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Should Kazakhstan host the North Korean nuclear talks?

By Samantha Brletich

Since South Korea and North Korea leaders met on 27 April, Kazakhstan’s no-nuke model, a combination of international policy commitments and the government’s commitment to the peace and health of its citizens, has been considered the way forward for North Korea. Prior to the meeting, Kazakhstan has been held to a high standards regarding denuclearization. Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons as the country experienced tragic human and environmental tolls caused by excessive nuclear testing while part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan along with Ukraine and Belarus, held considerable nuclear weapon stockpiles. Kazakhstan, through its mediation capacity and its actions against denuclearization, can provide a constructive forum and positively influence the North Korea talks.

Background

Kazakhstan actively closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site by August 1991 where the Soviets detonated 456 nuclear weapons. The US assisted Kazakhstan in sealing 13 bore holes and 181 tunnels as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and nuclear/radioactive cleanup continues. Kazakhstan ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on 14 May 2002, almost 16 years ago and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. Kazakhstan created the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) in September 2006 that went into force in March 2009 as a preemptive measure to stop the proliferation and acquisition of nuclear weapons in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan has taken steps domestically to stop nuclear proliferation. The state enforced the Law on the Use of Atomic Energy(January 2016) which prescribes furtherenhancements for state control of radioactive materials. Kazakhstan also increased physical security at vulnerable sites including the Ulba Metallurgical Plant. Kazakhstan has worked with the UN’s Office for Drugs and Crime on preventing nuclear materials trafficking and the US State Department’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism (WMDT) unit. Kazakhstan has a Joint Action Plan with the WMDT. President Nazarbayev established the ATOM Project, the anti-nuclear advocacy effort in 2012and established the International Day against Nuclear Tests on 2 December 2009 via the UN. Kazakhstan created the Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank in 2015 by collaborating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to curb proliferation, native development, and nuclear materials trafficking.

Negotiations

Kazakhstan already mediated high-level and regional conflicts to rebrand itself as a place for negotiations, peace, and reconciliation. Kazakhstan acts in its own interests to ensure its own security and to elevate its international profile. The talks would support Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy politically, diplomatically, and economically making Kazakhstan economic competitive. Kazakhstan’s interest in the region are mostly economic. The nuclear talks may compel Kazakhstan to engage in substantive reforms internally and spotlight Kazakhstan’s need for progress. Kazakhstan’s civil society continues to experience a crackdown on freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of religion. Kazakhstan’s own shortfalls must not be ignored even though the human rights situation in North Korea is severe. No matter who hosts the talks, North Korea must be held accountable for its poor human rights abuses and lack of freedoms.

In 2013, Kazakhstan hosted two rounds of Iran nuclear deal talks. In 2015 and 2017, Astana held talks on Syria complementing the Geneva Process. Kazakhstan supported counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan to prevent the spread of extremism within its borders and within Central Asia. With UN support, Kazakhstan hosted the Istanbul Process (started in November 2011) followed by the Heart of Asia conference to discuss the Afghan security situation. During a meeting with President Trump in January 2018, President Nazarbayev suggested Kazakhstan would lead the “Minsk-2 Talks” about the Ukraine conflict. The talks resumed in February 2018 in Belarus.

The relative success of North Korea nuclear talks would validate Kazakhstan’s focus on nuclear security as a member of the non-permanent UNSC and as a guarantor of peace through its mediation capacity.The denuclearization of the North Korea would further its own non-proliferation goals. Kazakhstan expressed interest in mediating North Korea nuclear talks in 2017, reflecting one of the goals of its UNSC participation, a world free of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan supports the inter-Korea summit and talks between other nations. If talks result in North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan could assist in monitoring, compliance, and shaping future disarmament policy. Additional benefits would be receiving training and technical assistance from international partners and more support for Kazakhstan’s disarmament efforts.

Benefits for Kazakhstan

Since the two countries established strategic relations in 2009, South Korea’s FDI has increased to Kazakhstan, according to analysis from Jamestown Foundation. Investment is projected to grow and could grow stronger as result of the talks.South Korea and Kazakhstan already have substantial economic ties. Kazakhstan currently has 400 joint projects between South Korean and Kazakh companies and cumulative bilateral investments have reached $4 billion as of the first half of 2017. According to the Kazakhstan’s State Revenue Committee, the volume of trade between Kazakhstan and the Republic of Korea in January-November 2017 amounted to $1.465 billion. Astana and Seoul are sister cities and the two countries support each other’s cryptocurrency efforts and technological advancements including the development of technology clusters. Kazakhstan already built infrastructure linking important markets including the 3,000-kilometer Kazakhstan section of the Western Europe-Western China International Transit Corridor delivering goods to South Korea. Chances are high that humanitarian aid will be part of North Korean nuclear negotiations package and depending on the terms, goods can be shipped through Kazakhstan. North Korea’s stabilization, and expected (but unforeseen) cooperation, might present investment and economic opportunities particularly for Kazakh exports and tourism between the two countries.

Kazakhstan participates in multiple regional economic and political-security organizations including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China with participation from Russia and other Central Asian States. In ideal future conditions, North Korea participation (if stable and reliable), would be favorable for the region and multi-lateral participating would reduce North Korea’s isolation; however, involvement would keep the country within Russia and China’s sphere of influence. On the other hand, Kazakhstan may provide Western countries the opportunity to influence policy in the region furthering its multi-vector foreign policy.

The North Korea nuclear talks will not change the behavior of Kim Jong-Un or erase or repair North Korea’s global image. Kim Jong-Un’s actions and the situation should be handled with caution and skepticism. The international community needs to explore diplomacy and be patient with North Korea while maintaining a firm stance against the use of nuclear weapons as a diplomatic bargaining chip or as a tool of coercion.  The talks must improve the lives of the North Korean people which may be the key for successful dialog and stability. As Kazakhstan has shown the world, things do not happen overnight, but happen with a commitment to peace. It remains to be seen if North Korea has chosen peace or if this is purely a political move.

Samantha Brletich is an independent researcher and writer on Central Asia and the Former Soviet Union. Her research focuses on security, diplomatic relations, terrorism, culture, and governance. Samantha holds a MS in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University. She is a current employee of the US Government. Opinions are her own.

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