A Road Map for Demilitarizing North Korea

Denuclearization is at the top of the negotiating agenda with North Korea, but reducing the size and capabilities of its conventional defense establishment should be a high priority for the US and South Korea as well. Success in accomplishing this goal will help normalize relations with the North, which will not only help build a new peace and security regime for the Korean peninsula, but also improve prospects for denuclearization. The core of such a demilitarization program should consist of reductions in North Korea’s conventional military capabilities, confidence building measures to reduce the risk of surprise attack or an inadvertent conflict, multilateral cooperative threat reduction programs, and assistance for defense conversion and military demobilization. Changes in the US military posture in South Korea—if implemented in a prudent manner—are compatible with this initiative and could even contribute toward its success.


In the long-game now being played by the US, South Korea and North Korea to usher in peace and security on the Korean peninsula, it is likely that changes will eventually be made to US troop levels in the South if, as stated in the June 12 Singapore Summit declaration, the US and North Korea establish “new” relations and create a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the peninsula. But there is a right way and a wrong way to make these changes. Thus far, President Trump, like former President Jimmy Carter in 1977, is considering the wrong way: unilateral reductions driven by budget considerations or misplaced pique over South Korean burden sharing, divorced from the broader movement toward a future security regime for Korea. Instead, the future of US forces in South Korea should be determined by two factors: first, the geo-strategic importance of the Korean peninsula and the need to maintain a balance of power in Northeast Asia to protect vital US national security interests; and second, reductions in North Korea’s conventional military threat, especially its capacity to launch a massive attack with little or no warning.

North Korea has a potentially critical role to play in implementing risk reduction measures for the Korean peninsula and at the appropriate time, both the Washington and Seoul will need to engage Pyongyang on this issue. But first, the US and South Korea should jointly develop a road map for the demilitarization of North Korea including reductions in Pyongyang’s conventional military capabilities; confidence building measures (CBMs) to reduce the risk of surprise attack or an inadvertent conflict; multilateral cooperative threat reduction (CTR) programs to help dismantle North Korean conventional weapons and equipment; and defense conversion and military demobilization assistance to the North to free up resources for economic development.

In the context of these programmatic initiatives, conventional defense improvements in US and ROK forces, an end to the armed stand-off with North Korea, the maintenance of a strong US-ROK alliance, and the configuration of US forces on the peninsula could be changed without undermining deterrence and stability and the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Over time, in response to these changing dynamics, the US-ROK alliance might evolve into a different defense relationship that could lead not only to changes in US troop levels, but also greater flexibility on the types of forces it maintains in the region.

Dodging a Bullet—for Now

If the efforts to “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula” come to fruition, as set out in the summit declaration, it could put additional pressure on the US to reduce or withdraw its troops, unless US officials are successful in persuading Seoul that vital national security interests in Northeast Asia require a continued US military presence to contain the long-term Chinese threat to the region. Some recent public opinion polling suggests that the South Korean public would support a continued US military presence as a counterweight to China, even if the North and South sign a peace treaty and normalize relations.

It is commonplace to believe that Kim Jong Un wants US forces to leave South Korea and an end to the US-ROK alliance. It is far from clear, however, that this is the case. From 1992-2011 and the death of Kim Jong Il, the North did not want to see US troops leave the peninsula. North Korean logic has always been that US troops in the South are a problem as long as they are pointed at North Korea, but if bilateral relations become normal and Pyongyang no longer sees the US as an enemy, the troops would no longer be a problem.

It is uncertain whether Kim Jong Un shares his father’s view. But it is not out of the question, since one of the primary purposes for his move toward the US is to give the North some safety from China. From Kim’s perspective, American troops on the peninsula provide a counterweight to Chinese influence. Thus, if the US and North Korea normalize their relationship, Pyongyang may have little interest in reducing or removing American forces from the South. Moreover, the South Korean public is going to expect and demand—and the government will program for—its own force reductions as the situation with North Korea becomes less tense, which could create incentives for the US to maintain its military presence at current levels to compensate for reduced ROK forces.

