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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Julia Masterson

Iran Nuclear Talks Head to Sixth Round

The fifth round of talks on restoring U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal wrapped up June 2. Negotiators appear optimistic about the prospects for success while acknowledging that some issues remain unresolved. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Abas Araghchi said that the next round of talks, slated to begin June 10, “logically could and should be the final round.” He told the press June 2 that the remaining differences are “not unresolvable.” Enrique Mora, the EU official coordinating the indirect talks between the United States and Iran, was similarly...

Inspectors Find New CW Agent in Syria

June 2021
By Julia Masterson

International inspectors found an undeclared chemical warfare agent in Syria during a September 2020 visit, according to a monitoring report released April 23. The report, issued by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), suggests that Syria may still be producing chemical weapons despite being censured by the group for repeated chemical weapons use. 

An April 2021 report issued by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says inspectors found an undeclared chemical warfare agent in Syria during a September 2020 visit. (Photo: Koen Van Weel/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)As a state-party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Syria is expressly prohibited from producing, stockpiling, or using chemical weapons. Syria joined the treaty in 2013, but reports of chemical weapons attacks by Syrian forces have emerged since the UN-OPCW operation in 2013–2016 to remove and destroy the country’s declared chemical weapons arsenal, raising questions about the validity of Syria’s initial stockpile declaration. 

To resolve outstanding issues and verify the completeness and accuracy of that declaration, the OPCW established the Declaration and Assessment Team (DAT) in 2014, but Syria has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the team’s work. Together with the findings of the April report, the OPCW so far has recorded and is investigating 20 outstanding issues pertaining to Syria’s initial declaration. 

Of chief concern is whether Syria is continuing to produce chemical warfare agents and expand its arsenal in blatant defiance of the CWC. Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high commissioner for disarmament, briefed the Security Council on the discovery of the new Syrian chemical agent on May 6 and said the nature of the agent, “inside storage containers of large volume at a previously declared chemical weapons facility,” could imply undeclared and ongoing chemical weapons production activities. The disarmament chief neglected to name the new chemical warfare agent, but Syria has already declared its production of nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as sulfur mustard. 

In March, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the global chemical weapons watchdog’s Executive Council that “unknown, potentially significant quantities of chemical warfare agents” had yet to be declared by Syria. The OPCW reportedly also called on Damascus to declare its production or weaponization of a nerve agent at an unnamed chemical weapons production facility. For these and other reasons, according to a March briefing by Nakamitsu, “the declaration submitted by [Syria] cannot be considered accurate and complete.” (See ACT, April 2021.) 

It is not clear whether the newly discovered chemical warfare agent pertains to the OPCW’s call that Syria declare its production or weaponization of a nerve agent. The April report does not provide any specifics on the agent, only that it is “neat,” meaning complete and undiluted. The OPCW Technical Secretariat informed the Syrian government on April 16 that a new outstanding issue would be opened and discussed by the DAT in mid-May. 

Syria’s chemical weapons program will remain a matter of principal concern for the OPCW Executive Council until the program is verifiably eliminated, Vidmantas Purlys, Lithuania’s ambassador to the OPCW, said during an interview on May 18 with Arms Control Today. Purlys is serving as a vice chair of the council alongside permanent representatives to the OPCW from Ecuador, Germany, and Iran and council Chairperson Abdelouahab Bellouki of Morocco. 

The council plays a pivotal role in enforcing compliance with the CWC. In April 2020, following publication of a damning OPCW report attributing a series of chemical weapons attacks to the Syrian government, the council called on Syria to declare the entirety of its stockpile to the OPCW. (See ACT, May 2020.) 

Syria failed to meet that deadline, and in April 2021, CWC states-parties voted to adopt an unprecedented resolution co-sponsored by Lithuania to temporarily revoke Syria’s rights and privileges under the CWC until it declares its stockpile and returns to compliance with the treaty. (See ACT, May 2021.)

“It was an important demonstration by the international community that there would be no impunity for the use of chemical weapons,” Purlys said, voicing his hope that “Syria will listen and constructively respond to this important message of the international community.”

Purlys urged the international community to continue pushing Syria to comply fully with its CWC obligations and to cooperate with the OPCW. “Use of chemical weapons is [a] grave violation of international law and those responsible for their use must be held accountable and brought to justice,” he said. 

The Executive Council will meet again on July 6–9 at The Hague.

A new report suggests Syria may still be producing chemical weapons despite being censured by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for repeated CW use.

Iran Agrees to Extend Inspections of Nuclear Sites

June 2021

Iran has agreed to extend a critical temporary monitoring arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for one month, the agency reported May 24. The agreement will expire June 24, leaving 30 days for Iran and the other members of the 2015 nuclear deal to restore that accord. 

Rafael Mariano Grossi (R), Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi (L). (Photo: /POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Iran suspended implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement on Feb. 23, marking an escalatory step in its scheme to intensify activities in violation of the nuclear deal. Iran is obligated to implement the additional protocol in accordance with the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But it decided to suspend compliance pursuant to a December 2020 Iranian law designed to pressure the United States to deliver on sanctions relief. Tehran has demanded that Washington reverse all sanctions imposed since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) 

An additional protocol is a voluntary arrangement that allows IAEA inspectors increased access to sites and information related to a country’s nuclear program. The aim is to verify that nuclear materials are not diverted for malign purposes. 

