Kazakhstan: The Requisite Model and Mediator to North Korean Denuclearization

July 6, 2018 Asia , Europe , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Ben Dalton photo



Maria Gershuni



After a year full of escalatory rhetoric, nuclear tests, and threats of war, the recent de-escalation of the North Korean crisis has come as a welcome respite. In April 2018, during the meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un symbolically entered South Korean territory, becoming the first North Korean leader to do so. In June, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore, marking the first time a US President has met with a North Korea leader in the history of the Hermit Kingdom.


The question now is, will North Korea follow through on its promise of denuclearization? If so, how will they even begin to do it in a way that is beneficial to the country and verifiable to the international system? The answer to ensuring denuclearization in North Korea is a success for both the North Korean people and the nuclear nonproliferation regime lies in a surprising place: the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.


The Central Asian country has become a world leader in denuclearization. It is a champion of nuclear nonproliferation on the multilateral circuit, active in the implementation of several denuclearization treaties, and is currently International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) favored partner. The IAEA even chose Kazakhstan as the site of the world’s first Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank, a brilliant initiative that ensures all IAEA member states have access to LEU for peaceful purposes, without risking further proliferation of weapons grade highly enriched uranium (HEU).


Furthermore, Kazakhstan is an example of how a country that willingly denuclearizes can prosper economically and politically. After Kazakhstan got rid of its large repository of nuclear weapons and closed down the world’s largest testing site, both inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country became a mecca for foreign and multilateral investment. It was also better able to equip its conventional army and became a leader in Central Asia and abroad. Kazakhstan currently enjoys the confidence of President Trump, after Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazerbayev met with him in January 2018, becoming the first Central Asian leader to do so. When Kazakhstan assumed the Presidency of the United Nations Security Council in January 2018, it specifically called on North Korea to denuclearize and South Korea supports Kazakhstan’s help to make further progress on the issue.


Kazakhstan can play a defining role in the North Korean denuclearization process and ensure its success. It’s unique place economically and politically makes it one of the few countries that can do so. Furthermore, Kazakhstan is eager to take part in the process and can offer both technical assistance and political incentives to denuclearize. Kazakhstan has great potential to act as both a mediator for the process and a model for North Korean prosperity after denuclearization is complete.





Kazakhstan has a long, and rather tragic, history with nuclear weapons. The largest nuclear testing site in the world at the time, Semipalatinsk, was based in Kazakhstan and was the site for the first test of the Soviet atomic bomb in 1949. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan had inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads as well as the testing site. As the health crisis caused by the nuclear testing became revealed to the Kazakhstani public, the government, led by Nazerbayev, escalated the process of total denuclearization. By 1995, Kazakhstan became the first post-Soviet republic to totally transfer or destroy all their nuclear warheads. With help from the United States, the Semipalatinsk testing site was destroyed in 2000. Since then, Kazakhstan has also been incredibly active in the non-proliferation multilateral regime. It joined the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994, ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 2002, and became party to the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2004.


The DPRK began to pursue nuclear weapons in 1963, but their requests for help in this endeavor were denied by both China and the Soviet Union. Soviet scientists were sent in early to help North Korea develop peaceful nuclear energy. In 1985, North Korea ratified the NPT, but refused to include the IAEA safeguard agreement until 1992. The country was largely noncompliant with the NPT and continued to pursue nuclear weapons. In 1994, the United States and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework which would provide North Korea with nuclear energy reactors in exchange for disarmament, but the agreement fell apart in 2002. In 2003, North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the NPT. Since then, North Korea has been actively developing and testing nuclear weapons, despite international efforts such as the failed Six Party Talks. In 2009, North Korea was confirmed to have nuclear weapons by the IAEA. In 2017, North Korea tested two missiles that could possibly reach United States territory.





