Negative Security Assurance and Nuclear Diplomacy: Implications for the Complete Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

September 5, 2023
Hyuk Kim

The following is an excerpt from 38 North.

Despite past agreements and negotiation efforts with North Korea about the elimination of its nuclear program, there has been no clear and consistent understanding of what “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (“CDKP”) actually means. Some interpret it as the unilateral disarmament of North Korea, entailing the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons, related facilities, and delivery systems. Others believe that North Korea’s interpretation would require more demands than what South Korea could accept, such as the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula.

This article examines North Korea’s perspectives on CDKP, based on its public statements and past agreements, with a particular focus on negative security assurance (NSA). It is clear that issues such as the role of US extended deterrence and even US nuclear doctrine will be core challenges to establishing a credible NSA for North Korea, which can have further regional implications. Understanding those tensions and whether they can be realistically addressed in practice will be critical to the success of any future negotiations.


Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), NSA is a term used to describe the commitment by nuclear weapon states (NWS) to refrain from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). An NSA is particularly important for addressing the security concerns of NNWS, who have “voluntarily given up the nuclear weapons option by becoming parties to the Treaty.” Therefore, NNWS, especially members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have pursued binding NSA commitments from NWS since the negotiation phase of the NPT. The pursuit of a binding NSA by NNWS is internationally recognized as a “legitimate interest.”

Despite the importance of binding a universal NSA to NNWS, no such arrangement has been formalized within or added to the context of the NPT, except at the regional level through Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ). During the negotiation of the NPT, NWS, particularly the United States and the former Soviet Union, were unable to agree on an NSA formula due to their differing strategic interests. More specifically, the former Soviet Union proposed an NSA phrase that would prohibit the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against NNWS that do not have nuclear weapons on their territory. However, the United States opposed this proposal due to its nuclear deployment in what was then West Germany.

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