The special monitoring arrangement reached by Iran and the IAEA on Feb. 21 preempted Tehran’s suspension of its additional protocol and alleviated mounting concerns over the possibility of losing visibility into Iran’s nuclear activities. 

Under the temporary technical understanding, Iran agreed to continue recording and collecting certain information and committed to transfer that data to the IAEA once sanctions are eased. But the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said in a Feb. 21 statement that all recorded and collected data would be completely erased if the JCPOA sanctions were not removed by the May 21 deadline. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Although the arrangement has now been extended, the original deadline weighed heavily on diplomats in Vienna, who are entrenched in negotiations toward restoring the JCPOA. Originally agreed for three months, the arrangement was intended to provide diplomatic space so parties to the nuclear deal could reach consensus on the steps needed for a complete return to JCPOA compliance by Iran and the United States. For Iran, those steps would include a recommitment to its additional protocol, thus negating the need for the temporary monitoring arrangement. 

The IAEA will regain access to all information collected since Feb. 23 once the JCPOA is restored and sanctions are lifted. Certain details regarding Iran’s decision to extend the arrangement remain private, but it does not appear there was any gap in monitoring between the May 21 expiration and May 24 extension of the temporary agreement. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to international organizations in Vienna, commended the extension on May 24, tweeting that “it will help maintain businesslike atmosphere at the Vienna talks . . . and facilitate a successful outcome of the diplomatic efforts to restore the nuclear deal.”

As the May 21 deadline drew near, the European members of the deal—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—emphasized the importance of extending the monitoring arrangement. “IAEA access will of course be essential to our efforts to restore the [JCPOA], as the deal cannot be implemented without it,” they said. 

Iran implicitly pledged under the extended monitoring arrangement to continue implementing its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which it is required to uphold as a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Despite a modest decline in inspector presence resulting from the suspension of Iran’s additional protocol and the unique parameters of the temporary monitoring agreement, regular safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program have continued without disruption. 

Regular monitoring reports by the IAEA provide transparency into Iranian nuclear activities and assurance that, despite its violations of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful in nature.—JULIA MASTERSON

Iran has agreed to extend a critical temporary monitoring arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for one month, the agency reported May 24.

Biden and Moon Discuss North Korea

U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to terminate U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines that capped Seoul’s missile development and announced the appointment of a career diplomat, Sung Kim, as the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea. While Biden did not provide new details about the results of his administration’s policy review toward North Korea, the two leaders reiterated the need for a calibrated, phased approach toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and stressed the importance of using dialogue and diplomacy toward North Korea in the news...

Iran, U.S. Take Steps Toward Restoring Nuclear Deal


May 2021
By Julia Masterson

World powers were back in Vienna the week of April 27, trying to accelerate their efforts to bring the United States and Iran into compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Representatives of the European Union, Iran and others attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel on April 15 in Vienna, Austria. Representatives from the United States, Iran, the European Union, Russia, China and other participants from the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are meeting directly and indirectly over possibly reviving the plan.  (Photo: EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty Images)Iran, the five other members of the deal, and the United States have spent most of April in the Austrian capital discussing ways to restore the accord. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed on April 20 that work is underway on a document outlining steps that Iran and the United States must take to return to compliance. Negotiators aim to have a concrete proposal by mid-May, Reuters reported.

U.S. and Iranian delegates did not meet face to face, but substantial progress was made through indirect negotiations mediated by the other members of the agreement—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Delegations from the intermediary countries first gathered with Iran on April 2 to discuss restoring the deal, with Enrique Mora, European external action deputy secretary-general, chairing those discussions. The participating states established formal working groups to address the two primary issues impeding restoration of the accord: the sanctions against Iran that the United States must lift to reenter the deal and the nuclear limits to which Iran must revert in order to meet its own obligations under the agreement.

States met for plenary sessions to deliberate the two working groups’ findings on April 9, April 15, April 17, April 20, and April 27.

After their April 20 session, Mora released a statement remarking that “participants took stock of progress made in the ongoing discussions in Vienna regarding specific measures needed in terms of sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation.” He said that given the progress made, participants would establish a third working group to consider how the United States and Iran could sequence mutual steps toward compliance with the agreement. The negotiating parties agreed to resume discussions in Vienna the week of April 27.

Overall, the participating states appear optimistic, despite the complicated nature of indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States. According to U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, the talks have remained “positive” and “businesslike.” He said the discussions “have not been without difficulty, in part because these talks are indirect,” but that still “there has been some progress.”

U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to reenter the deal after President Donald Trump unilaterally abrogated the accord in May 2018 and reimposed stringent sanctions that had been lifted under the agreement.

Price announced on April 7 that the Biden administration is “prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.” But he added, “I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be.”