All this said, there is nothing inherently wrong with making adjustments to US forces in South Korea based on the evolution of the North Korean threat, changes in military technology, opportunities to rationalize and streamline command and control arrangements, improvements in South Korean military conventional capabilities, or the need to meet other competing demands (as the Bush administration did in 2004 when it re-deployed 10,000 troops from South Korea to Iraq during the second Gulf War). Changes in the US military presence in Europe and Japan have been made over the years in response to such factors. Nor is there anything sacrosanct about the number 28,500—an arbitrary figure arrived at without any systematic assessment of operational requirements that took on a life of its own.

The actual defense of South Korea does not depend on these forces, but rather on the capacity to rapidly reinforce the South with additional ground troops, air and naval forces from the US and elsewhere in the region. It is doubtful that North Korea would be any less deterred if the US made modest reductions in its troop presence as long as enough capability remained in place to protect and support those reinforcements.

The Penny Wise and Pound Foolish President

Trump seemingly wants to withdraw all US forces from Korea because of the costs, without considering the long-term consequences for America’s credibility and influence in the Asia-Pacific region and its global alliance network that helps to maintain the peace. In the president’s mind, South Korea is an ungrateful ally that can afford to defend the country without American protection and cheats America on trade. As he sees it, removing our troops would strike another blow for his “America First” doctrine. But his math is all wrong and so his strategic thinking.

First, the US troop presence in South Korea is a bargain. The South Koreans pick up 50 percent of the tab for maintaining those troops and have often helped defray the substantial costs the US has incurred over the years for modernizing and upgrading its military facilities in the country—such as when Seoul agreed to pick up part of the tab for hosting deployments of the American THAAD missile defense system. The residual costs borne by the US for those troops is a rounding error in the Pentagon’s budget and inconsequential for the federal budget or the country’s $18 trillion GDP.

Second, the US would have to bear 100 percent of the cost of bringing these troops back home and relocating them to facilities across the United States. This would likely please members of Congress who have facilities in their districts and it will mean more jobs for American workers. But the only way to reap substantial savings would be to deactivate these forces and their associated equipment and assets—a decision that makes no sense if the US intends to maintain its security commitment to South Korea.

Finally, the US alliance with South Korea embodies more than just a defense commitment to that country; it is also a pillar of the US position in the Asia-Pacific region and central to preserving a favorable balance of power with China. The US forces based there are critical to the defense of Japan and could be used to project US military force more broadly in the region if circumstances warranted. A rapid and unilateral pullout would further damage whatever is left of the credibility of US security commitments in the region.

Risk Reduction and Conflict Prevention

The combination of the Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore and the Moon-Kim Summit in Panmunjom have launched a process to negotiate a peace treaty that will inevitably involve the other powers with stakes in the security and stability of the Korean peninsula. It is hard to imagine the construction of a durable peace and security regime that ignores the North’s conventional military threat to combined US and ROK forces; this includes not only the thousands of artillery pieces, rockets and missiles that are poised to attack Seoul from just outside the demilitarized zone but also the infiltration of North Korean special operations forces deep into South Korean territory to disrupt both the organization of US-ROK military operations and the flow of US reinforcements. The absence of transparency on peacetime North Korean troop movements and military activities also heightens the risk of a miscalculation that could trigger a conflict.

These twin challenges should be addressed by a package of risk reduction measures that would include conventional arms reductions, CBMs to reduce the risk of an accidental conflict, cooperative threat reduction programs to dismantle North Korean conventional weapons systems, and programs for North Korean defense conversion and military demobilization.

Conventional Force Reductions and CBMs

As numerous arms control experts over the years have argued, the European experience with arms control and CBMs has relevance to threat reduction on the Korean peninsula, as does the US experience with the Soviet Union in negotiating naval confidence building measures. Modeling conventional force reductions after the heart of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty—reductions to equal levels in five major categories of combat equipment that are optimal for offensive operations—may be more than the political traffic will bear at the outset of this process; limiting concentrations of forces in various regions, as the CFE treaty does, may be more feasible. If, in later phases of the negotiating process, the two sides begin serious discussions of conventional force reductions, the US could explore potential trade-offs between US and South Korean conventional capabilities and the North’s chemical weapons and short-range missile capabilities. How much trading-space there might be will depend on progress in establishing other elements of a peace and security regime on the peninsula as well as improvements in US and ROK conventional forces.

