Nuclear Weapons: Can Ukraine Be N. Korea’s Future?

SEOUL, South Korea -- Back in 1991 when Ukraine gained independence in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European country possessed the world’s third largest nuclear stockpiles following the United States and Russia.

Now, Ukraine is a non-nuclear state and emerging market economy.

Some pundits here wonder if there are any lessons that South Korea could learn from the Ukrainian denuclearization process to enlighten its northern neighbor that its future would be better if it disarms.

Defense experts and the Ukraine ambassador to Korea are skeptical about the prospect of the “Hermit Kingdom” following the path that Ukraine took in the 1990s.

They noted that the two nations have few things in common when it comes to motives and circumstances, making it difficult for the Ukrainian case to be a realistic option for North Korea, which has pursued nuclear ambitions for five decades.

In an interview with The Korea Times in early October, Volodymyr Belashov, Ukrainian ambassador to South Korea said there was a certain period of time when denuclearization became a political football in domestic politics there.

“Different points of view as to whether the nation should keep holding the weapons program or give it up erupted among journalists, lawmakers and even Cabinet members. Prominent academics and analysts presented their views in an effort to search for a right decision,” he said.

The heated debate began shortly after the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted the non-nuclear status resolution in Oct., 24. 1991.

The stockpiles that Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union included 222 strategic nuclear weapons carriers that included 130 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). There were 176 silos of strategic missiles on its soil as well.

“It is true that back then, the temptation to keep the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal or part of it was pretty big,” the ambassador said.

Driving forces

Despite the diverging views, Belashov noted the vast majority of Ukrainian people believed that the nation would benefit a lot from denuclearization.

“Certain types of ICBMs were designed and constructed in Ukraine, but nuclear warheads were made and assembled in Russia. We needed to design and build warheads if we decided to possess them, which would have required the government to pay a lot of money,” he said.

“Ukraine also had to endure the bad image of a rogue state, if it didn’t disarm ... Being a new independent country, we felt the need to get international recognition and support to revive our economy.”

Although having a consensus on the need to be a nuclear-free nation, Ukraine was in desperate need to get economic assistance, a security guarantee and expertise that could help transfer the facilities out of the country.

The actual process of warhead removal to Russia didn’t follow until the United States concluded the trilateral statement with Russia and Ukraine.

On its website, the U.S. Department of Defense said “critical to the success of these negotiations was the United States’ promise of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) assistance.”

A U.S. Congressional initiative spearheaded by Senators Richard Luger and Sam Nunn, CTR was designed to dismantle nuclear production facilities in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and has been implemented since 1991.

The threat reduction policy involves programs redirecting former weapons of mass destruction, production facilities, nuclear engineers and scientists to civilian purposes.

Under the program, partner governments worked closely to dismantle nuclear production facilities and help build alternative industry infrastructure.

Starting in 1991 and until 2005, the U.S. government had invested $7 billion in CTR programs in the former Soviet Union, leading to the removal of 6,600 nuclear warheads.

Also more than 470 long-range missile silos have been destroyed and over 1,800 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines and strategic bombers eliminated.

With the comprehensive support plan, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed to transfer nuclear stockpiles to Russia.

CTR program in NK?

Due to effective results in the three Eastern European nations, some experts called on the six-party nations to consider a CTR program to help North Korea disarm.

In December 2005, a group of North Korea experts at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — Joel S. Wit, Jon Wolfsthal and Oh Choong-suk –- co-authored the recommendation report.

The three North Korea experts projected that somewhere between $200 million and $500 million would be needed to come up with a similar CTR program in the North’s nuclear facilities.

They proposed that the five nations — South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia — consider sharing the financial burden.

Opponents said the proposal was not realistic, given that North Korea would not open its nuclear site to the world.

Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at Rand Corporation based in California, was skeptical about the prospect of North Korea giving up its nuclear ambition, even if offered a CTR-like program.

“Nuclear weapons serve different purposes for different countries,” Bennett said in an email interview with The Korea Times Tuesday.

“Ukraine never had a role in determining whether or not to build nuclear weapons, how much they were willing to pay for them, and how they would use those weapons. The Soviet Union did all this, and then left Ukraine with nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union collapsed.”

Bennett noted North Korea made all of these determinations by itself and decided to pay a huge percentage of its gross domestic product over decades to develop nuclear weapons.

Never give up hope

“Nuclear weapons are symbolic of North Korea’s ability to counter U.S. threats, demonstrating leadership empowerment to the internal audience,” Bennett said.

His observation came following the media report that American satellites had detected unusual activity lately at a nuclear testing ground in North Korea.

During the National Assembly’s annual audit of the Ministry of Unification, Minister Hyun In-taek told lawmakers that he would not rule out the possibility of the North conducting a third nuclear test but that the chances of it being this year seemed to be low.

Hyun made the remarks after Rep. Park Sun-young of the minor Liberty Forward Party raised the possibility of a third nuclear test in the North in the very near future.

The lawmaker speculated that the North may conduct it either during the Nov. 11 and 12 G20 Seoul Summit, or at the year’s end, or early next year.

The North’s leadership could calculate that the provocation timed precisely would help magnify the effect of the provocation as the bellicose act would get maximum international attention, Rep. Park added.

North Korea watchers predict that the communist state would bolster nuclear activity until Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir, is in full control of the communist state.

“Without nuclear weapons, the North Korean regime would have little ability to demonstrate empowerment to its internal audiences.... If the regime really did look so weak, it could be subject to internal overthrow, especially by the military,” Bennett said.

Ambassador Belashov forecasts that a wise policy mix of economic incentives and sanctions would help South Korea and other nations involving six-party talks achieve “desired results” regarding the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Given the reality, the envoy said denuclearization in the North might be wishful thinking but that a joint and coordinated action at international level could lead North Korea to rethink its nuclear program in the future.

Source: The Korea Times