Skip to content
Commentary | 18 July 2019

European precedent on security guarantees and assurances: Implications for US and North Korea

Image of Carlo Trezza

Carlo Trezza |Former Ambassador for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Former Chairman of the Missile Technology Control Regime

DPRK Risk Reduction Security United States Global Security ELN

There was no signing of a document during the recent unexpected encounter at Panmunjom between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un; the meeting, called at the last minute, was mainly symbolic. The two leaders only agreed to delegate to their respective teams the handling of a negotiation expected to start in the near future. Their February 2019 encounter in Hanoi was a fiasco. The starting point for future negotiation therefore can only be the common declaration, agreed in Singapore June 2018, in which the most substantial commitment  reads, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Whereas “denuclearization” captured the attention of the international community and media, less attention has been given to the concept of “security guarantees” – One can only speculate on the meaning of this term in the Korean context. The use of the term “security guarantees” is significant in itself as Nuclear Weapons States (NWS), including the US, have traditionally been reluctant to use the expression, preferring the less binding term “security assurances”.

A meaningful – though not encouraging – precedent in this field was set in Europe with the 1994 Budapest “Memorandum on Security Assurances”. On that occasion, the Russian Federation, the US and the UK – as depositaries of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – gave Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus “security assurances“  in exchange for their accession to the NPT as Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) and the transfer of all Soviet-made nuclear warheads on their territory to Russia. This deal included the reaffirmation by the three depositary states of their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus; of their respect for the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of these; and of their engagement that none of their weapons would ever be used except in self-defence. Furthermore, the depositaries also committed themselves to refrain from economic coercion and to give immediate assistance should any of the three countries become victim to an act of aggression.

In fact, most of the Memorandum’s assurances were a reaffirmation of commitments already undertaken by the three depositary states either within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or of the United Nations. The Memorandum’s greatest weakness, however, lay in the fact that it was only politically, and not legally, binding. This flaw allowed the Russian Federation, which under the Memorandum was supposed to assure Kiev’s territorial integrity, to invade Ukrainian territory with impunity in 2014, to annex Crimea, and to support military actions in eastern Ukraine. This event not only dramatically changed the climate of co-operation and reconciliation in Europe but also struck a major blow to the very credibility of the concept of security assurances. International Affairs published a profound analysis of the Memorandum’s implications in 2015 by David S. Yost. There can be little doubt that the DPRK has carefully studied the Budapest precedent and that it will not fall into the trap of Ukraine-type security assurances.

If indeed the DPRK is ready to accept the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it will surely ask first and foremost for guarantees in the nuclear field – for so-called “negative security assurances“, meaning the non-use and non-threat of use of nuclear weapons against North Korea – A type of assurance widely discussed in the nuclear arms control field. It was adopted by nuclear weapons states in the 1995 extension of the NPT (UN Security Council Resolution 984) as well as between the five existing Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (Latin America, South Pacific, Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia). It is generally agreed that only Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) party to the NPT are entitled to receive such assurances, and US doctrine provides that they must be in compliance with the NPT. This would imply that the DPRK would have to re-join the NPT and convincingly abide by its provisions in order to receive US guarantees. Indeed, the US will also want to be the one to ascertain compliance with the NPT.

North Korea would certainly also seek security guarantees beyond the nuclear field. President Trump‘s “fire and fury” threat was not limited to nuclear weapons, and joint US-South Korean conventional military action would be sufficient to cause unacceptable damage to the DPRK. Pyongyang may therefore seek both nuclear and conventional security guarantees, and certainly ask that they be legally binding. They may even seek more tangible provisions, such as the dismantlement of the US-South Korean alliance or UN Command, led by the United States.

Should the DPRK not feel reassured by US negative security guarantees it might conceivably explore the option of “nuclear umbrella” protection from China and/or the Russian Federation (equivalent to the protection that Japan and the Republic of Korea receive from the United States). This would be a major game-changer in the region with the risk of indefinitely perpetuating a Cold War environment in East Asia. Security guarantees in such a scenario would no longer be applicable: according to prevailing NWS doctrine, non-nuclear-weapon states that are “in association or alliance” with a nuclear-weapon state are ineligible for security assurances. At this stage, however, it remains profoundly unclear what US negotiators are prepared to give.

The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.