Denuclearizing North Korea: Lessons from the Kazakhstan Experience

Translated title of the contribution: 카자흐스탄 비핵화 경험이 북한 비핵화 논의에 갖는 함의와 한계

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


The recent development of the US-DPRK rapprochement and inter-Korea relations is stimulating the discussion of the denuclearization of North Korea in both academia and policy circles. Three models of denuclearization are often discussed as a possible reference for denuclearizing North Korea in the future: the Libyan model, the South African model, and the Kazakhstan model. Among those, the Kazakhstan model receives particular attention for three reasons. First, the nuclear disarmament of Kazakhstan gives an example of a successful exchange between nuclear weapons and economic development, which can be analogous to the trade-off between denuclearization and economic sanctions in the North Korean case. Second, technical specifications of the North Korea nuclear program are believed to be similar to those of Kazakhstan for both countries are inherited nuclear technologies from the former Soviet Union. Third, the Kazakhstan case is recognized as a successful case of denuclearization by the international community.
Nonetheless, there are some fundamental gaps between the two cases, which makes it difficult to directly apply the Kazakhstani experience to the North Korean denuclearization. The Kazakhstan case differs from the North Korean case in three fundamental ways. First, the value and utility of nuclear weapons for Kazakhstan is perceived as negative or debatable at best. Archival evidence shows that President Nazarbayev and his advisers saw little utility of maintaining the nuclear arsenal after they realized that the control over those weapons might not be in their hands. Kim Jong-un, however, shall face challenges by renouncing the nuclear capability of the country. All the North Korean motivations of the nuclear armament seem to be the exact opposite of the Kazakhstan case. Second, the denuclearization of Kazakhstan should be understood in the context of a new national identity formation. As a newly independent country, Kazakhstan faced not only material security challenges but also ontological security. As to material security, threats from China and Russia were the main concerns, which might lead to future border disputes. Once the immediate material security was guaranteed through multiple arrangements with neighboring power and the United States, Nazarbayev actively sought a nuclear-free state in his diplomacy. The decision of denuclearization functioned as a tool for carving out a new state identity of Kazakhstan in the international system. However, North Korea, if denuclearized, has to find a way to debut itself in the regional and global order. To some extent, the open economy and globalization is an inevitable consequence of denuclearization, which North Korea has been refusing for decades. Third, the Kazakhstani decision promotes the internal cohesion of the country, in particular between the people and the ruling elites. The decision to shut down the Semipalatinsk site was one of the first choices of Nazarbayev and received nationwide support. By promoting denuclearization, the ruling elite could easily recover its legitimate authority and support from the Kazakh people. To the contrary, the nuclear program of North Korea is believed to have domestic political purposes. Even after the security guarantee is provided, the dissolution of nuclear capability requires a legitimate justification for Kim’s domestic audience. Given that the nuclear weapons have used for domestic political cohesion and muting public discontents, the reversed choice needs better explanations.
Then, are there any lessons that the North Korean case should learn from the Kazakhstani case? There are at least three lessons should be critically learned and reconsidered for the ongoing discussion of denuclearizing North Korea. First, the existing nuclear states should play a major role in denuclearizing any nuclear weapon-possessing states. The United States and Russia were the essential actors of the denuclearization of Kazakhstan. For the denuclearization of North Korea, the US, China, and Russia are supposed to take the major part of the process. Second, the denuclearization requires to be implemented and verified under the frame of the international nonproliferation regime. Third, for the durable and stable state of denuclearization, there should be some positive gains for North Korea to debut at the international system as a non-nuclear state.
Translated title of the contribution카자흐스탄 비핵화 경험이 북한 비핵화 논의에 갖는 함의와 한계
Original languageMultiple languages
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019
EventThe 7th Korean Studies Conference in Central Asia - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Duration: Jun 21 2019Jun 23 2019


ConferenceThe 7th Korean Studies Conference in Central Asia

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