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After threatening to destroy the U.S. territory of Guam with nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un appears to be backing down in the face of threats from President Trump, and, more likely, back-channel arm-twisting from China and Russia.
As the drama plays out in the international media, it would behoove the parties involved to find a way to solve this problem without igniting a conflagration between Pyongyang and Washington. There is a model for this, and it lies with the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
The United Nations has designated upcoming August 29th as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests.
Kazakhstan knows all too well the destructive effects of nuclear testing on its people. The USSR had dozens of nuclear missiles deployed in the territory of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the nation was in the forefront of Soviet nuclear weapons development. It also supplied the uranium ore to the USSR’s military industrial complex due to its massive reserves, the second largest on the planet.
The consequences of the Soviet nuclear abuse of Kazakhstan were staggering. Thousands of deaths, birth defects, and environmental degradation are the legacy of Soviet nuclear programs at Semipalatinsk (Semey), where over 100
nuclear tests took place above ground and more than 300 others underground. Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed the facility two and a half decades ago, to the joy of his fellow citizens.
Sanctions have not worked on North Korea to date. Recent United Nations penalties enacted against the regime could have a much stronger bite than Pyongyang has experienced so far. However, the enforcement devil is in the details. North Korea has shown it can find what it needs on the black market.
Even the improvement of its rocket engine performance in recent tests has been linked to contraband engines being provided from former Soviet factories in Ukraine. This scenario has alarmed defense officials in the West, as the channel could also supply Iran, via North Korea, with the same ICBM capability.
On the contrary, Kazakhstan did not pursue nuclear weapons upon the fall of the Soviet Union. Under the Nunn-Lugar program, it worked with Washington and, yes, Moscow, to dismantle them and send materials back to Russia, who controlled the devices during the entire period of turmoil and eliminated them later.
Mr. Nazarbayev saw disarmament as a pathway to stability and success, and attraction of foreign investment. Kazakhstan has championed a Central Asian nuclear weapons-free zone.
Instead of weapons development, Kazakhstan has turned to peaceful nuclear energy as a way to put its considerable nuclear expertise to work. Development of peaceful energy is an international right, and Kazakhstan is in the forefront of the global effort to build prosperity and peace with nuclear power, as opposed to the North Korean bullying.
To further this goal, Kazakhstan pioneered the first low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel bank for nuclear reactors at Oskemen. The facility, to be launched under the IAEA auspices at the end of this month, is meant to provide nuclear fuel for other nations. This way, Kazakhstan supports nuclear cooperation instead of nuclear proliferation. “The signing of this agreement is a significant step that will facilitate peaceful nuclear cooperation, an objective which Kazakhstan has worked tirelessly towards. The LEU fuel bank is an important vehicle that will help create a safer world,” Kazakhstan’s then-Foreign Minister, Erlan Idrissov, wrote in 2014, upon starting work on the project.
“The basic principle underlying the LEU bank is that buyers for civilian use will have access to stable and cost-effective supplies, avoiding the need for them to create their own enrichment cycle,” wrote Peter Leonard, Eurasia.net’s Central Asian Editor in 2015.
North Korean leader Mr. Kim recently stated there is no possibility Pyongyang will give up its nuclear weapons capability that was illegally developed over the last two decades. Perhaps further pressure from world powers could change his view on the issue. A different path should be outlined to the regime, one that Kazakhstan, and before that Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, successfully undertook in the past.
The alternative is continued tension that could easily escalate to nuclear war. At the very least, Japan and South Korea will most likely feel the need to develop their own nuclear capability in the face of North Korea truculence. This is an anathema to China and Russia, and will open long-festering historical wounds. A regional conflict could easily spread globally.
Kazakhstan has shown the way. Pyongyang needs to follow. The world needs to unite to nudge Pyongyang in this direction.