An impasse exists, given that Washington and Tehran appear to have different interpretations of what specific sanctions the United States must lift to return to the deal. The United States appears hesitant to sweep away all sanctions reimposed since 2018, which Iran has demanded as a condition for face-to-face discussions.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, told The Wall Street Journal on April 15, “Our position is quite clear…. As far as we are concerned every sanction imposed or reimposed or relabeled by the Trump administration are JCPOA-related and should be lifted.” But he hinted during the interview that Tehran may be open to compromise, saying, “Of course, there are different ways to see that, and that’s why we negotiate.”

Araghchi outlined one potential path forward on April 16, when he noted in a separate interview that the United States could explicitly name the sanctions it could lift and, in return, Iran could list the nuclear steps it would take to return to compliance with the deal. In his view, this approach could achieve an “agreement on this that can be implemented quicker.” It is not clear whether negotiators adopted this approach in Vienna or what the details are of the drafting process already underway.

Expressing support for the compliance-for-compliance approach to restoring the deal, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on April 18 that “the United States is not going to lift sanctions unless we have clarity and confidence that Iran will fully return to compliance with its obligations under the deal.” He described the indirect talks in Vienna as “constructive.”

Apart from sanctions, irreversible advances in Iran’s nuclear program further complicate restoring the JCPOA. That is because although Iran could return to the enrichment-level and stockpile limits required by the deal, critical knowledge gained by advancing enrichment and operating sophisticated centrifuges in violation of the accord cannot be unlearned.

After the United States abrogated the agreement, Iran in May 2019 began gradually violating its commitments. In November of that year, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on the research and development of advanced centrifuges. Since then, Iran has introduced new centrifuges not covered by the nuclear deal and is operating advanced machines in violation of the accord’s limits.

Also, the Iranian Parliament passed a law in December 2020 calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to take a series of escalatory steps in violation of the accord, some of which may result in irreversible knowledge gain, including the production of uranium metal, which Iran is prohibited from producing for 15 years under the JCPOA. Iran began producing uranium metal in February. (See ACT, March 2021.)

The situation was made more complicated by an April 11 sabotage attack against Iran’s Natanz nuclear site widely believed to be Israeli in origin. In response, Iran announced it would further boost its enrichment levels of uranium-235 to 60 percent purity, which is closer to bomb-grade quality. Araghchi broadcast the move in Vienna and said that, in addition to replacing the centrifuges damaged in the sabotage attack, Iran would install 1,000 additional machines at Natanz that would be used to produce higher-enriched uranium.

Iran confirmed it began enriching to 60 percent U-235 purity on April 16 under International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring.

Although the attack on Natanz and Iran’s retaliatory measures did not derail productive dialogue, France, Germany, and the UK issued a statement on April 14 condemning Iran and noting that “this is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon.” They added, “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

A European official told Reuters on April 16 that Iran’s decision to boost its enrichment “is not making the negotiation easier” but that informal talks between the JCPOA participants and the United States would continue in Vienna as planned.

For now, all states participating directly or indirectly in the negotiations in Vienna appear committed to moving forward. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reinforced this view April 21 when he said the United States is “seemingly serious at this stage” and that, for Iran, it would take only a short time to verify sanctions removal and revert back to compliance.

Progress reportedly continues despite efforts by opponents, especially in Iran and Israel, to blow up the discussions.

States Censure Syria for Chemical Weapons Violations


May 2021
By Leanne Quinn and Julia Masterson

Member states of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog have voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in an effort to hold that country accountable for repeated chemical weapons use.

Delegates participate at the 25th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in April 2021. (Photo: OPCW)The decision, adopted April 21 by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), marked a historic step toward restoring the global norm against chemical weapons. It was the first time the organization had suspended a member’s rights since the OPCW’s inception in 1997.

Led by France and supported by 46 member states, the move means that Syria's rights to vote, stand for election, and hold any office within the organization have been suspended. The measure, which required a two-thirds’ majority to pass, was adopted on a 87–15 vote at the second session of the 25th conference of the CWC in The Hague. Syria, China, and Russia, a major ally of the Syrian government, were among the nations opposed. There were 34 abstentions. Negotiations on a consensus proposal failed.

The decision came as no surprise. On April 12, the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) released its report concluding that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that on Feb. 4, 2018, a Syrian Air Force helicopter hit eastern Saraqib by dropping at least one cylinder that disbursed toxic chlorine gas over a large area.

The IIT’s first report, issued in 2020, found the Syrian Air Force responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Syrian territory in March 2017, using sarin, a volatile nerve agent, and chlorine. The IIT was established in June 2018 with a mandate to identify the perpetrators of all instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Following that first report, the organization’s 41-member Executive Council condemned Syria for its documented and repeated use of chemical weapons. The council gave Syria 90 days to declare all of its chemical weapons and related facilities, as well as to resolve 19 outstanding issues regarding its facilities and stockpile declaration to the OPCW.

The council recommended that the conference take action pursuant to CWC Article 12, which provides that the conference may “restrict or suspend the State Party’s rights and privileges...until it undertakes the necessary action to conform with its obligations,” at its next meeting if Syria failed to meet the deadline. In October, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias confirmed that Syria had not made progress toward meeting any of the mandates, setting the stage for this month’s action.

Joanna Roper, the UK ambassador to the organization, said the decision was “a measured response” to uphold the CWC provisions and the integrity of the oversight organization. Rania Alrifaiy, Syria’s delegate, urged member states to “reject the fabricated allegations” and vote against the draft to prevent the OPCW from being converted into a political tool.

Arias said, “[T]he conference of the states-parties reaffirmed that the use of chemical weapons is the most serious breach of the convention there can be, as people’s lives are taken or destroyed.” He added, “By deciding to address the possession and use of chemical weapons by a state-party, the conference has reiterated the international community’s ethical commitment to uphold the norm against these weapons.”

Many of the countries voting against the measure expressed concern about the perceived politicization of the OPCW and the legitimacy of the IIT. Some states also took issue with the motivation behind the decision and the voting procedures.

Russia, in particular, complained that the organization and its investigators exceeded their mandate. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s representative to the UN, alleged that the OPCW was being used as a political tool. “Our Western colleagues...attempt to mobilize public opinion against Syrian authorities with a sole purpose, and it is not about upholding the nonproliferation regime. It is all about regime change.” But other countries defended the impartiality and integrity of the organization’s technical experts.

The latest report considered various hypotheses as to how the incident occurred, including Syria’s claim that it was staged by terrorist groups. The investigation found those leads were “not supported by any concrete evidence” and appeared to be based on conclusions that involved materials the Syrian government did not share with the IIT, despite requests for access.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the report and “categorically denies its use of poison gas in the town of Saraqib or any other Syrian town or village.”

During the April conference, 58 member states also issued a joint statement that “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon in the Russian Federation against Alexei Navalny,” the Russian political dissident who was attacked in August 2020 on a domestic airplane flight in Russia. They reaffirmed that “any poisoning of an individual with a nerve agent is considered use of a chemical weapon” and that “the use of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances is unacceptable and contravenes international standards and norms against such use.”

The OPCW collected biomedical samples from Navalny in September and determined he had been exposed to a toxic chemical of the Novichok family.

Novichok is a form of nerve agent, and certain Novichok agents are included on the CWC Schedule 1 annex on chemicals, which demarcates those chemicals as banned under the treaty. The agent that sickened Navalny is not included on that list, but the use of any chemical as a weapon is expressly prohibited by the CWC.

The 58 states committed to stay engaged with the issue until the OPCW investigation into Navalny’s poisoning is resolved. “It is our firm conviction that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable,” the members concluded. The OPCW Executive Council is due to meet July 6–9, when Navalny’s poisoning will again be discussed.

For the first time, member states of the world's chemical weapons watchdog have suspended a state's rights under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

U.S. Lodges Arms Control, Nonproliferation Concerns


May 2021
By Shannon Bugos and Julia Masterson

Russia, China, and Iran are failing to fully comply with treaties related to nuclear and chemical weapons, the U.S. State Department said in a report released April 15.

Russia last conducted a full-scale nuclear test blast at its former test site on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Sea in 1990. In 1991, Moscow declared a nuclear test moratorium. The U.K.’s last nuclear test was conducted in 1991; the United States halted nuclear testing in 1992; France and China suspended nuclear testing in 1996, the year the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty opened for signature. All five states have signed the CTBT. Of the five, only France has formally closed its test site. (Photo: NASA) This marks the first publication of the annual compliance report under the Biden administration, although it covers activities during 2020, under the Trump administration.

In particular, the State Department said that Russia has continued to undertake activities that are inconsistent with the “zero yield” standard regarding nuclear testing, established through negotiations on the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all nuclear test explosions regardless of yield.

“Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that have created nuclear yield and are not consistent with the U.S. ‘zero-yield’ standard,” the report stated, reaffirming a finding reflected in previous reports. It added that “Russia’s development of new warhead designs and overall stockpile management efforts have been enhanced by its approach to nuclear weapons-related experiments.”

Critical further details about the Biden administration’s understanding of the Russian program were not revealed in the public report but presumably are spelled out in the classified annex.
The State Department added that its concerns were suspended for activities occurring in 2020 “because Russia’s activities may have been curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The report once again called attention to possible nuclear testing activities by China, but the comments did not include the same information or allegations listed in reports from the Trump administration.

“China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities” has informed those concerns, the State Department said.

In the 2020 compliance report, the State Department cited the “use of explosive containment chambers and extensive excavation activities” and interference with “the flow of data from the monitoring stations.” The latter assertion has been disputed by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. (See ACT, May 2020.)

In 2019, the Trump administration determined that China "probably carried out multiple nuclear weapon-related tests or experiments in 2018" but this year's report did not repeat that allegation. (See ACT, October 2019.) China signed the CTBT in 1996, but has not ratified the treaty.

The United States and Russia also signed the CTBT in 1996. Moscow ratified the treaty in 2000, but Washington has never done so.

In addition, the report expressed concerns that Russia is in violation of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers and it has prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The report acknowledged a February 2020 overflight by the United States, Estonia, and Lithuania that traveled 505 kilometers, but said “Russia made clear in 2020 that it had not yet changed its standing policy” regarding the restriction.

