Is Kazakhstan the Model For North Korean Denuclearization?


Stephen Blank Senior Fellow for Russia, American Foreign Policy Council
Font Size:

North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization at the Singapore and Panmunjom summits places that process squarely on the table. Virtually every analysis, however, argues that North Korean denuclearization will inevitably take a long time.

As we consider previous models of denuclearization that have successfully dismantled the entire nuclear edifice and ensured the security of the country, we need to remove Libya and Ukraine from the list given their subsequent fates.

NATO allies have attacked Libya and toppled its long-time dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, while elements of the Russian military and the Russian-backed militias took over the Crimea and the Donbass in 2014, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

American interests are set back if North Korean denuclearization adds to the insecurities currently roiling Northeast Asia. If Pyongyang even thinks its security is at risk, it will, as it has always done previously, repudiate this commitment, leaving everyone worse off than before.

Therefore, other models of denuclearization should be examined to enhance North Korea’s sense of security and a new equilibrium on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. The experience of Kazakhstan offers us a positive model of denuclearization while simultaneously enhancing security both for the state that renounces nuclear weapons and for the region of which it is a part.

As Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev reminded the U.N. Security Council last January, Kazakhstan voluntarily denuclearized and relied upon security assurances from the U.S. and Russia. It signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol that ensures invasive inspections by the IAEA. It also signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Washington, through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative (CTR, or the Nunn-Lugar Program), funded this process, easing Kazakhstan’s burden of denuclearization.

Reviving the CTR could also reduce North Korea’s expected nuclear disarmament costs while providing a way for the infusion of economic assistance the Trump Administration has mentioned as a reward for playing ball.

Kazakhstan is also a leader in the civilian use of nuclear energy and uranium mining, even though it surrendered its highly enriched uranium (HEU) as part of its denuclearization. Thus North Korea’s scientists could find productive work without going over to potential proliferators and expand the civilian use of nuclear energy for their country’s benefit.

Possessing credible security guarantees, the DPRK could also further imitate Kazakhstan’s example by becoming a leader in non-proliferation, a policy that can only enhance its status — something Mr. Kim is after.

Kazakhstan has championed the creation of the Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank, giving buyers access to reliable, cost-effective and stable supplies, so they do not have to build their own fuel-enrichment cycle that is often a precursor to nuclear weapons projects. North Korea could similarly boost its peaceful nuclear power sector domestically and internationally. Such actions are a win-win: they simultaneously enrich the country, provide satisfying work to scientists, improve North Korea’s international standing and contribute to peace and non-proliferation.

Kazakhstan is also a regional leader in Central Asian and global non-proliferation activities. More generally, its multi-vector foreign policy has ensured the enhancement of its security, as has the recognition that it is not a threat to anyone.

Although Northeast Asia is a different region, North Korea could learn from Kazakhstan’s example in supporting constructive agendas like a regional nuclear-free zone and an OSCE-style multilateral security network, and by concentrating on economic development. The latter may include a natural gas pipeline and a railroad from Russia via the north, to South Korea.

There are already many signs that North Korea is, in its own way, balancing between China and Russia as well as between the Sino-Russian and the U.S.-led alliances.  Emulating the spirit of Kazakhstan’s policies would thus contribute to its security an enhanced status as well as its economic growth.

The benefits to Pyongyang from emulating Astana’s experiences are potentially enormous. Today, Kazakhstan is a secure country with a massive foreign investment portfolio and a rapidly growing economy. Since other states realize that it is no threat to its neighbors and will not become one, the environment for foreign investment has become much more welcoming.

North Korea could well follow the Kazakh model to achieve its stated aims of economic development and enhanced security — without nuclear weapons.

Such North Korean trajectory not only would benefit it economically and politically, but all the other parties to the six-party process would also gain thereby. This is another key lesson of Kazakhstan’s experience, as President Nazarbayev made clear.

Kazakhstan’s approach to questions of denuclearization and non-proliferation has resulted in a true case of “win-win” policies for itself, Central Asia, and Kazakhstan’s great power partners, whose rivalry in Central Asia in no way approaches the intensity of the threat in Northeast Asia.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are now leading the regional rapprochement in the heart of Eurasia. Thus, following the Kazakhstan model may guide the outcome of the Singapore summit for an enlightened North Korean and US approach to denuclearization that can reduce tensions and enhance the blessings of peace for all those concerned.

Stephen Blank, senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council, is an internationally known expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union, who comes to AFPC from the U.S. Army War College where he spent the last 24 years as a Professor of National Security Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.