I wouldn’t normally post this, but a lack of other material has made me feel guilty. Get to the end of this post and there will be a funny picture.
Classic science is having a hypothesis, testing it, and then learning from your test. It’s not uncommon, therefore, for scientific papers to go, “We had an idea, it didn’t work because a, b, and c. Thank you for reading.” So when I try to apply that to political science why is it so awkward to write. For context, I had had a hypothesis that the North Korean nuclear problem might be alleviate by it’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the key focus of my research. A couple experts and my own reading have given me the opinion that this just isn’t viable unfortunately, but I still think I should write it out just to prove it to myself. Unfortunately, it’s proving a very awkward article to write since few people have had the idea, and I can’t really write in the first person in an academic context.
That’s what I’ve done here though, below you’ll find my first draft that starts out fairly formal before going completely conversational. I would still like to back this up with more evidence/streamline it, but for now I just wanted to get it out.
As North Korea’s slew of missile and nuclear tests continues, the country’s pursuit of the Bomb puts world leaders more and more on edge, more anxious for a solution. Ever since the country signed the “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” (NPT) in 1985 suspicions over its nuclear program have hampered its diplomatic relations. Western nations suspected the nation of pursuing nuclear weapons, while North Korea itself accused foreign nations of infringing on its rights or plotting to take it over. After public admission of its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the situation has deteriorated despite the efforts of several rounds of the “Six Party Talks”. As a potentially unstable factor on China’s borders, some have mentioned the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a potential forum for resolving the country’s nuclear issue. Here I will briefly examine the basic causes of the North Korean nuclear problem, why the SCO has the potential to help resolve it, and why, unfortunately, this line of thought is ultimately unfeasible for the time being.
At the end of World War II, the power of nuclear weapons could not have been made clearer to Kim Il-Sung as the Americans accepted the Japanese surrender. From his view, this mighty imperialist nation that had controlled his homeland for decades was laid low by two American attacks of hitherto unseen ferocity. After grappling with American military might first hand during the Korean War, nuclear weapons must have seemed the perfect protective force to Kim. A small arsenal could ensure the security of Kim’s regime, providing the same deterrent force that kept the United States and the USSR at bay during the Cold War. In the 1990’s, having lost the nuclear protection of both China and the USSR, North Korea ramped up its nuclear program, admitting to the Bush administration that it was pursuing weapons and proclaiming its first successful nuclear test in 2006. After his father’s death, Kim Jong-Un has ramped up the tempo, pushing the world further up towards the edge of their seat and off into the great abyss.
So what is the SCO and why did I think it had hopes of resolving the issue? The SCO’s first incarnation appeared in 1996 when China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan formed the Shanghai Five as a means of defusing tense border relations left in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Agreements signed by the five countries most importantly stipulated that “no two signatory states would initiate an attack against each other, that no two signatory states would conduct military exercises directed at each other, and that there would be mandatory reporting of large military operations within 100 km of borders.” Further agreements ensured stability by requiring that “military presence on borders shared by any two member states would be reduced to the lowest amount of self-defensive forces suitable for borders between friendly nations, that no two sides would use weapons or force in order to threaten each other, and that forces deployed at the borders between member states would not attack one another.” With Uzbekistan’s entry in 2001 the group was reborn as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), taking further steps towards stabilizing Central Asia with a new proclaimed objective of combatting terrorism, separatism, and extremism within its six member states. Today, the group’s membership still grows as India and Pakistan undergo the joining process, complemented by four observer states (Iran, Mongolia, Belarus, and Afghanistan) and five dialogue partners (Armenia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Cambodia). While not a military alliance, the group still holds by the nonaggression agreements of the Shanghai Five, coordinates intelligence sharing between member states regarding domestic militant groups, and ensures that member states respect each other’s sovereignty over various breakaway regions.
Hypothetically speaking, North Korea would gain several benefits from joining the SCO. Besides assurances of nonaggression and more support for the legitimacy of its government, joining the SCO would also link North Korea into the catalyst of economic development that the SCO has become (assuming sanctions relief). Entry into the SCO combined with sanctions relief would hopefully encourage the other five member states besides China to give increased aid to North Korea either in the form of investment, food, or in Russia’s case natural gas and oil which would give the country’s economy a much needed boost while lessening China’s financial burden. Meanwhile, North Korea would get access to an expanded export market for its raw materials or products from any factories set up by joint venture. On the nuclear side of things, were Beijing willing to abandon its policy against military alliances which has been in place since the late 1970’s, the SCO could serve as a platform for a trilateral Sino-Russian-Korean agreement restoring the North’s lost nuclear umbrella. The main advantage of a trilateral agreement over a bilateral one is that it would protect against North Korea being betrayed by a single protector, a legitimate concern for the paranoid kingdom. While this step would risk increasing tensions with the West and might even plant the seeds of Cold War II, it would in theory satisfy North Korea’s need for nuclear protection and take steps towards disarming it.
That requires a lot of if’s though, and unfortunately the window may have passed. At this point I doubt Kim III will step back in any respect. He’s gone so far he might as well keep going and not have to rely on foreign protection at all. Besides that, despite its large economic aspect, the SCO at its core is about cooperation in the face of domestic terrorist threats, a problem shared by prospective members India, Pakistan, and Turkey, but absent from the North Korea. Combined with the fact that North Korea is a bit far removed from the organizations Central Asian countries, it doesn’t have much of a pretense for joining the group.
As sad as I am to have not found the magic bullet for the North Korean nuclear problem, I still think the SCO has a potential future role to play. As Russia’s SCO Energy Club finally gets off the ground, its current focus is on natural gas and petroleum, as three SCO member states, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, are three of the world’s largest producers of these substances. However, my Fulbright proposal was to look at roles for the SCO in renewable energy development, in Central Asia, and I don’t consider it a stretch to look at nuclear energy as well. Seeing as Kazakhstan produces over 30% of the world’s fuel-grade uranium, and many SCO member states are developing their nuclear energy industries as they seek to reduce carbon emissions, I think nuclear could easily be included in the Energy Club’s future and might help clean up the environment. Brining this back to North Korea, one lull in the nuclear crisis came in the mid 90’s when Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its weapons-capable reactors in exchange for two light-water reactors (pretty much only good for civilian use) from the U.S.A. The deal ultimately fell apart due to mutual distrust and the resulting delays, but at the beginning it showed promise. Given that North Korea also has copious stores of uranium ore, I see the potential for partnership there and its integration in to the SCO on that basis alone. The exact details are what I’ll be working on over the coming months, so I’ll keep you up to date. Russian or Chinese-constructed reactors would give North Korea affordable, civilian nuclear technology to help accelerate its growth and could hopefully be bargained for disarmament, netting a huge victory for global stability, and uranium ore supply to speed up nuclear development in other SCO countries. Success, however, will require not only North Korean willingness to work together, but also a huge contribution from China and Russia, as the current U.S. administration is unlikely to do much to help the situation.
As promised, picture of a shirt I saw!