The report noted that the United States is no longer a state-party to the treaty after the Trump administration withdrew in November 2020. (See ACT, December 2020.) As such, the treaty will not be included in the report going forward unless Washington decides to rejoin.

As for the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which the United States and Russia extended in February until 2026, the State Department certified Russian compliance with that pact despite some unspecified “implementation-related questions.”

On April 21, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the report, saying that its “lack of any conclusive evidence, its dissemination of blatantly false accusations, and suppression of Washington’s own imperfect compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements relegate it to the category of information noise.”

The report asserted that the United States “continued to be in compliance with all of its obligations under arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements,” highlighting only its concerns with the compliance of other countries.

In the area of nonproliferation, the State Department cited issues of noncompliance by North Korea with its obligations under Articles II and III of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 and proceeded to develop a sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile program. Even so, according to the report, “the denuclearization of North Korea remains the overriding U.S. objective, and the United States remains committed to diplomatic negotiations with North Korea toward that goal.”

On Iran, the State Department addressed the ongoing IAEA investigation into Iran’s past nuclear activities and the completeness of its safeguards declaration to the agency. Although that investigation pertains to Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities, the State Department said that “any intentional failure by Iran to declare nuclear material would constitute a clear violation of Iran’s NPT-mandated comprehensive safeguards agreement and would constitute a violation of Article III of the NPT itself.”

The State Department also referenced Iran’s breaches of compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and acknowledged that “Iran most likely pursued this phased approach [in violating the accord] in an effort to generate negotiating leverage with the United States and European participants in the JCPOA.” Iran began violating the agreement in 2019, one year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord and reimposed a maximum-pressure sanctions campaign against Iran.

The report did not mention ongoing efforts between Iran and the United States to restore compliance and preserve the agreement.

Russia, China, and Iran are failing to fully comply with treaties related to nuclear and chemical weapons, according to a State Department report.

Parties Make Progress on Iran Deal Restoration

The United States, Iran, and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal expressed varying degrees of optimism over the progress made during recent talks in Vienna on the necessary steps to restore full implementation of the accord. The parties met April 15-20 and are set to return to Vienna next week for further discussions on the steps necessary to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States and Iran are still not talking directly, which has slowed the process, but EU political...

North Korea Policy Review Nears Completion

The Biden administration is wrapping up its North Korea policy review, which is expected to be completed within the coming weeks. The review could mark a shift in Washington’s posture toward diplomacy with Pyongyang that diverges from those of previous administrations, including from his immediate predecessor Donald Trump. When asked whether President Joe Biden’s approach to North Korea would include meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as former President Trump did on several occasions, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said , “I think his approach would be quite different and...

Biden’s North Korea Policy Review: Toward a More Effective Strategy

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Volume 13, Issue 2, April 13, 2021

When former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the outgoing Obama administration warned that North Korea's nuclear program posed one of the most significant security challenges facing the United States. Four years later, the threat has grown.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at their 2019 summit in Hanoi. Two decades of diplomacy, ranging from multilateral negotiations to high-level personal talks, have failed to meaningfully curb North Korea's nuclear weapons development. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Trump’s approach toward North Korea got off to a rough start with exchanges of fiery rhetoric and military threats, followed by high-profile summits that failed to produce lasting results or an effective negotiating process for denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula. In the absence of meaningful diplomatic progress, North Korea has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile arsenals and it remains one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous proliferation challenges.

During his presidential campaign, President Joe Biden criticized Trump’s approach to diplomacy, including his decision to meet directly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” and “to offer an alternative vision for a non-nuclear future to Kim and the people of North Korea.”

Since taking office January 20, the new administration has been conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. To date, key officials have offered few details about their strategy beyond reiterating that denuclearization will remain the end goal and that the United States intends to work closely with allies.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty ImagesThe administration’s North Korea policy review is a critical opportunity to forge a more effective U.S. approach toward the long-running effort to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear progress and reduce the risks of a major conflict. The Biden administration’s policy should take into account the positive and negative lessons from the Trump era as the United States seeks to work with regional allies and the international community to move closer to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Building on the twin goals of denuclearization and peace established by Trump and Kim, Biden should adopt a more pragmatic, step-for-step approach that involves concrete actions on denuclearization in exchange for corresponding measures that address regional security dynamics and sanctions relief for North Korea.

North Korea’s Advancing Nuclear Weapons Program

During the first year of Trump’s presidency, North Korea accelerated its long-range missile testing, introducing three new systems: the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) tested six times (three tests failed), the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), tested twice, and the Hwasong-15, an ICBM tested once. The Hwasong-15 is powerful enough to deliver a nuclear warhead to the entirety of the continental United States, although the accuracy, reliability, and survivability of the warhead during reentry remain questionable after just one test.

North Korea also tested its largest yield warhead—likely a two-stage hydrogen bomb—in September 2017. Since then, North Korea has not conducted any nuclear tests and did take steps as part of its diplomatic overture to the United States to destroy testing tunnels at the Punggye-ri test site in 2018. It is not clear if, or how quickly, North Korea could rebuild that nuclear test site, or if another exists.

