Prospects for Arms Control in North-East Asia

Sid Bagri

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons

The world is currently inching towards a precipice. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have put Asian security in a precarious position and it risks dragging in other world powers that also have a stake in the region, such as the United States. This state of affairs bears an uncanny resemblance to the Security Dilemma, which dictates that a state seeking to build up its military power in order to consolidate its security inevitably makes surrounding states less secure. This encourages other states to increase their military power as well, which in turn leads the original state to continue doing the same, culminating in an arms race that makes everyone more vulnerable. This is essentially what is happening in North East Asia. For decades the North Korean regime has seen America’s military presence in South Korea and Japan as a threat to its security, despite the fact that they are primarily there as a protective force (Gilsinan 2017). This would suggest that North Korea pursued nuclear weapons in order to increase its own security, but having a nuclear armed state like North Korea, which has repeatedly threatened to bomb both South Korea and the United States, has lowered security for everyone else, resulting in the situation today (BBC, 2015).

Many notable figures in the past have tried to reduce tensions and decrease North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. One of the earlier efforts was led by the American President Bill Clinton in 1994. In exchange for North Korea discontinuing its plutonium reactors, America would help the North build light-water reactors and supply the North with fuel oil in order to, theoretically, make up for the loss, despite the fact that the reactors were intended to create nuclear weapons and were not connected to the power grid (Kessler 2017). However, American intelligence discovered that North Korea was pursuing nuclear weapons through enriched uranium. When confronted with this issue, the North confirmed it, leading the Bush administration to cut off the oil flow and abandon the construction of the reactors, which were far behind schedule (Kessler 2017). The “Agreed Framework,” as it was known, had broken down. A new approach was tried with the Six-Party Talks in 2003, which included North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and America. By this time, North Korea had left the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and would soon realize their goal of acquiring nuclear weapons, which likely happened around 2006. The six rounds of talks did not produce much progress, but it did result in a breakthrough where North Korea pledged to give up its nuclear weapons and dismantle its program and the parties agreed on a number of steps to implement this process (Davenport 2017). Unfortunately, the steps were never implemented and North Korea continued to improve its nuclear capabilities. The failure of these past approaches means that a new one must be considered, and to get an idea of what a more effective approach would look like, one should look to the Cold War.

One of the most innovative approaches used to manage tensions during the Cold War was the Hotline Agreement created in 1963 shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis revealed the necessity for direct communication between the Soviet Union and the United States and it became a concrete recognition of the perils of nuclear war (State Department). A direct communication link between the United States and North Korea today may not be a bad idea. One already exists between North and South Korea and it was established for similar reasons. The hotline had been essentially defunct since 2016, but in January South Korean officials made a call, to which the North stated that they had nothing to report (McCurry, 2018). Even a simple exchange such as this can have the effect of dampening tensions, even if it is temporary. Of course, in order for this to be plausible, America first must agree to engage diplomatically with North Korea on some level. One of the most straightforward ways of ending the uncertainty surrounding the current situation is to provide the option of direct communication between both heads of state, even though both the US President Donald Trump and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un are decidedly less rational than John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were. Trump’s infamous temperament may get the better of him if he were to speak with the North Korean leader directly, and Kim Jong-Un’s paranoia may not be placated by hearing the bluster of an adversary. However, the current situation does not offer a path to peace. North Korea can now legitimately threaten American cities in Guam and Hawaii, and Donald Trump’s insulting monikers such as “Rocket Man” have won him no favors (The Economist 2018). To make matters worse, the American government is considering military options against the North. Any sort of pre-emptive strike would be seen by Kim Jong-Un as a prelude to invasion, and would likely spark a war on the Korean peninsula (Jervis 2018). A hotline between America and North Korea would be risky but it would provide the opportunity to clear misunderstandings between the two countries and it would at least show that America is willing to extend a hand to the North. Also, it appears that North Korea has made attempts to ease some tension in recent months. In November of last year, North Korea tested some new missiles but followed up with a statement expressing its desire to be a responsible nuclear power and that it would not threaten any other country as long as its rights were not infringed (The Economist 2017). This could be a signal that North Korea can be reasoned with and does not wish for war. Donald Trump also values personal relationships a great deal, and having direct contact with Kim Jong-Un could provide a way to develop a personal relationship. The current path of bluster and disengagement has the potential to be catastrophic. Almost any other approach would be preferable.

