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"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."
– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Kelsey Davenport

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Paths Forward on Action-for-Action Process for Denuclearization and A Peace Regime for the Korean Peninsula

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Volume 11, Issue 3, January 29, 2019

Months after the historic June 2018 Singapore Summit, the United States and North Korea are still at the starting point of the lengthy and arduous process of negotiating the details of denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

Because the window for diplomatic progress with North Korea will not remain open indefinitely, the second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un—tentatively planned for late February—must emphasize substance over pageantry. Absent progress, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs—and the security risks they pose—will continue to grow.

Stagnation Since Singapore

In the Singapore Summit joint statement, Trump and Kim made an “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and recognized that progress on denuclearization depends on joint “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime” on the peninsula. But these vague goals were not accompanied by obligations for each side to take specific actions or by any structure for the process of diplomacy going forward.

Clear differences over the scope and sequence emerged in the first follow-up meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials in Pyongyang in July, disparities that have prevented the initiation of direct, expert-level negotiations on the actions necessary to reach the summit’s agreed goals.

At the July meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly insisted that North Korea provide a full declaration of its nuclear weapons program as a first step. The Trump administration also emphasized that North Korea must fully denuclearize before the United States would grant concessions such as sanctions relief.

Select North Korean Nuclear-Capable* Missiles
NameEstimated RangeStatus
Hwasong-5300 kmOperational
Hwasong-6500 kmOperational
Hwasong-7700-1,000 kmOperational
Pukkuksong-11,200 kmTested/Development
No-Dong-11,200-1,500 kmOperational
Pukkuksong-21,200-2,000 kmTested/Development
Hwasong-102,500-4,000 kmTested/Development
Hwasong-124,500 kmTested/Development
Hwasong-135,500-11,500 kmDevelopment
Hwasong-13 Mod 28,000-10,000 kmDevelopment
Hwasong-1410,000+ kmTested/Development
Hwasong-1513,000 kmTested/Development
*Nuclear capable as defined by the Missile Technology Control Regime Guidelines

North Korea, on the other hand, has clearly stated it prefers an action-for-action approach to advance the goals of the Singapore declaration and looked for the Trump administration to take the first step. Pyongyang views its April 2018 commitments to halt nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing, and actions the following month to destroy tunnels at its nuclear test site, as steps toward denuclearization that the United States should reward.

While the North Korean leadership subsequently offered to take further denuclearization steps, including verifiable decommissioning of its Yongbyon nuclear complex, those measures would be contingent upon “corresponding steps” by the United States. The Pyongyang regime did not demand specific actions from the Trump Administration but has periodically called for limited sanctions relief and U.S. support for a joint political declaration ending the Korean War.

Despite the lack of follow-through, the historic 2018 Trump-Kim summit certainly eased tensions. Intense diplomatic work between North and South Korea has also led to agreement on concrete measures to ease tensions along the Demilitarized Zone.

But contrary to Trump’s self-aggrandizing claim that there is “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” Pyongyang continues to improve its ballistic missile capabilities and produce bomb-grade nuclear material.

Defining Denuclearization and Peace

Denuclearization is a complex, technical task. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs involve dozens of sites, hundreds of buildings, and thousands of people. Additionally, the United States and North Korea do not yet agree on the scope of the denuclearization process. Rapid progress toward denuclearization should be the goal, but comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization will take years.

A stepwise process that emphasizes threat-reduction in the shorter term does not mean “accepting” North Korea’s status as a nuclear-weapon state. Rather, it underscores the urgency of halting these programs and negotiating an effective deal that reduces the threat posed by these capabilities and leads to their verifiable elimination.

In the long term, any such deal must account for North Korea’s violation of its existing obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The North’s verifiable denuclearization and its return to NPT compliance are necessary steps to preserve and strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

Complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. and North Korean sides still do not have a common understanding, in writing, about what denuclearization entails. For more than a decade, the United States has insisted on the “complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear programs. UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea use similar terminology.

North Korea’s concept of denuclearization is broader and applies beyond the country’s borders. Initially, North and South Korea agreed in the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” They also agreed to mutual inspections for verification. However, in 2003, North Korea declared the 1992 agreement to be “dead.” So it is unclear if North Korea will seek to maintain uranium enrichment or reprocessing for a peaceful nuclear program in an agreement.

Furthermore, North Korea’s concept of “denuclearization” encompasses the entire Korean peninsula, (as opposed to unilateral nuclear disarmament by North Korea). It includes prohibitions on the deployment of U.S. strategic assets in the region and the basing of U.S. troops trained to use nuclear weapons in South Korea, as well as threats to use nuclear weapons.

Getting Diplomacy Back on Track

If the two sides approach the second summit with realistic expectations and a readiness to take reciprocal measures that build confidence in the process, it is possible to move closer to the joint goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula and further from the risk of a catastrophic war.

Freezing, Reversing, and Eliminating Nuclear and Missile Capabilities

North Korea’s voluntary commitment to halt nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing has eased tensions, but the moratorium is not yet permanent and it was a relatively low-cost commitment for Kim. In his 2018 New Year’s Address, Kim declared North Korea’s nuclear arsenal complete and announced that the country would focus on mass production of nuclear warheads. Kim’s statement implies that North Korea had already decided to halt certain testing activities before announcing the moratorium and focus on expansion of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

North Korean Nuclear Weapons and Testing
Nuclear Weapons StockpileNorth Korea is estimated to have assembled 10-20 nuclear warheads and produced enough fissile material for an estimated 30-60 nuclear weapons.
Nuclear TestingNorth Korea has conducted six nuclear tests explosions, beginning in 2006. Its most recent test in Sept. 2017 had an estimated yield of over 200 kilotons (TNT equivalent).

The testing freeze does prevent North Korea from making certain qualitative advances in its nuclear weapons program. An important next step will be to solidify the testing halt and pursue a partial freeze on fissile material production. Given North Korea’s goal of expanding its arsenal, Pyongyang’s willingness to halt fissile material production would be a critical indication of its commitment to denuclearize. Specific, verifiable arrangements to accomplish these goals could begin with:

  • solidifying North Korea’s voluntary nuclear test moratorium by allowing inspectors to confirm the closure of the existing test site at Punggye-ri and securing North Korean signature of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • expanding on its missile testing halt to include short- and medium-range ballistic missiles;
  • halting fissile material production at Yongbyon and beginning to verifiably decommission all facilities at the site. This would necessitate a partial declaration of the facilities to be decommissioned; and
  • halting fissile material production at undisclosed sites. Initially, this could be verified using remote monitoring technologies if North Korea were unwilling to let inspectors verify a fissile material production freeze.

These initial steps would build confidence in the diplomatic process and would help ensure that North Korea could not expand its arsenal while the longer-term negotiations and denuclearization steps continue.

There are several additional major steps in the denuclearization process, each of which will be challenging. These include:

  • securing a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, materials, and weapons to be verified later by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The guidelines and techniques established by the IAEA Model Additional Protocol for nuclear safeguards provide a good foundation for verifying and monitoring the fuel-cycle portions of the declaration;
  • agreeing to a process and a timeline for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile. It is estimated that North Korea has assembled 10-20 warheads and produced enough fissile material for an estimated 30-60 nuclear weapons.
  • achieving a verifiable halt to the production of ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons and to the dismantlement of deployed medium- and longer-range ballistic missiles and launchers;
  • accounting for and securing all separated fissile material. This work would likely have to be supervised by specialists from nuclear-weapon states in cooperation with North Korean technical experts; and
  • beginning to dismantle other nuclear facilities (beyond Yongbyon) under international supervision, including IAEA inspectors. A major negotiating issue at this stage would be which facilities are for civilian purposes and whether North Korea, given its history, should be allowed to retain such capabilities even under tighter international safeguards against misuse. This would be a major undertaking that could build on experience from U.S. and Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, which helped eliminate excess Cold War-era stockpiles, employed former weapons scientists, and repurposed military sites.

“Corresponding Steps”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will not give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons if he believes doing so will compromise North Korea’s security. North Korea has clearly stated that steps on denuclearization must go hand in hand with steps toward reducing tensions and building a peace-regime on the Korean peninsula.

Trump’s post-summit decision to suspend and modify certain joint military exercises with South Korea that Pyongyang views as provocative was an important confidence-building measure. But more will be necessary.

The next steps designed to reduce tensions and build a “peace regime” in return for initial North Korean actions to verifiably freeze and roll back certain parts of its nuclear weapons program might include:

  • reaching a three-party declaration on the end of the Korean War;
  • permanently pledging to remove U.S. strategic bombers and offensive-strike assets from future joint military exercises.
  • easing sanctions blocking humanitarian aid and certain projects designed to build closer economic and cultural ties between North and South;
  • lifting some of the most recent UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea, perhaps including those involving oil and coal;
  • establishing a hotline agreement to help avoid miscommunication in a crisis; and
  • taking steps toward the normalization of relations, beginning with the opening of diplomatic interest sections in Pyongyang and Washington.

Later steps, as the denuclearization milestones are completed could include:

  • initiation of negotiations on a formal peace treaty. The conclusion of such a treaty could coincide with verified and complete denuclearization and it would trigger a removal of nuclear-related sanctions; a significant reduction of military forces on both sides of the demilitarized zone, and formal security assurances against the initiation of hostilities by either side; and
  • further corresponding sanctions relief, including through the revision of existing UN Security Council resolutions with sanctions targeting North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

If the Trump administration could move the Korean peninsula demonstrably closer to these ambitious, long-term outcomes, it would be a major breakthrough. But one meeting will not be enough to get the process on track.

To achieve even just some of the additional steps toward the long-term goal of denuclearization of the peninsula and a durable peace regime, the Trump-Kim summit will need to produce agreement on a balanced framework for sustained, direct, high-level negotiations on denuclearization and peace.

The overall goal should be to continue to move as quickly as possible toward halting, reversing, and eliminating the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and away from a renewed crisis that risks bringing the region back to the brink of war. – DARYL G. KIMBALL, Executive Director, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, Director for Nonproliferation Policy

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The second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un—tentatively planned for late February—must emphasize substance over pageantry.

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