Considering the urgency of the situation, and the potential for apocalyptic escalation, it is vital that negotiation for tangible denuclearization, as was agreed upon during the US-DPRK Singapore Summit and the Inter-Korean Summit, begin immediately. Experts debating on the theme of Korea denuclearization at the 2018 Debating Security Plus Conference, hosted by Friends of Europe and the Russian International Affairs Council, recommended that non-nuclear states take an active role in mediating the disarmament process. Because of Kazakhstan’s experiences with disarmament, current nuclear free status, and unique role in the region, it is the best country to mediate Korean disarmament and the one most likely to produce effective results.


Kazakhstan has experience with high level negotiations in tense conflicts. In December 2016, Astana was the site of talks between the Syrian government and twelve Syrian rebel factions. The talks, which were sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, resulted in the “Astana Process,” which ended with an agreement between the sponsors to form a joint monitoring body and protect last year’s Syrian ceasefire.


Kazakhstan is also in a unique positon to gain the trust of all interested parties in the conflict. President Nazerbayev has established a relationship with President Donald Trump, when he flew to Washington in January 2018. Trump lauded Nazerbayev’s leadership and called Kazakhstan “a valued partner in our efforts to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.” Kazakhstan and China are currently working on cross Eurasian transportation initiatives and President Xi Jinping personally visited the opening ceremony of the Astana Expo in the summer of 2017. Nazerbayev and President Vladimir Putin of Russia share a special relationship and remain close partners on various projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union. South Korea also enjoys a good relationship with Kazakhstan. Seoul and Astana are sister cities and there are currently 400 joint ventures between Kazakh and South Korean companies.


Though North Korea maintains tense relations with many countries throughout the world, there is great potential for relationship building between Astana and Pyongyang. First, there is a history of cooperation and support between the two governments. Kazakhstan has a non-resident North Korea embassy in Beijing. Two rounds of Kazakhstan-North Korean Political Consultations have already taken place in Pyongyang and North Korean supported Kazakhstan’s candidacy for non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Nazerbayev can also gain the trust of Kim Jong-un by alleviating his fears of regime change due to denuclearization. Nazerbayev, the President of Kazakhstan during their period of denuclearization, remains President of Kazakhstan to this day, showing Kim that denuclearization can result in political stability and does not have to be accompanied by democratic political transition and power ousting, something that Kim deeply fears.


Finally, North Korea’s nonpermanent membership on the United Nations Security Council can prove incredibly useful for negotiations. As the US, Russia, and China all hold seats on the Security Council, the UNSC can be used as the forum for negotiations. Kazakhstan can use its seat to mediate differences between the parties and arrive at an agreement that would lead to verifiable and certain denuclearization of North Korea.





Kazakhstan can also serve as a model for North Korea to see the economic and political benefits that can come from denuclearization. As previously mentioned, Kazakhstan was elected to a non-permanent seat on the UNSC, which brings international prestige and authority. At the time of its election, Kazakhstan identified “a world free of nuclear weapons” as its top priority for membership. Also as previously mentioned, Kazakhstan achieved this prestige without regime change or democratic political transition of the head of government, showing that denuclearization leads to esteem and stability.


Kazakhstan is also an example of how disarmament can actually pay. When Kazakhstan pledged to denuclearized, the United States committed $100 million to aid the process under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The program was a success and Kazakhstan received immense technical and economic assistance from the United States to bear the financial burden of denuclearization. Kazakhstan is also home to several projects funded by multilateral lending institutions, such as the World Bank, which supports infrastructure and public goods projects in previously undeveloped areas of Kazakhstan. Finally, Kazakhstan has become a haven for private investment, with companies like Chevron, Exxon, GE, and Boeing all eager to do business there.


At the moment, Kim Jong-un can only dream of attracting such investment because of North Korea’s precarious status in the international system and the sanctions regime placed on it. But, with denuclearization, North Korea can reap immense benefits. First, there has been a proliferation of multilateral lending institutions in the region. The Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Bank, and the BRICS-run New Development Bank, on top of the IMF and World Bank, would be eager to invest and work with a nuclear-free North Korea. Companies from emerging economic powerhouses in Russia, China, and India would also be keen to invest in North Korea once the sanctions have been lifted. While Kazakhstan is landlocked, North Korea can become a transportation hub, bringing in additional revenue. If North Korea follows the Kazakhstan model of denuclearization, it can attract the type of investment and development that Kazakhstan attracted after it denuclearized.