When the Cold War ended in the early 1990’s, European nations signed several treaties, such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, and the Vienna Document, with the intention of limiting armed forces each nation could deploy and reduce the risk of war. Each of these treaties were specifically designed to work in a European context which is why they have been largely successful, but that does not mean certain aspects of them cannot be applied to places like Northeast Asia. The Vienna Document of 1990 was constructed for the purpose of military transparency and one requirement in particular can be plausibly applied to Northeast Asia. States involved must notify each other about major military activities ahead of time and they may invite other states to observe certain military activities (OSCE 1990). In Europe, this is a politically binding agreement that works well because most of the countries there are allies. It has also worked with countries such as Russia which has not been a traditional European ally, proving that even adversaries can cooperate on pressing military issues. Most countries in Asia see each other more as rivals than as allies which could make this recommendation difficult to sell, and of course it would have to be non-binding. However, tensions have been rising in Northeast Asia for several years and providing countries with an opportunity to reduce these tensions voluntarily may be appealing. No one in the region wants a war, and all want to be seen to be promoting security rather than threatening it. This logic could be used to help support this recommendation.

The Paris Charter of 1990 also possesses certain aspects that could be applicable to Northeast Asia. Its emphasis on economic integration would be the most effective aspect to recommend, especially since much of that is already happening (OSCE 1990). The most difficult part would be the question of how much North Korea should be integrated into the regional, and by extension, world economy. An easing of sanctions and slightly looser rules on who can trade with North Korea would provide a signal that the world is at least willing to tolerate the Kim regime, and a greater openness could open North Korea to a greater level of scrutiny in case they do not remain peaceful. Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine any other aspects from the charter that could be of use. Emphasizing a common culture in Asia is possible and has a basis in history, but the nationalist governments currently ruling much of Asia would likely twist this narrative for subversive purposes. China has been indoctrinating its youth with what they call a “patriotic education” and Japan has rewritten textbooks to fit its own cultural and historical narrative (Cain 2017). It would also be difficult to promote understanding among the youth for these same reasons. Putting an emphasis on common values would also be inadvisable since each country in Northeast Asia has a different political system. Japan, South Korea, and America are all liberal democracies that value concepts such as individual and human rights. China is an authoritarian technocratic country that more or less rejects both of these, and North Korea’s totalitarian dictatorship would never allow such concepts to cross its borders. Recommending anything else besides economic integration has the potential to derail any agreement. It is best to craft an approach that would start with something comparatively easy to agree with and then raise the other points depending on how the negotiations progress, a sort of “baby steps” approach.

The core of the CFE would likely be impossible to apply in Northeast Asia. The treaty essentially sets limits on the number of troops and military equipment that could be deployed on European soil with the specific aim of keeping both NATO and the Warsaw Pact from being able to dominate the continent. It also requires both sides to have a degree of transparency when it comes to military affairs (Kimball 2012). It is difficult to imagine that China, which has been increasing its military budget, Japan, which is currently trying to remilitarize, and South Korea, which is still technically at war with the North, would ever agree to limit their own military power. It would also likely be difficult for America, the guarantor of Asian security since the end of World War II, to agree to limit its own military forces in the region. The section of this treaty that could plausibly be recommended would be the issue of transparency. It would be difficult to convince rival powers that they should share more information about their military with each other, but a desire for regional peace could be the key driver for an agreement on this issue. Once again, a “baby steps” approach could work here. For example, Northeast Asian countries could start with providing more information on a smaller issue such as military budgets and once tensions begin to decrease, they could agree to go a few steps further. Building trust in today’s political climate will be extremely difficult, but considering the alternative, it is the only plausible way to start walking back from the brink.


Gilsinan, Kathy. 2017. “North Korean Nukes and the Grand International-Relations Experiment in Asia”. The Atlantic, (accessed 10 February 2018),

Davenport, Kelsey. 2017. “The Six-Party Talks at a Glance”. Arms Control Association, (accessed 10 February 2018),

Kessler, Glenn. 2017. “History lesson: Why did Bill Clinton’s North Korea deal fail?”. The Washington Post, (accessed 10 February 2018),

“Memorandum of Understanding Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link”. US Department of State, (accessed 10 February 2018),

The Economist. 2018. “Donald Trump may be bluffing over a pre-emptive strike on North Korea”. The Economist, (accessed 10 February 2018),

Jervis, Robert. 2018. “Unpacking a US Decision to Use Force Against North Korea: Issues, Options, and Consequences”. 38 North, (accessed 10 February 2018),

“Ensuring military transparency – the Vienna Document”. OSCE, (accessed 10 February 2018),

“Charter of Paris for a New Europe”. OSCE, (accessed 10 February 2018),

Kimball, Daryl. 2012. “The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and the Adapted CFE Treaty at a Glance”. Arms Control Association, (accessed 10 February 2018),

Cain, Sian. 2017. “China rewrites history books to extend Sino-Japanese war by six years”. The Guardian, (accessed 10 February 2018),

British Broadcasting Corporation. 2015. “How Potent Are North Korea’s Threat”. BBC, (accessed 9 March 2018),

McCurry, Justin. 2018. “’Anything to report?’: Korean hotline reopens with little to say between foes”. The Guardian, (accessed 11 March 2018),

Sid Bagri

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons