The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011

‘Synergies of Strengths’: A Framework to Enhance the Role of Regional Organizations in Preventing WMD Proliferation

September 2018
By Sarah Shirazyan

The threat that terrorists could obtain and use nuclear or radiological material prompted a set of innovative counterproliferation strategies in the years since the September 11 attacks and the revelation of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear smuggling network.

The Security Council unanimously adopts Resolution 1540 on April 28, 2004, directing all states to establish domestic controls to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. (Photo: United Nations)One important yet underappreciated element has been to augment broad, international counterproliferation strategies with buy-in from regional organizations, such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the African Union (AU). Tapping into the strengths and resources of regional organizations could bolster the implementation of global counterproliferation strategies. On this, more can and should be done.

A web of international programs aims to reduce the risk of nonstate actors accessing and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials, to counter terrorism financing, and to strengthen global nuclear security architecture. The effort includes mechanisms such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Container Security Initiative, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Second Line of Defense, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the nuclear security summits, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, and UN Security Council Resolutions 1373 and 1540.

These initiatives represent the international community’s efforts to set up a more robust transnational legal infrastructure to respond to the threat of WMD terrorism. Some involve formal organizations while others are voluntary regimes without any formal bureaucracy. Some are legally binding, and others rely on the existing national or international law to conduct counterproliferation activities, such as interdiction on international waters or in international airspace.

Of these efforts, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, enacted in 2004, is the most far-reaching international instrument of this post-September 11 nonproliferation infrastructure. The resolution, which affirmed that WMD proliferation is a threat to international peace and security, obligates all states to adopt and enforce three broad sets of effective domestic regulations to keep such weapons and related materials out of the hands of nonstate actors.

First, the resolution condemns and outlaws any type of state-sponsored WMD proliferation. States shall refrain from taking any steps that could support nonstate actors in acquiring, using, and transferring nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their delivery systems.1 Second, the resolution calls for criminalization of proliferation-related activities. States are required to adopt effective domestic controls and enforcement mechanisms over WMD materials and criminalize possession, manufacturing, acquisition, development, transportation, transfer, financing, and use of such materials.2 Third, the resolution requires states to address the illicit trafficking of WMD materials by establishing and enforcing controls related to accounting and securing; physical protection; border and law enforcement, including combating illicit trafficking and brokering; and export, transit, and transshipment.3

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and a United Nations group hold a training session on implementation of Security Council Resolution 1540 for officials from Central Asian countries in June 2016 in Kaliningrad, Russia. The training seeks to improve understanding of 1540-based commitments. (Photo: UNODA/Russian Foreign Ministry)Resolution 1540 broke new ground in the global nonproliferation regime by its scope and legally binding nature. Enacted under the binding powers of UN Charter Chapter VII,4 it was designed to address the gaps in existing nonproliferation architecture. As such, it provides a consolidated approach to deal with all three types of WMD materials and all aspects of weapons proliferation, including but not limited to dual-use materials and technology and delivery means, as well as export-import regimes and physical security.

Many pre-existing multilateral arms control treaties and export-import regimes already contained some obligations comparable to those in the resolution.5 Despite the overlap, these legal instruments, unlike Resolution 1540, were neither universally binding nor targeted to nonstate actor proliferation. The resolution integrated a range of WMD obligations in one parcel and made these obligations mandatory for all UN member states.

To oversee member state compliance, the Security Council introduced a mandatory national reporting mechanism for states and created an institutional framework to monitor this process. States must submit a national report about the domestic measures they have taken or intend to take to meet their obligations under the resolution. To facilitate and examine countries’ domestic implementation, the Security Council formed a subsidiary body—the 1540 Committee.6 The committee’s work is further supported through a group of governmental independent experts and the UN Secretariat. On the secretariat side, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) provides material and logistical support to the committee.

From the outset, the drafters of the resolution acknowledged the role regional organizations could play in promoting domestic implementation. Resolution 1540’s preamble explicitly recognizes the need to enhance coordination on regional levels to intensify efforts in the fight against proliferation activities by nonstate actors.7 That is why the UNODA and the 1540 Committee have long sought engagement with regional and subregional organizations through planned and ad hoc initiatives.

Because the United Nations lacks the necessary resources to carry out the ambitious mandate of Resolution 1540, successful implementation requires maximizing the strengths and resources of different actors involved in the process. The pooling of resources is often referenced as “synergies of strengths.”

What are the opportunities and challenges such synergies may create? In thinking about expanding Resolution 1540’s global architecture, what broader conclusions can be drawn from the existing regional cooperation mechanisms based on Resolution 1540?

International Peace and Security

Strategies to involve regional organizations8 in security-related topics, including in the maintenance of international peace more broadly, have frequently appeared in UN work.9 Article 52 of the UN Charter explicitly recognizes the existence of regional arrangements or agencies in addressing issues related to the maintenance of international peace and security. In doing so, the activities of regional arrangements must be consistent with the purposes and principles of the UN and its charter.10 Moreover, Article 53 gives the Security Council a mandate to use regional arrangements for enforcement action.11

The end of the Cold War enhanced the role and prospects of regional organizations to address peace and security issues.12 The UN started to seek avenues for task sharing and cooperation with regional organizations amid a growing number of security challenges.13 In his 1992 report titled “Agenda for Peace,” UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali referred to burden sharing between the UN and regional organizations, which not only lightens the workload of the Security Council but also creates a deeper sense of participation in international affairs for many states.14 Over more than two decades, UN leaders have continued to raise the profile of regional organizations and sought their assistance in combating a diverse set of security dilemmas.15

 With respect to countering nonstate-actor WMD proliferation, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed a conviction in 2006 that interactions between the world body and regional organizations could strengthen states’ domestic capacity to implement obligations under Resolution 1540.

Security Council’s Commitment

Over the years, the Security Council has pressed for more purposeful integration between the 1540 Committee and regional organizations. All follow-up resolutions include language promoting the role of regional organizations.16

For example, Resolution 1673, adopted in 2006, invites the committee to partner with regional organizations in exploring ways to exchange information about experiences and lessons learned and to identify programs that could potentially facilitate the implementation of Resolution 1540.17 Resolution 1810, adopted in 2008, further testifies to the council’s pledge to advance the role of regional organizations.18 The 1540 Committee’s 2009 annual review outcome document emphasized fostering interaction between regional and national agencies to help overcome domestic implementation challenges, such as reconciling competing security priorities; to assist with advisory services, such as helping countries draft domestic rules and regulations; and to match assistance requests with donors.19

Resolution 1977, adopted in 2011, contained even more explicit language on the relevance of regional organizations. In order to improve regional cooperation and information sharing, the council urged relevant organizations to designate a point of contact for matters related to Resolution 1540.20 For the first time, resolution language formally endorsed UNODA activities in support of regional implementation approaches.21 Resolution 2325, adopted in 2016, enhanced the focus of Resolution 1540 on regional strategies by asking regional organizations to incorporate Resolution 1540 obligations in their respective mandates and model legislation.22

Opportunities and Challenges

What strategic opportunities does regional engagement present, and why is it a smart policy choice to work through regional organizations? Certain characteristics of regional arrangements23 explain the importance of creating synergies. Specifically, regional organizations enjoy a higher degree of political legitimacy among their member states, may complement multilateral efforts through local knowledge, and can clarify ambitious international mandates and norms to their member states.

Regional organizations derive legitimacy from their member states’ voluntary decision to join these arrangements. States’ decision to join regional organizations are largely driven by a set of shared interests and histories. There is an inherent belief that collective regional efforts enhance countries’ national well-being and help achieve mutual gains.24 If an international mandate is internalized into a regional instrument, it could translate into a shared understanding within a particular region and ultimately create a firmer footing for domestic implementation.

This perceived-legitimacy attribute of regional organizations appears critical in the Resolution 1540 context, particularly for encouraging the countries from the global South to implement the resolution’s obligations. Policies adopted through regional arrangements closer to home ease the perceptions of “external imposition” and may enhance local buy-in.25 Cooperation with regional organizations opens doors for the resolution’s practical implementation. The most effective implementation occurs in the areas where regional institutions are most active. The involvement of a regional organization incentivizes countries to implement and internalize the resolution.26

Further, regional strategies are valuable for promoting Resolution 1540 implementation because they can complement multilateral mechanisms through channeling local knowledge and a deeper understanding of local security and sociopolitical contexts. Regions are often in a better position to address their own security challenges because they comprise a smaller group of states with relatively homogeneous strengths, weaknesses, and goals.27

Because they understand local dynamics, regional organizations are better equipped to set the resolution’s implementation priorities,28 assess the effectiveness of implementation measures taken by their members, and alert leadership when there is a need to remedy deficiencies.29 In fact, the Security Council’s decision to rely on UNODA support in implementing the resolution was motivated by the recognition that regional organizations are more sensitive to local issues and have deeper familiarity with their member states’ domestic priorities. The resolution’s drafters intended to capitalize on the UNODA’s regional knowledge through its offices in Nepal, Peru, and Togo.30

Finally, regional approaches are constructive for fostering Resolution 1540’s global implementation because regional organizations can clarify norms and reduce uncertainty over the likely impact of international agreements. Research suggests that ambiguity in international agreements is one of the main causes of poor implementation.31 The uncertainty of information is known to hinder international cooperation.32 Resolution 1540 has left many countries in a state of uncertainty because it contains imprecise language on what constitutes obligations and fails to specify consequences of noncompliance.

The UN has turned to regional organizations to reduce such uncertainty and assuage some of the initial concerns about the alleged enforcement powers of the 1540 Committee.33 For example, the UNODA organized a series of targeted regional outreach workshops. During the 2006-2013 period, the UNODA supported about 18 workshops with the participation of more than 150 countries and 45 international and regional organizations and UN entities.34

Through these workshops, the UNODA utilized regional organizations as a vehicle to reach member states, clarify Resolution 1540 obligations, assure states about the resolution’s nonintrusive nature, and facilitate regional coordination of implementation efforts. According to a former chief of the UNODA weapons of mass destruction branch, “[R]egional cooperation on Resolution 1540-related issues has become one of the most efficient means in bolstering national implementation and enhancing an open dialogue between countries of the same region facing similar challenges and benefiting—as neighboring countries—from close interaction in related areas.”35

Although regional organizations carry a great potential for advancing implementation, there may be challenges impeding global-regional resolution partnerships. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the resolution’s adoption, regional organizations were suspicious of the mandate and so were reluctant to implement it. Some did not and still do not view the resolution as their priority. Others claimed that implementation of the regime lacks a constitutional basis; they argue that the resolution falls under the Chapter VII mandate for the Security Council, and so it is the council’s responsibility to facilitate implementation.

Regional organizations do not have direct jurisdiction to implement the resolution. Nevertheless, the UN has encouraged regional organizations to view the resolution as an opportunity to assist their members to counter WMD terrorism.36 An additional set of challenges affecting constructive global-regional security cooperation may include limited institutional resources and competing agendas between the regional organizations and the UN.37

Even when agendas overlap, task sharing can be difficult in practice. The process of cooperation may give rise to political tensions between the UN and regional organizations, and each may attempt to use the other to advance its own narrow interests.38

A Way Forward

Three regional organizations stand out for their sustained leadership in promoting Resolution 1540—CARICOM,39 the OSCE,40 and the AU.41 A closer look into the nature of these partnerships suggests a broader framework for regional cooperation on Resolution 1540 matters.

At least four ingredients are needed to turn a regional institution into a force multiplier in implementation: the regional stakeholder’s political support for the goals of the resolution, a dedicated regional coordinator, sustained programmatic funding, and a well-defined mutual benefits for both parties. First, the regional institution should manifest its political and practical support of the resolution mandate through a major decision or program.42 CARICOM, the OSCE, and the AU have institutionalized their relationships with the Resolution 1540 regime. For example, the CARICOM-United Nations 1540 Implementation Programme is a region-wide plan of action to help Caribbean states implement the obligations.43 Similarly, the OSCE regularly demonstrates its support for the resolution through ministerial declarations and a joint resolution regional implementation project. This project translates the OSCE’s resolution-related political declarations into more specific programmatic activities. Likewise, the AU added Resolution 1540 objectives to its agenda. The AU supreme organ adopted a decision to coordinate its actions with the 1540 Committee.44 The AU’s policy to support Resolution 1540 was instrumental in starting the implementation process on the African continent.

Second, appointment of a resolution regional coordinator or a liaison officer to lead implementation efforts and work on capacity-building initiatives is vital for the success of regional cooperation. For instance, Jamaican diplomat O’Neil Hamilton, who had previously handled security preparations for the Cricket World Cup in Jamaica, served as the first CARICOM regional coordinator. His understanding of local security priorities and constructive relationship with the UNODA has played a big role in making CARICOM implementation of Resolution 1540 a success story.