There is considerable uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material, but it has likely grown over the past four years. In 2017, North Korea's stockpile was estimated to include 20-40 kilograms of separated plutonium and about 250-500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to Stanford physicist Sig Hecker, who visited North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon in 2010. Leaked U.S. and South Korean assessments put the HEU stockpile close to 750 kilograms in 2017. According to a 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, North Korea’s stockpile of weapons-usable material is enough for up to 60 warheads but Pyongyang has likely only assembled around 20-30 nuclear devices. Satellite imagery suggests continued activity at the uranium enrichment facility and intermittent operations the five-megawatt reactor during the past several years, which was used to produce plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons, at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, suggesting that North Korea continues to produce fissile material. 

Following a spate of testing and increased U.S.-North Korea tensions in 2017, Kim claimed in his 2018 New Year’s address that North Korea’s nuclear forces are “capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States” and announced that North Korea would mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for deployment. He also opened the door for diplomacy with South Korea and later the United States—perhaps assessing that recent long-range missile tests would give him greater leverage in negotiations.

As part of the diplomatic overture, Kim declared an official testing moratorium for long-range missiles and nuclear explosive devices from April 2018. While that moratorium ended in December 2020, the country has not since tested any nuclear devices or long-range systems. North Korea resumed short-range ballistic missile testing in May 2020, after talks with the United States appeared to stall.

Since then, Pyongyang has introduced and tested several new short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea also displayed a new ICBM during an October 2020 parade that is larger than the Hwasong-15 and introduced two new ballistic missiles likely designed for a submarine, one during the October 2020 parade and one in January 2021. Kim also said in December 2020 that the country intends to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, indicating that North Korea will continue refining and developing new nuclear capabilities to meet the perceived security threats.

Lessons Learned from Trump-Kim Diplomacy

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs expanded significantly during the Trump presidency, the diplomatic exchanges between Trump and Kim offer critical insights into North Korea’s approach to negotiations and what the country may be willing to put on the table in future talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they sit down with their respective delegations for the U.S.-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore, June 12, 2018.  (Photo:  Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)During his time in office, Trump met with Kim three times: first in Singapore in June 2018, then in Hanoi in February 2019, and briefly at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in June 2020. Although tension eased and North Korea has refrained from further long-range ballistic missile flight testing and nuclear testing since 2018, these summits, and the intermittent rounds of working-level talks between the leader-to-leader meetings, did not yield any sustained progress toward achieving the goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the peninsula. The United States did, however, gain further insights into North Korea’s negotiating position that should be useful for future diplomatic efforts.

During the first summit, Trump and Kim signed a four-point Joint Statement, whereby the United States and North Korea agreed to establish new bilateral relations, build a “lasting and stable” peace regime, work toward complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and recover the remains of soldiers missing in action. Trump also unilaterally announced additional commitments in a news conference that day, including the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

While the Singapore summit established the broad parameters and goals of the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic negotiations, it soon became apparent that Washington and Pyongyang preferred different processes to make progress. North Korea expressed a preference for a step-by-step approach, whereas the Trump administration appeared most focused on denuclearization and wanted North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program before any sanctions were lifted. The two parties also did not share the same understanding of the agreed-upon goals, including what constitutes denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The differing interpretations over the processes and goals were compounded by mixed messaging and failure on both sides to sufficiently empower their negotiating teams. Despite the lack of progress and concrete action, Trump and Kim met for their second summit in Hanoi with cautious expectations for progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

In what appeared to have been a shift in the U.S. position, Steve Beigun, former deputy secretary of state and the U.S. special representative for North Korea, stated ahead of the second summit that the United States was prepared to move step-by-step with North Korea toward denuclearization while promoting peace on the peninsula.

Despite that shift, the Hanoi summit ended early and without agreement on subsequent steps. In a debrief of the meeting, Trump and Pompeo shared that the two sides had made progress, but said Trump rejected Kim’s call for sanctions to be entirely lifted in exchange for partial denuclearization. Pompeo remarked that Kim was “unprepared” to do more.

Countering the U.S. account of the meeting, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho stated that North Korea had requested the partial removal of sanctions in exchange for a permanent halt of nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the full, verifiable, dismantlement of facilities at North Korea’s primary Yongbyon nuclear complex. Trump reportedly demanded “one more thing” atop North Korea’s proposal, which some have speculated could have been a facility outside of Yongbyon that is part of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.

In April, Trump remarked that while he preferred a “big deal” with North Korea to “get rid of the nuclear weapons,” the door for “various small deals” remained open. Kim told the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly April 12 that he would be willing to meet with Trump “one more time” if Washington proposed the summit, but said the United States would have to have the “right stance” and “methodology.” He called for Trump to “lay down unilateral requirements and seek constructive solutions.”

Trump and Kim met briefly one final time in June 2019 at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and agreed to restart working-level negotiations. Following that meeting, in September 2019, North Korea’s First Vice Minister Choe Son Hui issued a statement suggesting that North Korea was interested in continuing talks, provided that the United States offered “a proposal geared to the interests of the DPRK and the U.S.” Trump remarked shortly thereafter that he was open to a “new method” for talks with North Korea, suggesting a softening of the U.S. stance toward sanctions relief.