But the most promising “low hanging fruits” in the short term are probably cooperative CBMs to reduce the risk of a conflict between North and South Korea in the West Sea, where the two sides have skirmished over longstanding disputes on boundaries and fishing rights. In his May 2016 speech to the 7th Workers’ Party Congress, Kim Jong Un proposed military-to-military talks with South Korea to reduce tensions, specifically in the West Sea. The conservative South Korean government at that time rejected this overture, but the Moon government is likely to be receptive, and a joint US-ROK initiative to establish regular talks on CBMs might get traction in Pyongyang. Measures to reduce tensions in the West Sea were also mentioned in the Panmunjom Declaration the two leaders signed in April.

As far as Seoul is concerned, measures to reduce the risk of conflict in the West Sea are a North-South issue. The North’s views on whether it would welcome US or other outside involvement are unknown. Both countries could draw, however, on the experience of two successful naval CBMs. The first is the 1972 US-Soviet Agreement on Preventing Incidents at Sea (INCSEA), which was designed to prevent or reduce incidents between the superpowers and provide a process to adjudicate incidents that did occur. The second is the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) —a voluntary agreement among more than 20 countries with interests in the Western Pacific—that provides for safety, communication, and navigational measures to prevent confrontations among naval ships and aircraft during unplanned encounters. If the North and South are amenable, the US could also brief them on best practices for the safe and professional conduct of opposing naval forces operating in close proximity to one another to reduce the risk of an unintended conflict.

Neither North or South Korea want to see their disputes in the West Sea escalate into armed hostilities. If North-South talks on the West Sea prove fruitful, the US, South Korea, and North Korea could gradually try to tackle the more challenging problem of CBMs and conventional force reductions on the peninsula. A key question, however, is whether the West Sea issue could be used first to move past the narrow focus on questions of maritime and fishing rights and the disputes over the demarcation of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in order to establish a foothold for progress on larger tension reduction and armistice replacement issues.

This may prove feasible. There is a major KPA corps on North Korea’s west coast (IV Corps) as well as naval headquarters, and these are important elements of the North Korean threat. Pyongyang has indicated in the past that it is prepared to deal with the larger issue of military tension in the West Sea. It is unclear how far the North is prepared to go, but a significant reduction of tension in the area could help settle disputes over fishing rights, allowing both countries to profit more from this resource.

The key point is that both countries have strong incentives to reduce their conventional forces. Kim wants to reduce the overall size of his military to free up resources for the development of the civilian economy. President Moon will face not only growing popular support for cuts in ROK defense spending if peace breaks out on the peninsula, but also economic pressures. The South Korean population is on track to dramatically shrink—and the ROK army is already scrambling to figure out how to make do with fewer active-duty troops in the not-to-distant future. How deeply the US should be involved—or whether it needs to be involved at all—in North-South negotiations depends on whether the US military presence in the South is implicated by decisions either side makes on its force levels.

In sum, CBMs could play an important role in demilitarizing North Korea. They will help normalize US and South Korean relations with North Korea and, in a virtuous cycle, normalized relations will create more space for CBMs. A more normal relationship with Seoul and Washington is one of Pyongyang’s overriding priorities; achieving this goal can go a long way toward reducing the threat North Korea poses to peace and security on the Korean peninsula.

Defense Conversion and Demobilization

Recently, three experts from Stanford University discussed opportunities for the cooperative conversion of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile infrastructure to civilian uses. Such an approach might also be applicable to downsizing and converting North Korea’s massive conventional military establishment to civilian purposes.

Kim Jong Un has opined about the need to devote more of North Korea’s limited resources to the development of the civilian economy. Indeed, for the better part of a decade, and especially since Kim assumed power in 2011, senior DPRK officials have questioned the contribution that defense spending makes to the growth of the civilian economy, and have hinted that a transformational change in US-DPRK relations could pave the way for negotiations on conventional force reductions. According to one expert,

From the perspective of civilians in Pyongyang, such negotiations could further lessen the defense burden shouldered by the North Korean economy and allow Pyongyang to devote greater resources to the civilian sector.