Hamilton led regional implementation efforts, such as overseeing a domestic legislative gap-analysis process in the Caribbean, and directing capacity-building initiatives. Hamilton’s team conducted the legislative gap analysis to identify the state of strategic trade controls in the CARICOM region and the nature of agencies with the mandates to enforce those controls. Subsequently, the team focused on understanding whether and to what extent these institutions have experience in countering proliferation activities. Legislative-gap analysis revealed that many states in the region do not have strategic trade control systems in place. This necessitated the drafting of a model legal framework to amend existing laws to meet the requirements of Resolution 1540.

In the OSCE context, Thomas Wuchte was one of the key leaders. He served as the OSCE point of contact for UN-OSCE anti-terrorism projects. Before taking this role, Wuchte oversaw Resolution 1540 matters in the U.S. Department of State. Similarly, a dedicated unit within the organization may take on the responsibility for implementation of the resolution. The AU and now the OSCE have adopted this model.

Third, there must be sustained funding to initiate and maintain regional partnerships. This funding may come from a donor country that retains a continued interest in regional capacity-building initiatives. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy has offered financial assistance to CARICOM to implement its Resolution 1540 programmatic activities.

Fourth, cooperation between the UN and relevant regional organizations must be mutually beneficial for both sides. There are many intersections between Resolution 1540 implementation and the traditional security and development priorities of different regions. The conversation on partnerships must be based on a premise of mutual gain. For example, the geographical location of CARICOM countries makes them extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. Therefore, developing local capacity for disaster response strategies and communications is important for countries in the region. Trained disaster response teams and up-to-date communications systems are also necessary in case of WMD terrorism incidents. Finding such overlaps between the goals of Resolution 1540 and local security needs and framing the partnership within the “dual benefit” narrative are key to strengthening the region’s understanding of the benefits inherent to resolution compliance and for securing local buy-in.


The push for regional organizations’ involvement in Resolution 1540’s implementation is an intentional act on the part of the UN Security Council. Regional organizations can make important contributions toward fulfilling the resolution’s mandate. They have the ability and responsibility to find linkages between their priorities and the resolution’s goals. Drawing from these linkages, each regional organization should propose two or three resolution-related actions across its membership.

This could make a real difference in the region, particularly with the exchange of information and intelligence between the countries that share borders. Each region should come up with a common position on Resolution 1540. Regional and subregional bodies are best suited to align their priorities with the priorities set forth by Resolution 1540.


1. UN Security Council, S/RES/1540, April 28, 2004, para. 1; 1540 Committee expert, interview with author, New York, November 20, 2013.

2. Ibid., para.  2.

3. Ibid., para. 3.

4. Chapter VII of the UN Charter sets out the UN Security Council’s powers to maintain international peace and security. It allows the council to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.”

5. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials contain obligations overlapping with UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

6. “Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council,” S/96/Rev.7, 1983, rule 28. 

7. UN Security Council, S/RES/1540, April 28, 2004, p. 2; “Program of Work of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to UNSCR 1540 (2004),” April 1–June 30, 2005, no. 5, http://www.un.org/en/sc/1540/documents/pow_22_apr_2005_e.pdf; “Programme of Work of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1540 (2004),” July 1–September 30, 2005, no. 5, http://www.un.org/en/sc/1540/documents/pow_15_jul_2005_e.pdf; “Programme of Work of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1540 (2004),” January 1–April 28, 2006, http://www.un.org/en/sc/1540/documents/pow_06_feb_2006_e.pdf.

8. In this article, regional and subregional organizations are treated as similar entities. Regional organizations and groups with potential relevance in the context of Resolution 1540 are those that maintain some security functions. For a more comprehensive list of such organizations, see Alyson J.K. Bailes and Andrew Cottey, “Regional Security Cooperation in the Early 21st Century,” in SIPRI Yearbook 2006: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, ed. D.A. Cruickshank et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp 195–223.

9. UN Charter, arts. 52–54. For more discussions on regional organizations and the United Nations, see Inis L. Claude Jr., “The OAS, the UN, and the United States,” in International Regionalism: Readings, ed. Joseph S. Nye Jr. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1968).

10. UN Charter, art. 52, para. 1.

11. Ibid., art. 53, para. 1.

12. Michael Barnett, “Partners in Peace? The UN, Regional Organizations, and Peace-Keeping,” Review of International Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4 (October 1995): 411–433.

13. Muthiah Alagappa, “Regional Institutions, the UN and International Security: A Framework for Analysis,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1997): 421–441.

14. UN General Assembly and UN Security Council, “An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-Keeping,” A/47/277-S/24111, June 17, 1992 (suggesting a division of labor that enlists regional arrangements for preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping, peacemaking, and postconflict peace-building). In January 1992, the Security Council invited the secretary-general to prepare recommendations on strengthening UN capacity for preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, and peacekeeping. This was to cover the contribution by regional organizations, in accordance with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, in helping the work of the council. UN Security Council, S/23500, January 31, 1992. In January 1993, the Security Council called on regional institutions to examine ways of strengthening their functions in peace and security and improve coordination with the UN. UN Security Council, S/25184, January 29, 1993. In 1994 the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration stating that regional arrangements or agencies in peace and security should be encouraged and, where appropriate, supported by the Security Council. UN General Assembly, A/RES/49/57, December 9, 1994, para. 5.

15. UN General Assembly, A/59/565, December 2, 2004 (containing “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility” at para. 271); UN General Assembly, “A Regional-Global Security Partnership: Challenges and Opportunities,” A/61/204-S/2006/590, July 28, 2006, para. 6.

16. Resolution 1673, Resolution 1810, Resolution 1977, and Resolution 2325.

17. UN Security Council, S/RES/1673, April 27, 2006, para. 5(b).

18. UN Security Council, S/RES/1810, April 25, 2008, para. 11(e).

19. UN Security Council, S/2010/52, February 1, 2010 (containing the final document on the 2009 Comprehensive Review of the Status of Implementation of Security Council Resolution 1540).

20. Ibid., para. 18.

21. Ibid., para. 22 (a)-(c). See senior UN official, interview with author, New York, May 2, 2014.

22. UN Security Council, S/RES/2326, December 15, 2016, para. 25.

23. Gareth Evans, Cooperating for Peace (Crows Nest, Australia: 1993) (elaborating on the author’s address to the UN General Assembly on September 27, 1993).

24. Lawrence Scheinman, “Introduction,” in Implementing Resolution 1540: The Role of Regional Organizations, ed. Lawrence Scheinman, UNIDIR/2008/8, 2008, p. 4.

25. Ramesh Thakur, Remarks at the Conference on Regionalization and the Taming of Globalization, October 27, 2005. See Ramesh Thakur and Luk Van Langenhove, “Enhancing Global Governance Through Regional Integration,” Global Governance, Vol. 12, No. 3 (July–September 2006): 233-240.

26. Senior UN official, interview with author, New York, October 30, 2013.

27. Thakur and Van Langenhove, “Enhancing Global Governance Through Regional Integration.” Johan Bergenas also suggests that sharing best practices among countries with similar characteristics is especially valuable. He further argues that countries might be more susceptible to peer pressure from regional and subregional bodies than from out-of-region powers or international organizations. Johan Bergenas, “The Role of African Regional and Subregional Organizations in Implementing Resolution 1540,” in Implementing Resolution 1540: The Role of Regional Organizations, ed. Lawrence Scheinman, UNIDIR/2008/8, 2008, p. 143.

28. For instance, during the workshop on national nonproliferation controls organized by Norway, Chile, and Germany, participants pointed out that it is easier to set priorities and discuss the ways of addressing national controls in regional rather bilateral or universal avenues. Peter Burian, Statement at the Workshop on National Nonproliferation Controls, March 27, 2007, http://www.un.org/ar/sc/1540/documents/Statement_Burian_Norwegian%20workshop%20final.pdf.

29. Scheinman, “Introduction,” p. 5.

30. The Regional Disarmament Branch is the operational arm of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) at the regional, subregional, and national levels. It comprises a New York-based office and three UN Regional Centers for Peace and Disarmament, in Lima, Peru; in Kathmandu, Nepal; and in Lomé, Togo. UNODA, “UNODA Structure,” n.d., https://www.un.org/disarmament/structure/ (accessed August 15, 2018).

31. Abram Chayes and Antonia Handler Chayes, The New Sovereignty: Compliance With International Regulatory Agreements (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

32.  Emilie M. Hafner-Buron, David G. Victor, and Yonatan Lupu, “Political Science Research on International Law: The State of the Field,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 106, No. 1 (January 2012): 47–97.

33. For analysis on how regionalism facilities communication through clarifying norms and assurance strategies, see Alagappa, “Regional Institutions, the UN and International Security.”

34. The African Union (AU) and more than 20 African states have participated in UNODA workshops on the African continent. The UN Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean offered legislative drafting assistance to a number of states in the region. UN Security Council, S/2014/958, December 31, 2014, annex, para. 18; senior UN official, interview with author, New York, April 23, 2014; Noël Stott and Amelia Broodryk, “Making Progress Implementing UNSCR 1540 in Africa,” 1540 Compass, No. 6 (n.d.), p. 50, http://spia.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Compass6_english.pdf.

35. Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack, “The Role of UNODA in Implementing UNSCR 1540 (2004)” (remarks at the workshop for African states on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1540, November 21-22, 2012), http://wmdafricafiles.blogspot.com/p/unscr-1540-workshop.html.

36. Senior UN official, interview with author, New York, October 24, 2013.

37. UN Institute for Disarmament Research, “Research Project: Strengthening the Role of Regional Organizations in Treaty Implementation,” n.d., http://www.unidir.org/programmes/security-and-society/strengthening-the-role-of-regional-organizations-in-treaty-implementation (accessed May 29, 2016).

38. Alagappa, “Regional Institutions, the
UN and International Security”; senior UN official, interview with author, New York, October 24, 2013.

39. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) includes 15 member states and five associate members. It has four key pillars of work: economic integration, foreign policy coordination, human and social development, and security. CARICOM, “Who We Are,” n.d., http://caricom.org/about-caricom/who-we-are (accessed September 23, 2016).

40. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) maintains a “comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects.” OSCE, “Who We Are,” n.d., http://www.osce.org/whatistheosce (accessed May 25, 2016).

41. The AU is a continental union of 54 African countries. The AU objectives include promoting peace, security, and stability in the African continent and strengthening cooperation among member states for the benefit of all African people. African Union, “AU in a Nutshell,” n.d., http://www.au.int/en/history/oau-and-au (accessed August 15, 2018).

42. For instance, a relevant institution can incorporate Resolution 1540’s key elements into its mandate, integrate implementation of the resolution into its relevant programs, or prioritize the resolution’s implementation via various political statements.

43. CARICOM, “United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1540,” n.d., http://caricom.org/united-nations-security-council-unsc-resolution-1540/ (accessed May 23, 2016).

44. Institute for Security Studies, “Africa Guide to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 (2014).”


Sarah Shirazyan is a lecturer in law at Stanford Law School and nuclear security postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

The capabilities of regional bodies bolster global counterproliferation efforts.

Curbing the North Korean Nuclear Threat

April 2017
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

North Korea’s advancing nuclear and ballistic missile programs are the most urgent nuclear proliferation challenges today. The new administration of President Donald Trump, along with U.S. allies and partners in Northeast Asia, have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to pull back from potential escalation and war and pursue a diplomatic course that halts and eventually reverses Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

The North Korean flag is seen past the barbed wire fencing of the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur on March 27, 2017. (Photo credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)Last month during his first official visit to Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the previous administration’s policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea had reached a dead end. Indeed, a policy focused solely on international pressure, absent engagement, has not worked.

With an interagency policy review underway, Tillerson and the new Trump team are in search of a more effective policy. Time is not on Washington’s side.

North Korea already has the capability to deliver a warhead on a short- or medium-range ballistic missile. With more nuclear tests, North Korea can further refine its warhead designs to increase the explosive yield and develop a lighter, more compact warhead. North Korea’s next nuclear test explosion, which would be its sixth, could be imminent.

North Korea is estimated to have some 50 kilograms of plutonium, enough for 10 nuclear explosive devices. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano said on March 20 that North Korea has doubled its capacity to produce highly enriched uranium. By 2020, it may have enough fissile material for 100 warheads. Worse yet, it could soon begin flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

If the current action-reaction cycle continues, it will not only diminish the prospect of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but it will increase the risk of a devastating nuclear war.

In its review of past U.S. strategy toward North Korea, the Trump team should recognize that when there has been success in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear program, as there was between 1994 and 2002 as a result of the Agreed Framework, U.S. policy effectively integrated diplomacy and pressure to create significant incentives for North Korea to meet nonproliferation obligations and strong disincentives for failure to do so.

Once again, a strategy of coercive diplomacy, focused initially on aggressive and sustained diplomacy to secure phased denuclearization, offers the best prospect for success. If this effort fails, Washington can still significantly escalate pressure commensurate with the severity of North Korean actions.

When Trump and Tillerson meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, they should emphasize the need to strictly enforce existing sanctions and jointly pledge not to seek new sanctions as long as North Korea acts with restraint.

To move forward, Trump should take note of Pyongyang’s statement from July 2016, which called for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, to make clear that the United States remains committed to denuclearization as the end state of the process. If North Korea is willing to negotiate, initial talks should focus on obtaining a moratorium to prevent additional nuclear and ballistic missile tests in order to buy time for a more far-reaching and lasting solution.

For that, the United States will need to be prepared in return to put something on the table. In consultation with the incoming government in Seoul, Washington should consider scaling back or delaying the next round of joint military exercises with South Korea. The exercises could be scaled up if North Korea breaks off talks or conducts further nuclear or ballistic missile tests.

If the initial moratorium holds, North Korea and the United States could proceed to steps that would roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear activities, including a verifiable halt to fissile material production that would be monitored by international inspectors at North Korea’s nuclear sites. In return, the United States might extend to North Korea limited sanctions relief and negative security assurances against military attack under certain conditions.

To maintain leverage, the United States and its partners must strengthen implementation of existing UN Security Council sanctions. China’s decision to halt coal imports from North Korea is a good start. The latest report of the UN panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea said that the Security Council must compel better enforcement by imposing penalties against non-North Koreans involved in evasion.

Other policy approaches pose very high risks and have lower chances of success. New sanctions without an offer of talks would be opposed by China, and North Korea would, as leader Kim Jong Un said Jan. 1, “continue to build up” its nuclear forces, which he sees as a guarantor of regime survival. Pre-emptive U.S. military strikes would be operationally difficult and provoke a strong, likely military response from Pyongyang that could trigger a second Korean War.

A new policy that tries negotiations first and then puts pressure on North Korea if its intransigence scuttles diplomacy will not guarantee success, but it offers the best chance for curbing the North Korean nuclear threat.

The monthly “Focus” editorials from Arms Control Today is available for reprint on a non-exclusive basis
with permission from the Arms Control Association and link to the original publication online.


The new administration of President Donald Trump has a rapidly closing window of opportunity to pull back from potential escalation and war and pursue a diplomatic course.

Mapping Nuclear Security and Nonproliferation Efforts



New Online Resource Maps Efforts to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and Curb the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

For Immediate Release: December 6, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, director of communications, 202-463-8270 ext. 110

(Washington, DC)—The Arms Control Association today launched a new online resource in mapping and tracking the objectives and key activities of five major nuclear nonproliferation regimes.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Initiatives Mapping Project aims to inform and update nuclear policy experts, scholars, students, and the general public, on the role that overlapping multilateral initiatives play in bolstering the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by securing weapons-usable materials, regulating the spread of dual-use nuclear ballistic missile technologies, and blocking the illicit transfer of weapons-related items.

The Arms Control Association is launching a New Online Resource Maps Efforts to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and Curb the Spread of Nuclear WeaponsProject information and resources are available online at NuclearNonProMap.org
The five initiatives examined in this project include

  • the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism,
  • the Missile Technology Control Regime,
  • the Nuclear Suppliers Group,
  • the Proliferation Security Initiative, and
  • the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

"Each of these initiatives plays a critical role in reinforcing governments' efforts under the NPT, which entered into force in 1970, to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, prevent the rise of new nuclear-armed actors, and strengthening the global nuclear security architecture," noted Kelsey Davenport, director of non-proliferation policy, who developed the site. 

In addition to displaying the geographic scope and providing a brief background of each initiative, this project provides general recommendations that could improve the effectiveness of each in the years ahead. These recommendations are based on open source information about the work of each initiative.

The project also presents options for collaboration amongst these voluntary groups to amplify impacts and results. These recommendations are meant to spur creative thinking about how these voluntary initiatives can adapt and evolve to better address future threats and challenges.
By consolidating references and recommendations, the project serves as a resource to better understand the role that voluntary intergovernmental initiatives play in bolstering nonproliferation and nuclear security efforts. The project was made possible by the generous support of the MacArthur Foundation.

The site will be updated periodically to reflect the changing membership and priorities of each initiative, developments related to the challenges they address, as well as additional recommendations for strengthening multilateral efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and combat nuclear terrorism.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.


This new resource aims to inform policymakers, scholars, and the general public on the role that overlapping multilateral initiatives play in nonproliferation efforts.


Countering Proliferation Finance: Obama’s Legacy and Trump’s Challenge

December 2016

By Emil Dall

When he departs the White House on January 20, President Barack Obama will leave behind for his successor Donald Trump a portfolio of proliferation challenges requiring early attention. 

Among them, North Korea will be a top priority, given its threatening posture and the accelerated pace of its missile and nuclear warhead development. Yet, to effectively address this and other proliferation threats, the new administration must also grapple with the underlying processes that facilitate them. 

A man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a TV report on a North Korean missile launch April 28. North Korea that day tested what appeared to be two intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missiles which both failed soon after liftoff, according to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense. (Photo credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)One of these is international finance. Proliferators from former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan to the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Syria have used the formal financial system to facilitate their illicit procurement or sales. Without access to sufficient and moveable funds, determined proliferators are unlikely to obtain the sensitive goods and technology they seek. A robust U.S. approach toward countering proliferation finance (CPF) can deny proliferators access to the formal financial system and disrupt related illicit activities.

The United States has been active with CPF efforts for many years, although the approaches taken have varied among administrations. Globally, the conversation is still in its infancy. Some structures, such as limited international obligations, have been put in place to further such efforts. Yet, proliferation financing remains poorly understood; and as a result, government initiatives to combat it are lacking. This carries ripple effects in the financial sector, where there is confusion as to what should be done to thwart proliferation financing and the best way to do it. 

Rectifying these issues is difficult but vital. The international framework surrounding CPF efforts has fallen increasingly out of touch with the reality of proliferation today. Almost counterintuitively, the nuclear agreement with Iran has made it more difficult for the United States to pursue an active discussion on the issue with other governments. The agreement has created the misleading impression that Iran no longer poses a proliferation threat, and the agencies within those governments responsible for countering financial crime no longer perceive proliferation finance as relevant to Iran. 

Many of those same countries also feel they are not exposed to risk from North Korea’s financial activities because they have not traditionally maintained close trade relationships with Pyongyang. Yet, large North Korean business networks continue to operate overseas, and case studies have shown repeatedly that the country is skilled in carrying out illicit procurement activities undetected around the world. 

Proliferation challenges will not be going away, and the establishment of effective policies to counter proliferation financing will be key to ensuring the success of any strategy that seeks to reduce the threat from proliferating actors. The new U.S. president will have to address the current concerns directly and make sure that the conversation on actions moves forward domestically and internationally. 

The Early Years

Initiatives to counter proliferation financing have been slow to evolve. The concept first emerged in the early 2000s following revelations that organized networks of determined proliferators were able to procure sensitive nuclear and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related goods and technology, in part because of their unregulated access to the international financial system. Khan, a key figure in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, had supplied sensitive nuclear-related goods and materials clandestinely to buyers such as Iran, Libya, and North Korea until 2004.1 His complex corporate networks made use of the formal financial system to facilitate deals, routing payments through several middlemen to obscure the nature of the transaction and its parties. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1540 in response to these revelations and, in part, to growing concerns that nonstate actors were seeking to acquire WMD capabilities of their own. The resolution text called on member states of the United Nations to prohibit the financing of such acquisition efforts and formed a key part of the George W. Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy following the September 11 attacks.2 

Then, in 2006 the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues landed in the UN Security Council. Sanctions packages passed in response included limited measures to counter proliferation financing. They featured targeted financial sanctions against designated individuals and entities central to the two countries’ respective illicit nuclear and missile programs and called on all countries to deny these actors access to the global financial system.3 

The CPF concept had made its quiet appearance on the international agenda as a consequence of these developments and provided the context for the Bush administration’s approach. The approach was guided by a view that the concept merited an international framework, which would outline more explicit expectations of and obligations on states, as well as the private sector, at the front lines of detecting and preventing illicit proliferation-sensitive transactions. The Bush administration was at the forefront of an effort to establish international leadership on CPF issues, according to U.S. and foreign officials.4 At a June 2006 meeting with European partners, the administration stated its preference to house such initiatives within the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the intergovernmental initiative spearheaded by the Bush administration to interdict suspected illicit shipments of WMD goods and technology.5 

As the initiative was already led by the United States, the inclusion of the issue of CPF within its remit would allow for U.S. influence and leadership on the issue. At a later meeting in October with the Group of Seven (G-7) partners, the United States continued to argue for “a more vigorous role” for the PSI in combating proliferation finance. This view, however, was not shared by all participants. France, in particular, argued that the initiative would not provide a useful home for CPF issues going forward because it could dissuade countries from joining if additional obligations were imposed.6 

Together with its G-7 partners, the administration instead pursued a plan whereby proliferation financing would be classified as a financial crime risk and housed under the roof of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international organization responsible for coordinating governmental responses to financial crime.7 The organization had already been successful in establishing anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing obligations, and it was hoped that the same could be achieved for CPF issues. 

As these conversations with foreign governments took place, the administration devoted few resources to outreach and conversations with financial institutions, which would eventually be tasked to implement international obligations in practice. In many ways, it was too early for the administration to have such conversations with banks, as CPF concepts were still in their infancy on the international stage and most attention was overwhelmingly devoted to terrorism, including countering its financing.

In the final months of the Bush administration, the FATF conducted exploratory research into actions that could be taken by countries to ensure that financial institutions operating under their jurisdictions complied with financial restrictions contained in UN Security Council resolutions related to Iran and North Korea. Its findings were compiled into an in-depth report on proliferation financing, which outlined the trends and tactics employed by proliferators to circumvent the controls of the financial system.8 Although this was an important step and the first time that proliferation finance had been devoted attention this exclusively, the task force did not manage to adopt formal CPF measures during the tenure of the U.S. administration that had initiated the discussion. The initiative was therefore left for Obama to take forward.

Obama Administration Efforts

Obama picked up where his predecessor left off in terms of the international CPF discussion, but made key changes in other parts of his approach. Particularly, in the first years of the Obama administration, officials not only wanted stronger obligations to comply with sanctions lists, but were also pressing for obligations to counter proliferation financing activity more generally. This would involve obligations on financial institutions to remain vigilant toward financial transactions that may not be connected to sanctioned individuals and entities but still have a connection to nuclear or missile proliferation activities.

The administration ran a proliferation finance project team within the U.S. Department of the Treasury with the goal of presenting practical policy options to the FATF for how formal recommendations could be established.9 Officials also met with European partners ahead of task force plenary meetings to demonstrate a united view on Iran and North Korea. In May 2009, for example, Daniel Glaser, who was then U.S. deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, discussed with officials from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom the possibility of banning all correspondent banking relationships between European and Iranian banks in response to Iranian terrorism financing concerns.10 Such a ban would also hinder Iran’s proliferation finance activities. Officials also reached out to jurisdictions that had notoriously bad track records on proliferation finance. In a July 2009 meeting with the top official at the central bank of the United Arab Emirates, a senior U.S. Treasury official pressed for specific steps to curb the bank’s financial relations with Iran, as well as with North Korean front companies operating from the UAE, and made it clear that the UAE’s potential FATF membership would be contingent on its actions.11 

Not all governments shared the U.S. view that CPF obligations should be activity based rather than limited to sanctions lists only. There was a difference in views between the United States and European partners on this issue.12 Germany, in particular, worked against the United States on this point. It believed that financial institutions were not in a position to exercise a “general vigilance” against proliferation finance and that placing such additional due diligence measures would be bad for the country’s export community. 

These conflicting views meant that the agreed mandate within the FATF, although an important step, was much narrower than what Washington had originally envisioned. In 2012 the task force included the issue of CPF in its formal recommendations, focusing only on the implementation of list-based financial sanctions at the UN level.13 Countries would only be required to implement UN targeted financial sanctions relating to proliferation, covering Iran and North Korea at the time. Because UN Security Council resolutions form international law already, this did not create any new obligation on FATF members. Because it only covered targeted sanctions, it also excluded UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and its proliferation finance requirements. 

There are three problems with this narrower definition, which the new U.S. president must address. First, the recommendation has done little to alter the practices of financial institutions, most of whom have expressed the view that they were already implementing targeted financial sanctions internally without help from governments.14 Banks employ software programs that screen all incoming and outgoing transactions against sanctions lists in order to flag transactions that involve sanctioned entities. On the whole, financial institutions  believe they are already countering proliferation finance by focusing on sanctions alone. The obligation established at the FATF level has done little else than merely reconfirming it as one of the practices that may be employed to counter proliferation finance.

This illuminates a second, practical issue: proliferation finance as an activity goes beyond UN lists of sanctioned entities and individuals. The UN sanctions list for North Korea, for instance, includes 28 individuals and 32 entities, far fewer than are actually engaged in Pyongyang’s proliferation endeavors.15 Proliferators such as North Korea employ various deceptive practices to circumvent such basic scrutiny as sanctions screening software. They almost always use front companies and larger networks to conceal the involvement of designated entities, which will rarely appear on trade or financial documentation after they are sanctioned. Focusing on sanctioned parties at the exclusion of an activity-based understanding of proliferation dramatically weakens overall CPF efforts.

Third, the proliferation financing landscape has developed significantly since the FATF recommendations on CPF issues were concluded, to the extent that the recommendations have been rendered largely irrelevant. Iran, previously covered under the recommendations, is no longer subject to nuclear-related targeted financial sanctions at the UN level and therefore is assumed by some to be no longer within the scope of the FATF recommendations. In the case of North Korea, UN financial sanctions have moved beyond list-based sanctions. For example, financial restrictions now include the banning of correspondent banking relationships with North Korean financial institutions and mandates the closing of overseas branches of North Korean banks.16 The international standards within the FATF thus lag behind the current reality of counterproliferation regimes and are in desperate need of updating to reflect the new reality.

Obama’s Legacy

Little has happened since the inclusion of the topic of CPF in the FATF recommendations in 2012. The United States appears no longer to be advocating for further measures within the FATF, and as a result, the focus on CPF issues within the organization has leveled off. It has not released any CPF guidance since 2013, and a number of other financial crime concerns, such as terrorism financing, are currently prioritized over proliferation finance.

The UN Security Council on March 2 unanimously adopts resolution 2270 imposing additional sanctions on North Korea for its continued testing of nuclear warheads and  ballistic missiles in defiance of the council’s demands that it halt those programs. (Photo credit: Rick Bajornas/UN)Instead, the Obama administration has pursued stronger actions to counter proliferation finance at the UN level, where recent resolutions on North Korea have included stringent financial restrictions,17 and at the national level. The administration has consistently supported the tough application of national sanctions on proliferators and their supporting networks. That approach began with Iran and has accelerated dramatically with respect to North Korea as the Iran approach was perceived to have “worked.” The United States introduced secondary sanctions on Iran in 2010, a measure allowing officials to sanction non-U.S. and non-Iranian financial institutions for conducting business with individuals and entities in Iran, thus furthering the reach of U.S. obligations beyond its national borders. If a European financial institution was found to be providing financial services in support of Iran’s nuclear and missile activities, the administration had the powers to remove that institution’s access to the U.S. financial system.

Another example of the unilateral expansion of obligations to counter proliferation finance is section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, which allows the administration to designate entire jurisdictions to be of “primary money laundering concern.” This measure has been described as the “nuclear option when it comes to financial sanctions.”18 The designation prohibits the use of correspondent accounts (foreign banks process U.S. dollar transactions through correspondent accounts held with U.S. banks) on behalf of designated jurisdictions. Banks found in violation may lose access to the U.S. financial system, so many simply choose not to conduct any business at all with designated jurisdictions. In 2011 the Obama administration designated Iran under the act, specifically in response to its illicit nuclear program, a move it appears to have contemplated since 2009 when the option was first mentioned in conversations with European partners. The same designation was brought against North Korea in June 2016.19

Common to all such unilateral measures has been the slow move away from focusing specifically on sanctioned nuclear and missile activities and a move toward focusing on a range of trade with a particular country. The administration, after pursuing this more comprehensive approach to counter proliferation finance, has therefore broadened the scope of initiatives domestically and internationally.

This blurring of the definition of CPF and what it entails has caused some confusion. Interviews with financial institutions around the world reveal that U.S. authorities on one hand maintain high expectations on financial institutions and believe that these institutions should be capable of implementing measures to counter proliferation finance activity. The administration has backed up this perception by pursuing a policy of penalizing international financial institutions for their past transgressions. The Obama administration has overseen fines of up to $8.9 billion brought against international banks that illegally processed transactions connected to Iran through the U.S. financial system. The fines have served to instill a general fear among international financial institutions of being caught up in the U.S. sanctions web to the extent that many now pay more attention to U.S. regulators than to their own home governments.

On the other hand, such expectations have not been reinforced with guidance on the specific measures that financial institutions can adopt. Any formal outreach and communication with banks is focused on sanctions implementation and not efforts to counter proliferation finance. The result is a private sector overly focused on implementing list-based financial sanctions, relating to specific countries, entities, or individuals, rather than proliferation finance activity more generally.

When it comes to engagement with other governments, the Obama administration has continued its outreach activities to countries particularly exposed to threats resulting from proliferation financing, such as in Southeast Asia. In this way, it has ensured that the conversation on the need to counter proliferation finance is continuing in those jurisdictions. What the administration has not done is to further promote activity-based measures, and as a result, many countries have not devoted much thinking to CPF activities beyond mandated sanctions implementation. 

Furthermore, although some countries have been motivated to cooperate with the United States on CPF issues because of the fear of being on the wrong side of U.S. sanctions, others perceive the aggressive use of sanctions by the United States as overly wide-ranging and have become less inclined to cooperate for that reason. It is therefore crucial that the new U.S. president pursue measures to make CPF efforts truly international rather than what is currently perceived by many as overreach of U.S. sanctions regimes.

Next Steps

Juan Manuel Vega-Serrano, president of the Financial Action Task Force, speaks at a World Bank meeting October 7. Vega-Serrano heads SEPBLAC, Spain’s financial intelligence unit. (Photo credit: Joy Asico/World Bank)A question facing the new U.S. administration is whether to return to the FATF and pursue a stronger set of CPF recommendations within that forum. The lessons learned from previous administrations will come in useful. The process for affecting change within the FATF is often slow, and the consensus reached is often at the lowest common denominator. Should the administration still want to revive U.S. advocacy to counter proliferation finance within the FATF, it should consider whether it wishes to push for an update to the formal recommendations to make sure these are brought current with the reality of recent sanctions regimes. It should also ensure that resources are devoted to the issuance of specific guidance to countries and financial institutions and bring onboard other governments that may be susceptible to supporting this effort.

Second is the question whether the administration should restore its advocacy of an activity-based discussion on CPF issues. In the latter years of the Obama administration, U.S. efforts to counter proliferation finance appear to have moved away from this discussion, instead focusing on deterring financial institutions from engaging with entire jurisdictions rather than specific proliferation-specific activities. The new administration will need to determine whether it wishes to continue this policy to deter general business relationships on a whole range of activities or to refocus efforts to define proliferation finance activities as those that may be carried out by any actor at any time. 

Finally, the incoming administration will need to consider its outreach strategy to financial institutions and governments. Financial institutions are the ones processing payments that may potentially support proliferation activities, and it is crucial that they are given the guidance and tools necessary to detect and stop such transactions. It is also important that they are aware of exactly what is expected of them. Although these expectations should be informed by national governments, the conversation is currently led globally by U.S. expectations. Given that the conversation on CPF is still only in its infancy at the global level, it therefore falls to the United States to engage in more active conversations in order to create a self-sustaining CPF effort in other jurisdictions.

These questions will be difficult to address, but they are vital to ensuring that proliferators will not be able to access the formal financial system to support their illicit procurement activities. All of the gaps and challenges ahead also require international partnership in order to work. The United States cannot be perceived as going alone on this issue because doing so would be counterproductive and ill received. It would be counterproductive because it runs the risk of foreign governments disengaging from the issue, due to the impression that the United States will cover the education, monitoring, and implementation of CPF efforts globally. It would be ill received because many countries already see U.S. measures as overreach, and a furthering of this sentiment could cause some governments to see CPF efforts as a policy only relevant to the United States and its allies. The United States cannot dominate such conversations, and it is important that an international norm is developed around CPF so that others may follow suit.

As outlined above, the Bush administration recognized the need for CPF issues to be treated internationally in their own right. The Obama administration continued this effort and successfully oversaw the inclusion of CPF topics in the FATF recommendations while expanding unilateral measures against proliferating actors. It will be up to Trump’s national security team to make sure that CPF efforts are maintained as a priority on the global counterproliferation and arms control agenda and that obligations are pursued in a way that ensures a focus on CPF at an activity level.

Deceptive practices of proliferators evolve in response to new sanctions designations, and it is important that initiatives to counter proliferation financing at an activity level are restarted. The United States will need to push for international standards that acknowledge this and ensure that counter proliferation finance efforts remain a global agenda item, not just a U.S. one. 


1.   Michael Laufer, “A.Q. Khan Nuclear Chronology,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 7, 2005, http://carnegieendowment.org/2005/09/07/a.-q.-khan-nuclear-chronology.

2.   UN Security Council, S/RES/1540, April 28, 2004. 

3.   UN Security Council Resolution 1737 froze the assets of designated individuals and entities connected to Iran’s nuclear program and installed bans on certain sensitive goods and materials. Resolution 1718 froze the assets of designated individuals and entities connected to North Korea’s nuclear program, imposed an arms embargo, and installed bans on sensitive technology.

4.   Interviews conducted by author. 

5.   WikiLeaks, “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy: French Conference on WMD Proliferation Financing,” June 27, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06PARIS4443_a.html.

6.   WikiLeaks, “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy: (S/NF) G7 Conference on WMD Proliferation Financing,” November 7, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06PARIS7269_a.html.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Financial Action Task Force (FATF), “Proliferation Financing Report,” June 18, 2008, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/reports/Typologies%20Report%20on%20Proliferation%20Financing.pdf

9.   WikiLeaks, “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy: U.S.-EU Nonproliferation Consultations,” August 11, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09STATE83574_a.html

10.   WikiLeaks, “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy: National Coordinated Measures Meeting with EU4, May 14, 2009,” June 8, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09STATE58742_a.html

11.   WikiLeaks, “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy: Treasury A/S Cohen Raises Iran, North Korea, Taliban With UAE Central Bank Governor,” August 4, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09ABUDHABI783_a.html

12.   Interviews conducted by author.

13.   FATF, “International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism and Proliferation: The FATF Recommendations,” February 2012, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/recommendations/pdfs/FATF_Recommendations.pdf

14.   Interviews conducted by author.

15.   UN 1718 Sanctions Committee (DPRK), “Sanctions List Materials,” March 2, 2016, https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/sanctions/1718/materials

16.   UN Security Council, S/RES/2270, March 2, 2016. 

17.   UN Security Council Resolution 2270 enforced new measures to terminate financial relationships with North Korean banks located overseas and included restrictions on proliferation finance activity more generally. 

18.   Hamish Macdonald, “U.S. Lists North Korea as Money Launderer, Imposes Financial Strictures,” NK News, June 1 2016, https://www.nknews.org/2016/06/u-s-lists-north-korea-as-money-launderer-imposes-financial-strictures/

19.   U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Takes Actions to Further Restrict North Korea’s Access to the U.S. Financial System,” June 1, 2016, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0471.aspx

Emil Dall is a research analyst in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy program at the Royal United Services Institute, where he focuses on nuclear and missile proliferation networks, proliferation financing, and sanctions policy.

The establishment of effective policies to counter proliferation financing will be key to ensuring the success of any strategy that seeks to reduce the threat from proliferating actors.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Initiatives Mapping Project

Visit NuclearNonProMap.org for more.

Table of Contents

Assessing Threats: Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit—Remarks By Greg Thielmann to DIAA/DCOR



Assessing Threats: Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Presentation to the Defense Intelligence Alumni Association and
the Diplomats and Consular Officers Retired

Washington, DC
July 27, 2016

In devising a title for my presentation today, I borrowed a phrase popularized by Graham Allison in his 1971 book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision.  I suspect that every public policy student in the 1970s is familiar with it: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

As everyone in this audience appreciates, the “rational actor model” does not explain everything that happens inside government or between nation-states.  So even though the discipline of intelligence analysis is built on an ethos of objectivity, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to argue that assessing threats is no exception to Allison’s aphorism.  I’d like to reflect on some threat assessments I’ve witnessed during my career in the executive and legislative branches of government. 

Backing into Threat Assessment

I backed into threat assessment in my first full-time job with the federal government.  Having just received my Masters Degree in Public Policy, I was hired as a budget examiner in the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  My task was to monitor a $4 billion line item, Navy Research and Development, and look for ways to save money on the function.  (Where I sat certainly influenced where I stood on assessing the threat!)