Working-level talks began in October 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden, and ended shortly thereafter. Ahead of the meeting, North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil praised Trump for taking a more flexible approach and suggested that “second thought” be given to the possibility of a “step by step solution starting with the things feasible first while building trust in each other,” likely referring to North Korea’s preference for an incremental approach that exchanges steps on denuclearization for actions by the United States to lift sanctions and address Pyongyang’s security concerns. After talks commenced, however, he said the U.S. came with “empty-handed” proposals that “greatly disappointed [the North Korean delegation] and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”

Trump administration reportedly offered North Korea time-bound, limited sanctions relief in exchange for concrete, verifiable steps to halt activities at Yongbyon during the meeting, but talks fell apart on the second day and North Korea did not accept the invitation to resume negotiations. Kim said the U.S. position demonstrated the United States’ unwillingness to “solve the issue”

Nearly two years of off-and-on summit diplomacy between the United States and North Korea were ultimately unsuccessful in leading to concrete action to advance the goals agreed to in Singapore. Disagreements over sequencing, particularly if and when sanctions relief should be offered, and the scope of each sides’ respective actions could not be resolved at the leader-level summits.

The Trump-Kim diplomatic process also failed because the two sides did not establish and maintaining a regular dialogue between high-level meetings. Such working-level engagement provides a greater opportunity to share and test concrete proposals and to pave the way for leadership-level summits to produce more tangible outcomes.

Consistent working-level talks are also necessary to build trust and rapport between negotiating parties. Working-level negotiating teams must also have the support from leadership to be effective, but critical mixed messages from Trump and other senior administration officials, including his National Security Advisor John Bolton, about the goals of the negotiations undercut the credibility of working-level negotiators, like Steve Beigun. On the North Korean side, Kim Jong-un did not appear to empower the negotiating team to discuss in any level of detail the country’s nuclear program slowed preparation for the Hanoi meeting.

Recommendations for a More Effective U.S. Policy

The North Korea policy review that the Biden administration is undertaking is not simply a new U.S. administration’s opportunity to set the stage for future talks and signal to Pyongyang the U.S. approach for the next four years—it is much more. Given that North Korea may be on the cusp of significant advancements in its capability to deliver nuclear weapons using a variety of short- and long-range ballistic missiles, the next four years may be the last best chance to freeze and begin to roll back its growing nuclear capabilities and the threat they pose to regional and international security.

The mixed results of the United States’ policies toward North Korea throughout the Obama and Trump administrations offer four sets of key lessons for reshaping the approach under Joe Biden in ways that produce more meaningful and lasting outcomes.

1. The Limits of Sanctions

Sanctions have played a significant role in Biden’s predecessors’ North Korea policy. Former Presidents Trump, Barack Obama, and George Bush have all used sanctions to try to deny North Korea of the materials and funds necessary to pursue its nuclear and missile programs and to punish Pyongyang for violating its international nonproliferation obligations. While sanctions will likely remain a part of U.S. and United Nations Security Council policy toward North Korea, they are but one tool in a broader strategy.

North Korea has demonstrated a considerable tolerance for economic pain and skill in evading sanctions. In recent years, North Korea has become increasingly more adept and creative in its efforts to sidestep sanctions and it has shown that it is unwilling to make unilateral concessions in response to tougher U.S. or UN sanctions.

Furthermore, enforcement and implementation of UN and U.S. sanctions measures have been spotty, especially after Trump prematurely declared that he had achieved success in erasing the North Korean threat following his first summit with Kim Jong-un.

As a result, Washington cannot depend on sanctions pressure alone to push Kim to the negotiating table, especially in the absence of stronger support from regional allies, particularly China, which is North Korea’s largest remaining trading partner.

The Biden administration is unlikely to lift any sanctions absent significant moves from North Korea that roll back its nuclear program, but the North Korea policy review could signal to Pyongyang that there is a credible offramp from sanctions through concrete steps to halt, reverse, and eventually dismantle key nuclear and missile capabilities. This could include partial relief early in the process in exchange for concrete actions from North Korea. The Biden administration’s North Korea policy review should also consider how to better implement humanitarian exemptions for sanctions and support inter-Korean projects.

2. Reaffirming the Goals of the Singapore Summit

The United States’ diplomatic strategy should include reaffirming the objectives of the 2018 Singapore Summit joint statement and indicating clearly that the United States will engage in meaningful talks toward achieving those objectives without preconditions.

The Singapore goals envision a transformed relationship between the United States and North Korea that includes “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Given the role that nuclear weapons play in North Korea’s security calculus, transforming the U.S.-North Korea relationship and the security environment will be critical for moving toward denuclearization.

The Singapore summit declaration may also be North Korea’s preferred starting point. For Kim, the Singapore meeting was a considerable political achievement. Additionally, North Korea has long viewed denuclearization as encompassing the entire peninsula and including elements of the U.S. extended deterrence over North Korea. The Singapore summit declaration recognizes that regional security and stability directly impact the path to denuclearize and folds in addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns as part of a more holistic set of negotiations.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has already stoked some confusion by calling for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “denuclearization of North Korea” interchangeably. This risks sending the wrong message to Pyongyang about U.S. intentions, as the denuclearization of North Korea suggests that the Biden administration is focused on dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons program and not taking into account Pyongyang’s understanding of the necessary conditions for denuclearization. Hopefully, once the policy review is completed, the Biden administration will demonstrate more consistent messaging.

