the Charter of the United Nations and the principle of “negative security assurances” enshrined in NPT. After signing the Budapest Memorandum, it seemed that Russia and Ukraine made demonstrable efforts to alleviate their hostility. Enjoying with “security assurances” provided by the United States, Britain and Russia, Ukraine accomplished “denuclearization”. We all know that violating the Budapest Memorandum, Russia launched military operation in Ukraine in 2014. Since then, it has been reported that Russia has (in)directly involved in conflict in eastern Ukraine, and United Nations Security Council has been paralyzed due to dissonance among the United States, Britain and Russia.

From the case of Ukraine, North Korea might learn the following lesson: a country, who makes decisions for “denuclearization”, needs concrete “security assurances” measurements which ensure “alleviation of military tension” in the region. In the first place, for the sake of never becoming the “next Saddam Hussein” or “next Muammar Gaddafi”, Pyongyang has sought nuclear deterrent capabilities. Preventing direct US military intervention with those deterrent capacities, Pyongyang’s ultimate objective is unification of the Korean Peninsula. Modeled after Ho Chi Minh, Pyongyang wants the unified Korea without “imperialistic” US forces stationed in South Korea. Moreover, in the eyes of Pyongyang, US forces in Japan have been an annoying presence since US-led United Nations Forces dispatched from Japan had ruined Pyongyang’s dream for the unification during the Korean War.

On balance, in the foreseeable future, in exchange for “denuclearization”, North Korea would propose some kind of “security assurances” measures, in concrete terms, total withdrawal of US forces in South Korea (and perhaps US forces in Japan) at future summit meetings with South Korean and US Presidents. For North Korea, “imperialistic” US forward deployment forces in the region has prevented Korean people from achieving peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean Peninsula. In other words, like Russian aggressive behaviors shown in 2014, US forces would function to invade denuclearized North Korea and threaten its territorial integrity or political independence. One cannot deny the possibility that Pyongyang has learned lessons from the fragile format of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994 and its consequences for Ukraine in recent years. In that sense, one can imagine parallel deal between North Korea’s “denuclearization” and US total withdrawal from South Korea (and Japan) as “security assurances” measurements to “alleviate military tension”.

To solve North Korea’s nuclear crisis and uphold rule-based international order with solidifying NPT regimes, it is required for the United States, Japan, South Korea and other concerning parties, to deal with all scenarios effectively and seamlessly.

Junjiro Shida (Research Associate, Chuo University)

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


[1] Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula (Panmunjom, 27 April 2018) < > accessed on November 24, 2018.

[2] Mearsheimer, John, (1993) “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.72, No.3, pp.50-66. p. 51-52

[3] Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Budapest, 5 December 1994) < > accessed on November 24, 2018.

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