One of the things that I learned very quickly was that nearly all U.S. Navy R&D spending was then being justified by the need to stay ahead of Soviet military forces.  The Soviets were assessed to pose the only serious challenge to the U.S. Navy for control of the seas and for forcing entry on land.  I was told that Soviet warships were newer than America’s; they were armed with faster torpedoes and more capable surface-to-surface missiles; Soviet submarines were more numerous than their American counterparts; they could dive deeper and travel faster, and were double-hulled and hence less vulnerable to attack. Soviet anti-aircraft defenses were described as the most formidable in the world, and Soviet Backfire medium-range bombers could actually fly all the way to the continental U.S.

Exaggerating the Threat

As I gradually learned about the numerous advantages the U.S. and its allies enjoyed in the maritime realm over the Warsaw Pact, I became suspicious of the way the way the Soviet threat was being portrayed, and began to realize two things about DoD characterizations of foreign threats.

  • First, senior DoD officials and military commanders lean toward prudent worst-case analyses, and justifiably so because underestimating an enemy can be disastrous if deterrence fails and war occurs.
  • Second, OSD and the U.S. military have a vested, bureaucratic interest in exaggerating foreign capabilities to Congress, because doing so tends to increase appropriations for defense.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the service intelligence agencies would paint the threat in more dire terms than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the State Department’s intelligence bureau, INR.  The latter two entities, I concluded, were consistently more objective in characterizing the threat.

After two years in OMB, I began a 25-year career in the Foreign Service, often working in political-military jobs at home and abroad.  In two of my last three tours working for the State Department, I served in INR, where assessing nuclear threats was my principal focus.

My exposure to the U.S. intelligence community, both at State and later on the Senate Intelligence Committee, contributed to my current view that national threat assessments, though dominated by the supposedly unbiased criteria of the CIA, were also skewed toward “worst case” outcomes rather than those judged “most likely.”

One of my “take-aways” from witnessing the threat estimation process up-close over the years was that even the CIA had a vested interest in exaggerating threats:

  • After all, the more dangerous the world, the more necessary it was to have a large and powerful intelligence establishment; and
  • An organization that warns against all manner of calamities is more likely to be able to claim “I told you so” if something bad happens.

Worst-Case Thinking

I think we can all agree that nasty surprises send huge shock waves throughout the national security establishment.  The mother of all such surprises was, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But there have been other notable examples since then -- China’s intervention in the Korean War in 1950, the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Tet Offensive in 1968, and the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.  Indeed, any intelligence analyst’s worst nightmare is failing to provide advanced warning of an adversary’s capability (or plan) to strike.  

And there hasn’t really been any bureaucratic penalty for over-estimating the threat, as the United States did during much of the Cold War – at least not until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Iraq WMD Fiasco

The second U.S. war against Iraq was justified by the need to stop Saddam Hussein’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  But, of course, we all now know that Saddam’s WMD had been eliminated before the invasion and his ability to reconstitute his WMD programs had been effectively stymied by the UN.

Political Pandering

I realized then that I had underestimated the willingness of the Director of Central Intelligence and other intelligence officials to support the political desires of the White House.  Daily access to President George W. Bush by the DCI and the rapport between them was important to George Tenet.  The numerous visits of Vice President Dick Cheney to CIA had an impact on the agency’s product.  So did the establishment of a DoD Undersecretary for Intelligence, which created a mechanism for bypassing the intelligence community to deliver unvetted intelligence information to the president.

One of the keystones to the Bush administration’s case that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program came from intercepting a delivery of high-strength aluminum tubes to Iraq.  The CIA said these tubes were intended to be used for centrifuges in the production of highly enriched uranium, a critical material used for nuclear weapons.  The Department of Energy, which operated U.S. nuclear weapons labs, correctly assessed that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges.  (They were actually being used to manufacture artillery rockets.)  INR concurred.

The CIA also assessed that Saddam was importing “yellow cake” from Niger that was needed to manufacture the uranium hexafluoride, which would be fed into the centrifuges.  DOE and INR again challenged the validity of these reports, based on technical analysis and country expertise.

The judgments of the best experts in the U.S. Government on these issues were key to INR’s critical dissent in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD Program.  But when the day arrived to finalize (“coordinate”) the estimate, DOE sided with the 15 other members of the intelligence community, delivering what the White House wanted -- the conclusion that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.  INR was thus left to stand alone in disagreeing with the most important judgment in the estimate.  And INR registered it in a conspicuous dissent on the bottom of page one of the Executive Summary at the bottom of the  one-page summary of the estimate that went to the president.

Congressional Cowardice

The U.S. Congress and the press failed to rigorously examine the intelligence on which the administration’s allegations were based.  (The head of INR was never asked to explain his bureau’s dissent in hearings on the NIE held by Congress.)  By mid-October of 2002, following a brief debate, the Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq – an action many Members of Congress hoped would persuade Saddam to allow the return of UN inspectors.  This pressure, backed by a UN Security Council resolution in November, was successful.  The inspectors returned at the end of the month, resumed on-cite inspections, and began filling in the information, which had been absent since their expulsion in 1998.  But their findings over the next three months were spurned by the administration and largely ignored by Congress and the press. 


The invasion was launched in March 2003, but no WMD was found.  The baleful legacy for the Middle East and the U.S. in terms of lives lost and treasure squandered is continuing to be felt, both at home and abroad.  And the decision to invade has now been labeled by people from both political parties as one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in post-Cold War history.

Although the systemic failures ultimately led to a significant reform of the U.S. intelligence community structure and process, those administration officials who were culpable for willfully distorting an already flawed intelligence product were never held to account – either at the polls or in their privileged government positions.

So too did most in Congress escape retribution for their dereliction of duty in failing to revisit the previous year’s authorization to use military force before the invasion.  (In my admittedly biased view, it should have been clear in February 2003 to anyone paying close attention that every evidentiary pillar of support for the administration’s case was collapsing.) 

The Fantasical Thinking of Star Wars

Another insight about threat estimates I’ve gained over the years was the inability of many politicians and military officials to put themselves in the shoes of their adversaries.  This means that decisions made on military measures to meet the threat frequently do not adequately consider either the adversary’s perspective or likely response.

The classical case for me is the U.S. decision in 2002 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  That treaty, then 30 years old, had created specific limits on defenses against strategic offensive ballistic missiles, a necessary condition for securing and sustaining reductions in U.S. and Soviet (or Russian) nuclear weapons.  The ABM Treaty had facilitated the limits and reductions achieved by the SALT and START processes.

Moreover, negotiators had agreed on a protocol to the ABM Treaty, which established a dividing line between the strategic missile defense interceptors limited in the treaty, and the theater and tactical missile defense interceptors, which would not affect the strategic balance.  Hence, Patriot and THAAD interceptors, which are used to blunt the effectiveness of ballistic missile use against troop formations, port facilities, air bases, and other point targets, could be produced and deployed without limits under the ABM Treaty.

But when the U.S. revoked the ABM Treaty, the Russians refused to ratify the terms of START II – a treaty on strategic offensive systems, which, among other things, would have eliminated all multiple warheads on Russian ICBMs.  Russia reacted as the U.S. did when faced with Soviet strategic defenses in the 1960s; it increased its strategic offensive efforts to compensate and safeguard the viability of its nuclear deterrent.

The intelligence community has been very reticent to include in its threat assessments the obvious point that strategic missile defense deployments lead to strategic missile offense deployments.  There is no empirical evidence that strategic missile defenses discourage proliferators as its proponents assert – whether it is Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran.  And yet, the policy community moves forward with what one missile defense proponent this month termed: “the long-running principled opposition to ‘reject any negotiated restraints’ on missile defenses. 

The Perfidious Persians

In my third and most recent historical example, I find evidence of both assessment problems I’ve wanted to highlight.  In describing  Iran’s ballistic missile program over the last two decades, the U.S. Government has both overestimated the technological threat and underestimated Iran’s determination to thwart U.S. policy on ballistic missiles. 

Ballistic Missile Balderdash I

I go back aways on this issue.  One of my most interesting professional endeavors was to participate in coordination of a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate on the Foreign Ballistic Missile Threat.  This estimate constituted an official reaction to the extremely influential report on the ballistic missile threat in the previous year of the Rumsfeld Commission.  That commission essentially predicted in the spring of 1998 that, within five years, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran would be able to develop ICBMs (a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead 5,500+ km).  An attempted North Korean launch of a satellite a few months later seemed to many to validate Rumsfeld’s dire forecast.

The 1999 NIE assessed that a North Korean ICBM could be launched at any time, an Iranian or Iraqi ICBM could be launched between 2005 and 2010.  In terms of likelihood, the estimate judged that, by 2015: a North Korean ICBM was most likely, an Iranian ICBM was probable; an Iraqi ICBM was possible.

The Rumsfeld Commission report and the NIE helped kill the ABM Treaty and, as collateral damage, the START II agreement.  They helped solidify the congressional view of U.S. missile defense requirements that has lasted 17 years.  They were also spectacularly wrong.  None of these three countries has fielded an ICBM.  When Iraq was invaded in 2003, it was working on a 200 km range ballistic missile. North Korea has come closest, with several launches of a large space rocket that could be used as the basis for developing an ICBM, but the only type of “ICBMs” it has paraded have never flown.  Iran has never tested a missile with a range over 2,000 km. The U.S. military now says that Iran could field an ICBM as soon as 2020, but it is unlikely to have a nuclear warhead for 10-15 years, because of the Iran nuclear deal.

Of course, having squirmed in the uncomfortable position of dissenting from the majority estimates during my years as an intelligence analyst, I jumped on the chance to remind the public in the summer of 2003 (after retiring from the State Department) that Rumsfeld’s five years had expired, asking: where are the ICBMs?  I also enjoyed authoring an Arms Control Association blogpost in 2013, facetiously asking: “What Kind of Glasses Do You Need to See Iranian ICBMs?”

Ballistic Missile Balderdash II

As if exaggerating Iran’s missile prowess was not enough, we now seem to be implying that the Iranians are acting irresponsibly and deceitfully in improving their short- and medium-range ballistic missile force.  This failure to understand and predict Iranian behavior may be more appropriately blamed on the Congress and the press, but both have been aided and abetted by the intelligence community’s silence. 

In the 8-year war that started with Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Saddam Hussein had weapons superiority over Iran across the spectrum: more modern aircraft, missiles, and tanks – and in greater quantities; and an arsenal of chemical weapons along with a willingness to use them.  It was Iraq, which initiated the ballistic missile attacks against Iranian cities.  It was Iraq, which violated the 1925 Protocol against chemical weapons use.  Yet the West supported Iraq in the conflict.

To expect Iran not only to accept the Iran nuclear deal, but also a ban on all medium-range conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, is extremely naïve.  Such missiles are Iran’s only direct deterrent against nuclear-armed Israel.  Moreover, they serve to counterbalance -- although only in small measure – the much larger and more modern air forces of potential enemies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.

Yet the tenor of discussion in Washington about the Iran nuclear deal gives the impression that this agreement between Iran and the P5+1 includes limits on ballistic missiles.  Politicians assert incorrectly that Iran is “violating” the deal and/or acting irresponsibly as a regional power to even test missiles with ranges over 300 km.  Was anyone in the intelligence community expecting the Iranians to abandon their medium-range missile program?  Did anyone in the IC fail to understand the compromise resulting in watered down language on ballistic missiles in the new UN Security Council resolution?   Well, I guess the answers to these rhetorical questions are classified, but I think the answer to both is “no.”


My point in these case studies is not to suggest that prognostication is easy or that I have a perfect track record.  (In fact, I joke about my good luck that some of my correct calls have been publicized, while my mistakes remain classified.)

But I would advise that, before one relies on threat assessments, it is wise to ask about the track record of the assessor, to ask for the kind of evidence on which projections are based, and the probability attached to whatever horrendous outcome the assessor says is possible.  Finally, one must look realistically at how the adversary will respond to U.S. actions.  Otherwise, if we’re not careful, we will prepare for a future that is very unlikely – and in a way, which leads to an outcome that leaves us worse off than before. 


In relying on threat assessments, it is wise to ask about the track records, evidence, and probabilities.

Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Initiative Turns 10

June 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

Participating countries in a voluntary initiative to strengthen global capacities to prevent nuclear terrorism will meet in the Netherlands this month to discuss areas for future activities to strengthen nuclear security. 

The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) meeting, which will take place June 15-16, coincides with the 10th anniversary of the initiative’s founding by the United States and Russia. Since 2006, the GICNT has grown to include 86 countries and five international organizations and conducted more than 80 multilateral activities.