Some experts favor abandoning the goal of denuclearization, arguing that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons, and instead advocate for pursuing an arms control-like strategy that reduces risk and preventsfurther qualitative and quantitative advances in the country’s warheads and nuclear-capable missile designs.

The arms control versus denuclearization debate, however, sets up a false choice. U.S. policy can retain denuclearization as a long-term goal while pursuing arms control-like agreements that build toward verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Retaining denuclearization as the long-term goal is important for both North Korea-specific policy purposes and reinforcing a nuclear nonproliferation regime writ large.

This does not mean, however, that the United States should pursue a comprehensive denuclearization agreement at the onset. A series of smaller deals that prioritize reducing risk and preventing North Korea from further refining and developing its nuclear and missile programs will lead toward denuclearization while building confidence in the process and contributing to stability in the region.

3. A Reciprocal Step-by-Step Approach

The Biden administration should also make clear that the United States will pursue a reciprocal, step-by-step diplomatic strategy that rewards concrete actions toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with sanctions relief and mutual confidence-building measures that reduce the risk of conflict and address North Korea’s security concerns.

There is value in working in phases rather than trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement risks the talks ending without any concrete actions that reduce nuclear risk and increase stability in the region.

Overall, the essence and strength of this step-by-step approach is the flexible choreography and yet firm direction toward a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Korean peninsula that not only deals with North Korean nuclear and missile production but also addresses North Korea’s security concerns. A step-by-step process also stands a better chance for maintaining continuity and momentum between changing administrations, whereas if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal, talks may falter in the transition to a new administration.

There are reasons to believe that this approach will still be amenable  to North Korea as Kim Myong Gil, the chief delegate of the North Korea-U.S. bilateral relations, said in September 2019 that the “[step-by-step solution] is something to give a second thought” and the preference toward an action-for-action approach to advance the goals of the Singapore declaration was clearly stated during the summits in Trump’s presidency.

Further, this step-by-step policy approach may garner more support from China—which the Biden administration has indicated it wants to encourage— as it aligns with Beijing’s approach and interests. China and North Korea released a joint statement March 22 calling for such a process.

As a first step, the Biden administration could explore an agreement based on the broad outlines of the proposal that North Korea put on the table in Hanoi: the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon and a cessation of nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing in exchange for partial UN sanctions relief. Dismantlement of Yongbyon would be a significant step toward denuclearization that prevents North Korea from producing further plutonium for nuclear weapons, as well as tritium, which can be used to boost the explosive yield of two-stage nuclear bombs. Partial UN sanctions relief could include putting in place time-bound caps for trade in certain sectors that would offer meaningful relief to North Korea, but snap back into place if the talks become stalled or if Pyongyang does not deliver on its denuclearization commitments.

There are several other actions—both larger and smaller—that the United States could pursue as a meaningful, concrete first step that would reduce risk and prevent further qualitative and/or quantitative advancements to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. These could include:

  • halting of fissile material production, which can be verified using remote monitoring technologies;
  • reinstating North Korea nuclear and long-range ballistic missile test moratoriums, and expanding it to include medium-range systems and rocket motors;
  • halting the production of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles;
  • verifying the closure of testing sites like the Punggye-ri; and
  • securing North Korean signature of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In response, United States, in coordination with allies and members of the UN Security Council, can take actions to address North Korea’s trade and security concerns, scaled to match Pyongyang’s actions. These include:

  • providing partial sanctions relief, including measures in United Nations Security Council resolutions,
  • modifying joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises so they do not involve force movements that appear to be part of preparations for a rapid strike at North Korean leadership targets,
  • establishing a joint statement declaring an end to the Korean War and/or initiating discussions on the negotiations of a formal peace treaty,
  • resuming inter-Korean trade and cultural exchange projects which can improve inter-Korean trade, and
  • providing assurances that the United States will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea,

Given that North Korea views its nuclear arsenal as integral to its security, addressing the regional threat environment should be an integral part of the reciprocal actions the United States puts on the table, alongside sanctions relief, in exchange for verifiable actions toward denuclearization.

North Korea has signaled on many occasions that it views certain exercises as provocative. A spokesman for North Korea’s State Affairs Commission pointed Nov. 13, 2019, to routine military training exercises as a factor in “the repeating vicious circle of the DPRK-U.S. relations.” Modifying US-South Korean joint exercises and pursuing a formal peace treaty would reduce tensions and begin addressing the security concerns that underpin North Korea’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

Bottom Line

While Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority. While Kim may not yet be ready to engage in talks, particularly while the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the United States must continue to send the message that diplomacy without preconditions is on the table and that Washington is ready to provide meaningful reciprocal actions in exchange for concrete steps to reduce nuclear risk.—SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Peace Fellow, and JULIA MASTERSON, research associate

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While President Joe Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority.

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