Kazakhstan can also provide both North and South Korea a model of how to establish and maintain a nuclear free zone, a goal that has been reiterated by all parties in the Korean conflict. In 2006, the Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone which legally binds five central Asian states not to manufacture, test, or possess nuclear weapons, was signed in Kazakhstan. The five permanent members of the Security Council further signed a Protocol to the treaty that states they will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the members of the nuclear free zone, providing the members with security assurances. The Koreas could use the Central Asian Nuclear Free Zone and the assurances it provides as a model to establish their own nuclear free zone.





In order for the Korean denuclearization process to occur as efficiently and successfully as possible, it is necessary for the parties to follow a set of guidelines and suggestions. Like Kazakhstan, North Korea should show its commitment to denuclearization by rejoining the NPT and by signing onto the CTBT. North Korea, like Kazakhstan, should also become a member state of the IAEA and sign onto the Additional Protocol. This commitment is necessary for Korea to reap the economic and political benefits of denuclearization. Kazakhstan should be mediating the process of denuclearization and timelines in order to for North Korea to come into compliance with these treaties in a timely fashion.


The United States, with possible aid from China and Russia, should also commit to a Nunn-Lugar type program for North Korea in order to facilitate economic and technical assistance for North Korean denuclearization. Denuclearization is an expensive and dangerous process and it is necessary for the knowledgeable parties to assist with it. Kazakhstan and the IAEA should take an active role in denuclearization by offering the support of the LEU Bank in Oskemen, Kazakhstan. The Bank was created to ensure that all countries had a stable supply of low enriched uranium to be used for energy purposes, which is vital to North Korea as it faces energy shortages and periodic blackouts. The highly enriched uranium collected during denuclearization should be transferred to the Bank, converted to low enriched uranium, and made available for North Korea’s future energy needs.


Finally, a nuclear free zone on the Korean peninsula, modeled after the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, must be established. Similar security assurances granted to the states of Central Asia should be granted to the states of the Korean peninsula. The establishing text of the nuclear free zone, should include references to the Panmunjom Declaration, which came about after the inter-Korean summit and declare that “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula.”



Challenges and Conclusion


Following the Kazakhstan model of denuclearization in North Korea will not come without challenges. In Kazakhstan, denuclearization was successful partially because both civil society and government converged on the issue of denuclearization. During Perestroika and Glasnost, the people of Kazakhstan found out about the adverse health effects nuclear testing had on the Kazakh people. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, protests broke out as Kazakhs demanded the closing down of dangerous nuclear test sites. The government obliged to the people’s will since government leaders were also concerned about the public health crisis caused by nuclear testing. There is no civil society in North Korea, and any public health concerns caused by nuclear development and testing remain hidden by the authoritarian government. As Glasnost is not happening in North Korea any time soon, denuclearization will need to be conducted without a Kazakhstan-style grassroots movement by civil society. However, if there is desire on the part of the leadership, and if the incentives are enticing enough, the Kazakhstan model of denuclearization can work for North Korea.


No step toward North Korean denuclearization will be easy. But as we now are at a tipping point in Korean denuclearization, it is time for all parties to embrace the role that Kazakhstan could play in ensuring disarmament success. National and multilateral leaders have praised Kazakhstan as a champion of denuclearization and interested parties have already acknowledged the positive role Kazakhstan could play in Korea. Kazakhstan has gone through the process of denuclearization and came out winning the respect of the international community. Furthermore, it has become a mecca for private and multilateral investment. The country and its leader have the trust of the parties involved in the Korean denuclearization, which is necessary for mediation and negations. It is clear that Kazakhstan is the requisite mediator and model for North Korean denuclearization.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Maria Gershuni

Masters of Arts candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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