Officials involved in the GICNT highlighted the meeting as an opportunity to expand regional cooperation among partner countries over the coming year and build on the three areas of focus for the initiative: nuclear forensics, nuclear detection, and response and mitigation. Working groups exist for each of these areas, in addition to an implementation and assessment group led by the Netherlands that oversees GICNT activities and coordinates other international efforts to prevent duplication.

According to Kees Nederlof, the Dutch coordinator for the implementation and assessment group, the value of the GICNT is that it is a practical, “hands-on partnership” that “provides fora that do not otherwise exist for facilitating dialogue and cooperation among communities of experts within and across governments to identify needs and build national capacities in applying nuclear security principles.” 

Nederlof said in a May 25 email that the 10-year anniversary meeting “will comprise both retrospective and forward-looking elements.” He added that it is an opportunity to “consider the evolving security landscape” and “identify and discuss the actions the GICNT can take to address existing and anticipated challenges.” 

Looking ahead, Nederlof said that a future priority for the GICNT could be “the pursuit of greater regional cooperation and the use of regional activities” that have “the benefit of being able to use commonalities among neighboring states to help identify nuclear security challenges and develop solutions on a targeted, regional basis.” 

A U.S. State Department official said in a May 27 email that “interagency national-level coordination” continues to be a “persistent challenge” and the United States would like to prioritize future GICNT activities that promote effective cooperation and dialogue.

The GICNT was one of the five international initiatives designated as a successor to the nuclear security summit process. (See ACT, May 2016.) At the final summit in Washington in April, the 52 participating countries endorsed an action plan for the GICNT. The action plan included recommendations for additional exercises, capacity building, and cooperation with other organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The State Department official said that the GICNT anniversary meeting should “reinforce that senior-level attention is necessary” beyond the summit process to address the threat posed by nuclear and radiological terrorism.

Working Group Contributions 

The Dutch official said that the GICNT chose its three focus areas because “no other international organization, initiative or instrument was actively dealing with these specific areas, so there was a gap.” 

Tegan Bull, the Australian coordinator for the nuclear forensics working group, said in a May 24 email that since the working group was formed in 2010, it has “communicated the role of nuclear forensic science to policy-makers and decision-makers.” Bull said that the conversation transitioned from “what is nuclear forensics” to questions on how to implement an effective nuclear forensics capability. This reflects a “greater understanding and awareness of how nuclear forensics can contribute to nuclear security.” 

Bull says the nuclear forensics working group plans to develop a “self-assessment tool” for partner nations “seeking guidance and good practices for the practical implementation and sustainment of a national nuclear forensic capability.” Bull says this will help states “to consider existing national capabilities that could be utilized for nuclear forensics; additional capabilities that may be needed; and areas in which international assistance may be sought.”

The nuclear detection working group, established in 2010, is currently coordinated by Finland. The chair of the working group said in a May 25 email that several of the “notable accomplishments” from the working group include “promoting partners’ practical application of nuclear detection best practices” and raising awareness among senior policymakers of the challenges to nuclear detection and “mitigating strategies.” 

The chair noted that the development of an “exercise playbook” has “encouraged partners to organize national-level or GICNT activities based on the detection modules” outlined in the exercise book. He also said that the working group has led “international efforts to conceptualize, draft, and publish guidance and best practices documents in the area of nuclear detection,” including a four-volume series on developing nuclear detection architecture.  

Looking ahead, the chair said that the working groups will focus on regional exercises designed to “examine and address unique border detection challenges,” such as those posed by geography or incompatibilities in detection technologies. Another area of focus will be continuing to build partner nations’ capacity to “develop and implement a coordinated government approach to detecting illicit trafficking” of material outside of regulatory control within states and using the exercise playbook to ensure that partner countries gain the “expertise needed for developing sustainable national-level exercise programs,” he said. 

Itimad Soufi, the Moroccan coordinator for the working group on response and mitigation, said in a May 25 email that the group was established in 2012 to “identify and produce best practices and recommendations for responding to a nuclear or radiological terrorist incident and mitigating its consequences.” She said several events were organized and hosted by partner nations to discuss and exercise the key concepts identified in a framework document. 

Two events in particular tested and enhanced “not only the national capabilities, but also the joint ability of two countries (or more) to communicate, coordinate and respond to radiological threats and terrorist acts,” Soufi said. This new series of exercises brought a regional perspective and allowed Morocco and Spain, as well as Argentina and Chili to discuss and exercise national and “joint ability to respond to these threats and acts,” Soufi said. 

In the future, Soufi said “the bilateral, regional and international cooperation as well as the cross-disciplinary work will continue remaining an important objective” and that the group will conduct a new “virtual exercise” that involves teams of GICNT participants “responding to a scenario from the perspective of their own government.”


Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, director of the global nuclear policy program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), wrote in a May 12 email that the end of the nuclear security summits and the 10th anniversary of the GICNT is an opportunity for the initiative to reaffirm “its role in strengthening the global nuclear security system by addressing one of the chief remaining gaps in the system, the lack of any common set of international standards and best practices.”

Pitts-Kiefer recommended that the GICNT promote capacity building in “universalizing and strengthening implementation” of the nonbinding IAEA code of conduct on the safety and security of radioactive sources to “ensure that terrorists can never get their hands on dangerous radioactive material that could be used in a dirty bomb.” 

She also suggested that the GICNT could work with countries considering nuclear power programs to “ensure they are following IAEA guidance and have the laws, regulations, and technical capacity necessary to protect nuclear power plants against acts of sabotage—whether through physical or cyberattacks—that could cause a serious radioactive release.”

The NTI has identified “serious deficiencies” in both these areas, Pitts-Kiefer said. 

The State Department official said the United States is interested in other areas of focus for the GICNT, such as “the exchange of models and best practices on legal and regulatory frameworks.”

Participants in a voluntary initiative to strengthen global capacities to prevent nuclear terrorism will meet in the Netherlands this month to discuss future activities.

From Paper to Practice: The Significance of New UN Sanctions on North Korea

May 2016

By Andrea Berger

For many years, common wisdom held that North Korea was one of the most heavily sanctioned countries on earth and therefore one of the most isolated. Shortly after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, in 2013, one commentator, expressing a widespread view, asked, “Is there anything left to sanction in North Korea?”1

Only three years later, the UN Security Council showed that there was in fact much more that could be done. On March 2, the council passed Resolution 2270 in reaction to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and subsequent satellite launch. Until now, the sanctions regime against North Korea has evolved slowly, incrementally expanding the authority of previous resolutions. By contrast, Resolution 2270 adds numerous, qualitatively different restrictions. 

The resolution’s practical effect, however, may be more limited than the changes on paper. Pyongyang’s international isolation—largely self-imposed, though compounded by sanctions—has created unique trade and finance dynamics. In particular, it has cemented China as the primary trade and finance pathway for North Korea and therefore the linchpin for sanctions effectiveness. China’s decisions over the next few months will largely determine the size of the barriers to North Korean prohibited activity created by Resolution 2270. 

By contrast, North Korea’s sanctions evasion skills will determine whether these barriers are surmountable. Such skills, including the creation of opaque corporate structures and the holding of assets offshore, have helped it cope with the UN sanctions regime to date and have given it a head start in overcoming any added challenges created by the new resolution. 

An Evolving Framework

The trigger for UN sanctions on North Korea was the country’s first nuclear test, in October 2006. Although countries such as the United States had previously restricted interactions with North Korea by their nationals or companies, it was not politically possible to attract Chinese or Russian support for multilateral sanctions until North Korea publicly crossed the nuclear threshold. Resolution 1718, adopted on October 14, 2006, five days after North Korea’s nuclear test, contained a basic framework, built specifically to counter North Korean activity directly relevant to its nuclear and missile programs. It includes an embargo on trade in any goods or services related to nonconventional weapons or missiles; an embargo on trade in large conventional weapons systems, the revenue from which the Security Council argued would flow into the same coffers that fund Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development; a ban on luxury goods; and a freeze on assets held outside of North Korea by listed individuals and entities violating the resolution. 

That framework expanded in the same way it was born: in reaction to North Korean testing of nuclear weapons. In 2009, after Pyongyang’s second test, the arms embargo was expanded to include all conventional arms and related materiel and services,2 and a panel of experts was established to monitor implementation of the resolutions. In 2013, after the third test, the Security Council approved new provisions calling for states to refrain from providing certain financial services or establishing financial relationships with North Korea if there were reasonable grounds to believe they could contribute to prohibited activities. Among other things, the council decided that states should restrict bulk cash transfers by North Korea and inspect cargo going to or coming from the country if they could contribute to prohibited programs. It also called on states to “exercise enhanced vigilance” over North Korean diplomatic personnel, but it did not clarify what this vigilance should entail in practice. 

In response to North Korea’s nuclear test on January 6, the United States drafted Resolution 2270 and presented it to China, but the resolution saw little progress for several weeks. When Beijing did show movement and propose amendments, which were fewer and less extensive than expected, bilateral negotiation of the resolution proceeded rapidly. In substantive terms, the resolution goes far beyond previous measures. Its key provisions require countries to expel all representatives of designated entities and close their offices,3 “inspect” all cargo going to and coming from North Korea, deny port access for or impound certain North Korean-controlled vessels, cease purchases from North Korea of certain minerals, limit coal and iron ore imports from the country, ban exports of airplane fuel to North Korea,4 cut off any relationships with North Korean banks outside North Korea, and forbid their financial institutions from opening new offices, subsidiaries, or accounts in North Korea.

The new resolution represents a departure from the sanctions regime’s earlier focus on restricting North Korean activity only when member states have information suggesting that the activity could contribute to prohibited programs. That focus meant the regime was designed primarily to prevent illicit arms-related activities and stop ongoing proliferation incidents. Many of the new obligations in Resolution 2270, including commodity-based sanctions on trade in rare earth minerals, demonstrate that this time the measures are partly punitive. Restrictions of this type, although they may constrain a general revenue stream for North Korea, have no direct, conclusive connection to North Korea’s weapons development or proliferation. Their purpose is instead to make clear to Pyongyang that its actions can have a wide range of consequences. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, for instance, clarified that the United Nations should make North Korea feel “bone-numbing pain” through sanctions.5

Since North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have solidified the substantive shift toward more general trade and finance sanctions by instituting their own new unilateral restrictions.6 Although their promotion of such a shift may have been foreseeable, the fact that notoriously sanctions-averse countries such as China and Russia consented came as a greater surprise. 

Beijing and Moscow were eager to send a strong warning to Pyongyang that its actions would risk alienating even those who had given it political cover at the UN. This resolution squares that desire with their continued objection to the idea that sanctions can and should play a decisive role in resolving the nuclear dispute with North Korea. Both countries insisted on inserting major caveats and ambiguities into the text of the resolution that lighten the implementation burden. Restrictions on coal purchases from North Korea, for example, exempt transactions that are for undefined “livelihood” purposes—language that Beijing can use as cover if it wishes to do so. China’s insertion of major exemptions for commodity-based sanctions in this way suggests that it wished to buy itself leverage over North Korea that it claimed it previously did not have. In practice, it is therefore likely that China will vary its enforcement of the provisions in reaction to North Korean behavior, taking action only sporadically. 

Previous rounds of sanctions against North Korea have never covered as much ground or as much paper. Yet, even the unprecedented length of the new resolution has not been enough to address all of the practical challenges with implementing member state obligations. There already are signs that implementation will be a challenge for those who wish to be compliant. Under Resolution 2270, states are required to freeze all assets of the designated North Korean shipping firm Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) Co., including by impounding its vessels, listed in an annex to the resolution. As required, the Philippines diligently impounded the MV Jin Teng.7 

This action has raised numerous issues. For a few weeks, it was unclear whether Manila would have to detain the ship indefinitely. The nature of an asset freeze is such that those vessels should remain “frozen” as long as OMM is designated.8 Because few individuals realistically foresee North Korean capitulation on its nuclear and missile programs as a result of sanctions, few believe the company will ever be removed from the sanctions list. Would the Philippines incur the costs of berthing the vessel in port indefinitely? Could it sell the ship instead? 

Ultimately, China insisted that the UN sanctions committee on North Korea delist four of the vessels because their ties to OMM could not be proven. This included the MV Jin Teng. Issues over reimbursement of the port berthing costs incurred during the period of detention persist. Such growing pains are unsurprising considering the speed at which the new resolution was amended in negotiations between China and the United States, and they are sure to materialize again in the near future.