Defense expenditures seem to be a serious drag on the North Korean economy; however, North Korea does not report its budget in absolute numbers (only percentages) and estimates of North Korean defense spending are notoriously unreliable and vary widely. The US Department of State estimated in its World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 2016 report that the North’s military expenditures averaged about $3.7 billion a year based on the period between 2005 and 2015, or roughly 23 percent of its GDP (by comparison, the US spends roughly 3.4 percent of its GDP on defense). Most analysts estimate that North Korean defense spending makes up about a quarter of all government spending.

What is better known is that North Korea operates some 180 arms factories, including 40 gun factories of varying calibers, 10 armored vehicle factories, 10 naval shipyards, and 50 munitions factories. In addition, more than 115 non-military factories have a dedicated mission of producing wartime material. Converting many of these facilities to civilian purposes would not only reduce defense spending but also increase production of civilian goods.

While North Korea does not seem to have made any explicit statements on repurposing defense production facilities, the government has converted other military facilities for civilian use in the past. Two notable examples are the conversion of two military airfields into civilian airports (the Kalma Airport in Wonsan and the Samjiyon Airport) in special economic zones focused on tourism, and the conversion of the Saenal Hotel—originally built for military use—into a luxury hotel in the eastern port town of Wonsan.

Such initiatives appear to fall under Kim’s byungjin policy (dual development of a nuclear deterrent and the economy), allowing the regime to earn foreign currency while minimizing the negative impact on its local population and defense program. Moreover, defense conversion and demobilization lend themselves to a multilateral framework. The Russians could play a useful role in helping the North to dismantle and deactivate weapons and equipment, drawing on their cooperative threat reduction experience (e.g., The Nunn-Lugar Program) with the United States. The South Koreans and perhaps the Chinese could also provide assistance to the North to convert some of its defense production facilities to civilian use and to help the North develop a viable plan to deactivate many of its troops and reintegrate them into the civilian economy.

Defense conversion and demobilization of military manpower will be hard and expensive depending on its scale and scope. In addition to the challenge of securing adequate outside funding for these programs, there will be four critical challenges to success: first, defense conversion and demobilization will need to be integrated into the plans, programs and priorities of future inter-Korean economic cooperation. Second, it should be implemented in a way that advances the broader goals of promoting greater market reforms and better business practices in North Korea. Third, plans for conversion of physical plants and equipment currently devoted to defense production should be aligned with North Korean sectoral priorities, in particular, expanding agricultural production and improving transportation infrastructure. Finally, the scope and pace of defense conversion and demobilization will need to be synchronized with how quickly the North Korean economy can absorb ex-soldiers.

All these tasks imply a great deal more economic transparency than North Korea has provided in the past. They also suggest a prominent role for South Korea in both the planning and funding of new initiatives. It is doubtful at this time that Pyongyang would have enough trust in China, the US, or Japan to share sensitive economic information with them, and the Russians—even if they had the will to play a significant role—lack the resources. However, North and South Korea can draw on their previous experience and lessons learned from their economic cooperation to distill best practices while avoiding the mistakes of the past.


US and South Korean engagement with North Korea has focused almost exclusively on denuclearization to the detriment of progress in other areas that could advance normalization and reconciliation, which in turn could facilitate denuclearization. The Singapore Summit committed the US and North Korea to pursue peace arrangements and a treaty. Washington and Seoul need to begin serious and sustained planning now for how to implement these commitments in a manner that best advances their common interests in creating peace and security on the Korean peninsula.

As a first step, these questions should be explored informally in Track 2 or Track 1.5 channels to gain a better understanding of North Korea’s receptivity to conventional military threat reduction measures and how they might relate to negotiations on denuclearization and a new peace treaty. The North’s willingness to participate constructively in these discussions could be one barometer of its interest in transforming relations with the United States and South Korea. Perhaps more importantly, it might be easier to make progress on conventional force reductions and CBMs between North and South Korea than on nuclear disarmament, which could help to sustain negotiating momentum toward reconciliation and normalization and provide a hedge against an impasse in US-DPRK talks over denuclearization.

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