A Decade of Sanctions Evasion

North Korea already has numerous tools and tactics that it will use to circumvent the new restrictions. As discussed above, the multilateral sanctions regime against North Korea has evolved relatively slowly in line with Pyongyang’s nuclear testing activities. This decade-long evolution has given the country’s overseas networks the time to hone an array of evasive tactics in three areas: corporate structures, logistics, and finance.9 

Corporate structures. In terms of corporate structures, North Korea enjoys a significant presence in neighboring countries, especially China. The diaspora of ethnic Koreans in China remains actively involved in cross-border trade, and North Korea deploys countless businesspeople to neighboring countries to establish companies. To give a sense of scale, more than 300 companies in Liaoning province alone are registered formally as North Korean owned.10 Many more fronts and shells are registered by Chinese nationals or North Korean dual nationals. Although they are not listed officially as having foreign ownership, they could in fact have North Korean beneficiaries. Another approximately 1,000 companies in Liaoning have recorded official trade with North Korea in the past five years although these companies are not necessarily North Korean controlled.11 

The majority of these firms list their business as “general import and export.” In almost every instance investigated by this author where a Chinese-registered company has been involved in illegal North Korean activity, the company in question also had licit business. In one recent example, the representative of a North Korean-controlled company in Liaoning was found to be trading headphones, pasta machines, solar water heaters, and nonferrous metals now banned under Resolution 2270. North Korea exploits these dynamics to make the task of detecting illegal activity comparable to finding a needle in a stack of needles. 

Beyond China and Russia, North Korea does not have a substantial and loyal diaspora that it can co-opt into illegal activity. Instead, it draws on its diplomats and foreign trade representatives for its prohibited activities, having them serve as facilitators of prohibited activity. In 2015, for example, the United States accused the North Korean ambassador to Myanmar of facilitating deals for his country’s primary arms trading firm. Pyongyang also consistently deploys representatives of designated entities abroad and often embeds them in foreign companies. Representatives from North Korea’s designated OMM are known to have embedded in local firms in Singapore and Hong Kong, for example. Similarly, North Koreans operating abroad have bought or otherwise secured access to passports of convenience, further obscuring their personal links to North Korea and the links of any companies they subsequently register.12 In many circumstances, North Korea has managed to co-opt foreign nationals into registering companies and opening bank accounts overseas on its behalf. Research into North Korea’s foreign operations and recent revelations from the Panama Papers show that the country’s corporate networks commonly extend into traditional tax havens and jurisdictions with poor transparency requirements, such as the British Virgin Islands.

The result of these elaborate efforts is that, on paper, when one examines a network that facilitates North Korean trade, whether licit or illicit, there is very rarely obvious and conclusive evidence of the involvement of a North Korean national. This makes detecting the beneficial owners, rather than the on-paper owners, immensely difficult for private sector organizations and governments that wish to avoid inadvertently facilitating or otherwise participating in North Korean trade, especially illegal trade.

Trade flows. The vast majority of North Korea’s maritime, air, and overland trade flows into China as a first port of call. The bulk of the North Korean commercial shipping fleet stays in North Korea’s neighborhood, making repeated trips to and from Chinese ports. 

The portion of this fleet that flies the North Korean flag is steadily decreasing. The country repeatedly carries out major campaigns to reflag its vessels, it frequently changes their corporate structure, and it involves foreign partners in vessel chartering and operations in order to further distance a ship from any North Korean connection on paper. 

Once in China, goods destined for foreign countries are transshipped or re-exported and often put on vessels or other forms of transport that do not have an obvious North Korean identifier or are not North Korean controlled, including vessels of major shipping firms. 

An illustrative example of this pattern is the 2009 seizure by South African authorities of North Korean conventional weapons and parts en route to the Republic of Congo. The relevant containers had been shipped from North Korea through the Chinese port of Dalian, where a North Korean-controlled company in China arranged for them to be booked aboard the CGM Musca bound for Malaysia. There they were again transshipped and loaded onto the MV Westerhever, which was chartered at the time by a subsidiary of the French firm CMA CGM. 

North Korea commonly falsifies the documentation accompanying its shipments to conceal the true nature of the goods and the parties involved. It may mislabel the goods or alter the documents for a number of reasons—for example, to give the impression that the goods originated outside of North Korea. As those consignments travel, the average eye will likely not be able to immediately identify anything potentially suspicious. 

The reverse of this scenario—goods going to North Korea—involves similar patterns. Investigations by the UN panel of experts on North Korea and by this author show that Pyongyang continues to procure a range of legal and illegal goods by declaring false end users in China, including Hong Kong, who are commonly part of North Korea’s wider trade networks. Products are then re-exported to or rerouted by the declared end user or other intermediaries in the transaction. This was exemplified by a recent attempt by a North Korean-linked businessman in China to procure high-tech cameras from the United Kingdom, with the intent to re-export them for North Korea’s unmanned aerial vehicle program.13

Financial flows. North Korea’s evasion activities are as sophisticated in the financial realm. In particular, North Korea is accustomed to amassing its assets offshore. It generates revenue abroad in various ways, including through illegal activity, and holds the funds in overseas accounts. Those accounts may be attached to companies with no immediate North Korean identifier or to foreign nationals co-opted by North Koreans abroad. Contrary to popular belief, North Korea continues to be able to open and maintain accounts with major global banks. North Korea’s primary construction firm operating abroad, Mansudae Overseas Projects, uses one of South Africa’s “big four” banks to conduct its Namibian transactions, for example. Its activities are insured by Old Mutual, a South African-owned financial institution on the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index.14

Where North Korea manages to collect assets in offshore accounts, it uses them to process a wide variety of transactions relating to legal and illegal national business overseas. When money needs to be transferred into North Korea itself, evidence shows that one of the primary methods used is to withdraw the cash needed and carry it into the country. North Korean diplomats have been caught recently in Sri Lanka doing just that.15 In short, Pyongyang is highly accustomed to moving money through the formal financial system in support of its overseas activity in a way that masks the North Korean source or beneficiary of the funds. As with its trade documentation, the start or end of the financial paper trail visible to a bank will rarely be in North Korea. 

Implications. North Korea’s sanctions evasion activity over the course of the last decade highlights the country’s head start in circumventing the stronger measures just put in place by Resolution 2270. When taken together with the already limited global presence of North Korean banks, Pyongyang’s familiarity with offshoring practices means that the bulk of the financial restrictions imposed by the new resolution, which focus on relationships with North Korean banks, will likely fail to substantially impede North Korea’s access to the formal financial system. The ability of North Korean networks to use elaborate corporate structures and the cooperation of foreign nationals to hide their beneficial ownership of companies and the bank accounts they open only add to the difficulties of getting to the heart of illicit North Korean finance. 

As with the movement of funds, the country’s ability to hide evidence of North Korean involvement while its goods are in transit will continue to help it engage in the prohibited activities identified by Resolution 2270. 

The Case of Chinpo Shipping

Chinpo Shipping Co. in Singapore is a ship chandler that has conducted its entire business with North Korean ships since its incorporation in the 1980s. Until 2013, Chinpo’s director, Tan Cheng Hoe, allowed North Korea to use his Bank of China account to process hundreds of foreign remittances totaling nearly $40 million.1 North Korea would transfer money into Tan’s account from accounts belonging to non-North Korean companies overseas. Tan would be instructed by officials from North Korea’s Ocean Maritime Management Co. to execute payments to other foreign accounts although those payments were unrelated to his own business. 

When Pyongyang needed to move some of the assets in Tan’s account back into North Korea, a diplomat would withdraw up to $500,000 and carry the cash out of Singapore by hand.2 The diplomat was stopped at the border once, but subsequently released. Tan was ultimately caught and charged when North Korea used his account to pay a Panamanian firm for the Panama Canal passage of the Chong Chon Gang, which was seized while smuggling conventional weapons from Cuba to North Korea in 2013. In 2015, he was found guilty of aiding North Korean proliferation and processing remittances without a license.


1.   Andrea Berger, “Thanks to the Banks: Counter-Proliferation Finance and the Chinpo Shipping Case,” 38 North, December 16, 2015, http://38north.org/2015/12/aberger121615/.

2.   Sangwon Yoon, Sam Kim, and Andrea Tan, “How North Korea Funnels Cash Into the Country,” Bloomberg, February 21, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-21/china-at-the-heart-of-north-korea-s-illicit-cash-flow-funnel.

    The Enforcement Landscape

    As mentioned above, North Korea will likely encounter few insurmountable difficulties in moving goods or funds from a foreign destination to China or vice versa. The key question is how much scrutiny North Korean cargo will encounter in its travels to and from China. Some of the new provisions in Resolution 2270 would be more acutely felt by North Korea than other provisions would be if they were systematically implemented by Beijing. Obligations to inspect cargo are foremost among them. A decision by China to undertake systematic inspections of North Korean land, air, and sea freight—an enormously burdensome endeavor—undoubtedly would punish Pyongyang by slowing bilateral trade and hamper North Korea’s ability to sell and buy illicit goods internationally. 

    By contrast, the value of Chinese implementation of provisions requiring that OMM ships be denied entry into foreign ports or be impounded will decline over time. North Korea almost certainly will bring the remaining 27 designated OMM ships home, keep them close, and later attempt to sell some of them, perhaps to others in the North Korean shipping network who can challenge the Security Council’s assessment that they are OMM controlled. Countries on the UN committee on North Korea sanctions, including China, should seek to pre-empt this possibility by agreeing on the criteria by which vessels are deemed to be OMM owned and thus subject to an asset freeze.

    Curbing North Korea’s coal and iron exports would also be significant, as China is Pyongyang’s largest customer. As described above, however, there are notable caveats in the resolution that permit coal trade for “livelihood” purposes and for transactions unrelated to generating revenue for prohibited activities. Financial flows from general commodity sales to prohibited programs are extremely difficult to prove in practice, meaning that China will be able to continue to buy large quantities of North Korean coal and argue that it is adhering to the resolution.

    Whether China will opt to systematically change its practice with respect to any of the aforementioned sanctions obligations remains to be seen. Over the last decade, it has failed to show adequate vigilance over high-risk trade with North Korea, such as consignments aboard charter flights on North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo. It has been largely unresponsive to intelligence shared with it about ongoing prohibited activities. Furthermore, it allows offices of designated entities to remain open on its territory, permitting their representatives to go about their business and travel freely. 

    Many hope that the substantive leap encompassed in the text of Resolution 2270 represents a dissolution of Chinese apathy toward sanctions implementation. In the weeks since the resolution’s adoption, news reports have quoted unnamed traders and bankers as saying that China has been putting more resources into cargo screening at the border, turning away North Korean ships, and issuing directives to Chinese banks.16 Although some designated North Korean vessels appear to have been denied port access, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has directly contradicted the claim in some media reports that it has decided to turn away all North Korean ships.17 

    Beijing’s other actions point to the conclusion that North Korea’s nuclear test did not instantly increase China’s appetite for robust, burdensome sanctions implementation. Most recently, Beijing reportedly infuriated Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, by demanding that the Security Council delist four of the 31 OMM vessels it agreed to designate only weeks before and vowing to withhold cooperation on other issues if the ships were not stricken from the sanctions list.18 

    Ultimately, it is unlikely that any pressure exerted by Western nations on China will succeed in convincing Beijing to implement more systematically the restrictions on North Korean trade and finance to which it has agreed. North Korea’s own behavior may be the only variable that can bring about this change of heart. Until such a development transpires, North Korea’s illicit networks will continue to use China as a commercial base and primary trade and finance pathway. Combined with Pyongyang’s prowess in evading sanctions evasion, its unfettered access to China will make it more difficult for countries in other parts of the globe to detect and inhibit North Korea’s prohibited activities. Pyongyang will be able to camouflage much of its involvement in a particular transaction behind Chinese-incorporated companies; Chinese nationals, including dual nationals; or Chinese bank accounts. 

    Although this may make the sanctions implementation task for countries in other parts of the globe more difficult, it does not make it impossible or unimportant. Panama searched the Chong Chon Gang, throwing a wrench into the North Korean-Cuban military relationship. Singapore prosecuted the financiers of the Chong Chon Gang shipment, shutting down an important financial pathway for OMM. Comparable actions by cooperative countries can have a similarly disruptive effect in the future on individual nodes in North Korea’s networks. 

    As a result, even if Chinese cooperation is not forthcoming, the dissemination of up-to-date information on North Korea’s current evasive practices and the obligations encompassed in the new resolution still must be given high priority. If these dynamics are not well understood internationally, there could be numerous ramifications. National laws could inadequately reflect UN requirements, resulting in the inability of officials to act on an ongoing incident of prohibited activity. Directives might not be given to customs officials or port operators, for example, or those that are given may be out of step with the requirements of Resolution 2270. The UN panel of experts on North Korea already has done an admirable job in improving international awareness of the sanctions regime and the tactics employed by North Korea to circumvent it, but by its own account, much more outreach is needed.


    The latest UN Security Council sanctions resolution on North Korea is a significant step on paper, in terms of the removal of the narrow focus on trade that is determined to be proliferation sensitive and the type of new measures imposed—for example, restrictions on commodities that are not related to weapons. The fact that notoriously sanctions-shy countries such as China and Russia agreed to the resolution is equally noteworthy. Their acquiescence is a large warning to North Korea: its provocations risk alienating even its key partners. The design of the new provisions suggests that China wished to buy itself additional leverage over North Korea and that Beijing may now intend to vary its implementation of individual sanctions in reaction to North Korean developments. 

    This will be important to bear in mind as those who championed Resolution 2270 seek to measure its practical effect. Large gaps in enforcement left by Chinese or Russian inaction or variable interpretations of the resolution’s provisions will undercut not only the chances that other countries will be able to successfully detect prohibited activities and take action, but also the significance of those actions on North Korea’s broader networks, trade, and finance. As long as illicit goods and funds can cross North Korea’s borders into neighboring states, Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion techniques and networks will allow the majority of them to flow unhindered through other jurisdictions, even those cooperating with UN sanctions. 

    The next few months will be crucial in a number of respects. As evidenced by the discussions over the fate of the OMM vessel impounded in the Philippines, practical growing pains will continue to affect the reformed sanctions regime against North Korea. Beijing’s implementation approach also will become apparent, confirming or contradicting some of the initial “leaks” to the media about the state of Chinese action. Countries in other parts of the world will similarly be required to understand North Korea’s current tactics and implement national laws and procedures reflective of Resolution 2270. Although China may not welcome implementation assistance, countless other governments are open to it. Countries and civil society representatives with expertise should do all they can to support efforts to raise awareness about the North Korea sanctions regime. 

    National approaches ultimately will determine the number and size of the barriers that North Korea will have to use its sanctions evasion skills to surmount. Without active and informed participation by countries, especially those in North Korea’s neighborhood, any barriers erected will be insufficient to regularly prevent illicit activity, punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test, or change Pyongyang’s calculations concerning the desirability of its nuclear and missile programs.


    1.   Colum Lynch, “Is There Anything Left to Sanction in North Korea?” Foreign Policy, February 13, 2013, http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/02/13/is-there-anything-left-to-sanction-in-north-korea/

    2.   Sales of small arms and light weapons to North Korea were exempted by the resolution, but this loophole was closed in 2016 by UN Security Council Resolution 2270.

    3.   The term “designated” refers to the addition of a particular entity or individual to the sanctions list, requiring states to subject that entity or individual to a travel ban and assets freeze.

    4.   An 11th-hour Russian amendment to the resolution clarified that fueling of Air Koryo planes in foreign airports would continue to be permissible.

    5.   Ju-min Park and Tony Munroe, “South Korea Calls for ‘Bone-Numbing’ Sanctions on North for Nuclear Test,” Reuters, January 13, 2016, http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-nuclear-usa-congress-idUSKCN0UQ2MK20160113

    6.   A few countries have chosen to go beyond Security Council resolutions and pass more-expansive measures. Japan and South Korea have newly introduced shipping sanctions forbidding vessels that have recently called in North Korea from calling in their ports. In February, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 into law. It calls for extensive action by the Department of the Treasury to designate those assisting Pyongyang’s illicit aims, sets in motion a process for the introduction of secondary sanctions against foreign financial institutions processing North Korea-related transactions, and could lead to enhanced restrictions on trade with foreign ports deficient in their North Korean cargo screening requirements.

    7.   Elizabeth Shim, “Philippines Seize Second North Korea-Operated Ship,” United Press International, March 15, 2016, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/03/15/Philippines-seize-second-North-Korea-operated-ship/2611458059392/

    8.   In the case of Resolution 2270, the Security Council actually listed the 31 vessels it believed were controlled by the Ocean Maritime Management Co. in order to clarify the grounds for asset freezing by member states. China subsequently negotiated the delisting of four of the vessels, including one of the ships held by the Philippines, the Jin Teng, which has since been released. 

    9.   Andrea Berger, “Target Markets: North Korea’s Military Customers in the Sanctions Era,” Whitehall Paper, no. 84 (December 8, 2015), pp. 35-62.

    10.   Data collected by the author using Chinese corporate and credit registry information.

    11.   Data collected by the author using official Chinese customs data provided through Panjiva, covering 2010-2015.

    12.   Andrea Berger and Ching N. Fung, “Business or Pleasure? A N. Korean-Cambodian Arrested in Hawaii,” NK News, August 7, 2015, https://www.nknews.org/2015/08/business-or-pleasure-a-n-korean-cambodian-arrested-in-hawaii/

    13.   UN Security Council, “Note by the President of the Security Council,” S/2016/157, February 24, 2016, pp. 33-38 (containing “Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1874 [2009]”). 

    14.   Ibid, p. 180.

    15.   “N. Koreans Detained in Sri Lanka After Carrying Cash,” Yonhap, March 17, 2016, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2016/03/17/65/0401000000AEN20160317010500320F.html

    16.   Ju-min Park et al., “Chinese Banks Freeze North Korean Accounts: South Korean Media Report,” Reuters, February 22, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-satellite-china-banks-idUSKCN0VV09S; “China Strengthens NK Cargo Inspections: Source,” Yonhap, March 16, 2016, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2016/03/16/0401000000AEN20160316010100315.html

    17.   “China Denies Reports of Entry Ban on All N. Korean Vessels,” Yonhap, March 23, 2016, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2016/03/23/0200000000AEN20160323008200315.html

    18.   Michelle Nichols, Louis Charbonneau, and James Pearson, “U.N. Lifts North Korea Sanctions on Four Ships at China’s Request,” Reuters, March 22, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-sanctions-china-usa-exclus-idUSKCN0WN287

    Andrea Berger is deputy director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. She is author of the 2015 paper “Target Markets: North Korea’s Military Customers in the Sanctions Era.”

    The recently adopted UN Security Council resolution on North Korea is qualitatively different from its predecessors, but its practical effect may be more limited than the changes on paper...

    Can a North Korean ICBM Be Prevented?

    May 2016

    By Michael Elleman and Emily Werk

    In January 2011, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mused that “North Korea will have developed” an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by 2016, with the caveat that the arsenal would be small with limited operational capability.1 

    Five years later, in 2016, there still is hope that the United States and its Asian allies can prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear-capable ICBM. Pyongyang, however, is not cooperating. North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, with Kim Jong Un boasting that it had exploded a hydrogen bomb. A month later, it successfully lofted a satellite into orbit using a large, long-range rocket. Then in March, North Korea unveiled a mock-up of a miniaturized nuclear bomb and performed two separate missile-related ground tests. The first test simulated the conditions a warhead would experience during re-entry into the atmosphere to evaluate the thermal protection technologies. The other was a stationary firing of a large, solid-fueled rocket motor. 

    In April, North Korea tested a previously unseen liquid-propellant engine. In response to Pyongyang’s provocative actions, the UN Security Council enacted the most stringent sanctions to date on North Korea.2 Perhaps most importantly, China seems to have lost its patience with the Kim regime and has promised to enforce export controls along its heretofore porous border with North Korea.3 At this point, it is not clear if these actions would be enough to forestall the North’s development of long-range missiles. The international community might need to be more creative and proactive. 

    North Korea has limited experience developing ballistic missiles. Its Scud and Nodong missiles were likely imported from Russia. The Unha satellite launcher is an indigenous design and was assembled in North Korea, but its main engines were likely imported. If North Korea builds its own ICBM, it will probably rely on engines fabricated elsewhere. If Pyongyang is already in possession of the engines needed for an ICBM, then political restraint, money, and time are the only hurdles standing in the way of a capacity to threaten the U.S. mainland, short of military action by a foreign power. Fortunately, North Korea’s inexperience with missile development will slow its progress, leaving the international community with an extra year or two to identify and implement new policies aimed at slowing Pyongyang’s pursuit of new nuclear delivery capabilities. 


    North Korean efforts to acquire ballistic missiles likely began in the mid-1970s, when three parallel routes were initiated.4 One pathway sought to clone the Soviet-designed FROG, or Luna, long-range artillery rocket. The second program explored adapting surface-to-air missiles for use as ballistic missiles. Both approaches were abandoned when it became clear that neither would yield the short- and medium-range ballistic missile systems Pyongyang desired. On the third route, North Korean engineers joined a Chinese initiative to develop a liquid-propellant ballistic missile called the Dongfeng-61 that was to have a range of 600 kilometers. Domestic politics in Beijing caused China to abandon the project in 1978, after just one year.5

    Having failed to develop the necessary technologies, North Korea turned to foreign sources from which it could import ballistic missile technology. The effort focused on acquiring Soviet-built, short-range Scud-B missiles and the accompanying support vehicles and equipment. Poor diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Moscow during the mid-1970s drove North Korea to seek an alternative supplier of Scud-B technology. Egypt proved willing and delivered to North Korea missiles, equipment, and transporter-erector launchers (TELs) sometime between 1976 and 1981.6 

    The history of North Korean ballistic missile development after the initial acquisition of Scud-B technology has become a source of debate. Conventional wisdom argues that North Korea began the process of reverse-engineering Scud missiles acquired from Egypt and, in April 1984, test-launched a Scud-B, which was rebranded as the Hwasong-5.7 After this initial flight test, North Korea launched up to five additional Hwasong-5 missiles; three of these launches were successful.8 The Hwasong-5 can carry a 1,000-kilogram warhead a distance of 300 kilometers.

    In the late 1980s, North Korea began to develop a modified Hwasong-5 missile, the Hwasong-6, which is a clone of the Soviet-designed and -built Scud-C. Just as the Scud-C has technological similarities with the Scud-B, the Hwasong-6 uses the same engine, guidance and control systems, and fuel-oxidizer combination as the Hwasong-5. The two versions are identical in length and diameter, but the warhead mass of the Scud-C/Hwasong-6 is approximately 270 kilograms less than that of the Scud-B/Hwasong-5. Furthermore, the Scud-C/Hwasong-6 uses a common bulkhead to fit additional propellant into the airframe, which, when combined with the lighter warhead, increases the range to 500 kilometers. 

    The limited number of flight tests during development of the Hwasong-5 and -6, the near perfect replication of the Scud-B and -C performance and reliability characteristics, and the rapid deployment of the Hwasong systems cast doubt on claims that they were reverse engineered from a few sample missiles acquired from Egypt or elsewhere. Available evidence argues convincingly that North Korea more likely purchased Soviet-made Scud-B and -C missiles or acquired a licensed production line to manufacture them (see box below).9

    Reverse Engineering: Reality or Myth?

    Scud-B missiles exported by North Korea, some as late as 2002,1 are identical in appearance to those produced by Russia. Further, Scud-B missiles said to be of North Korean origin have performance and reliability characteristics that duplicate perfectly those of the Russian versions.2 The tightly compressed timeline associated with the development of a reverse-engineered missile, the immediate success achieved during the initial flight tests of the replicated Scud, and the domestic deployment and foreign sales of newly produced systems prior to the completion of performance and reliability testing conflict with the common view that North Korea established a self-sufficient manufacturing line. 

    Historical evidence indicates that North Korea would have faced extensive challenges reverse-engineering the missiles. There is no confirmed instance of a country successfully reverse-engineering an entire ballistic missile system. After five years of effort, the Soviet Union’s attempts to copy the German A-4 (V-2) ballistic missile yielded the R-1, which underperformed in comparison to the original. Furthermore, unlike the North Koreans, the Soviets had access to the original design and production documentation, the German manufacturing line, and many of the German engineering experts. Similarly, China tried to reverse-engineer the Soviet-built R-2 and R-5 missiles. Even with access to design and production documents and collaboration with Soviet scientists, China needed more than five years to successfully flight-test prototype missiles, all of which exhibited inferior performance when compared to the original R-2 and R-5. In another example, Iraq’s effort to duplicate the engine used by the Soviet-built SA-2 air defense missile largely failed, despite having used between 50 and 100 reference engines to extract measurements and other key design features. North Korea possessed only a small collection of Scud-B missiles from which to derive the necessary information. 

    As another hypothetical route to development of the Hwasong-5 and -6, North Korean acquisition of a licensed production line for Scud-type missiles also is belied by available evidence, according to skeptics. The Soviet experience in trying to leverage the German manufacturing equipment for the A-4 missile indicates that replicating a production line can prove difficult. The paucity of flight tests to validate the missiles produced in North Korea is also at odds with experience elsewhere. Random testing of missiles being produced is one of the hallmarks of any new or even existing manufacturing line. 

    As with the reverse-engineering hypothesis, some experts argue that North Korea scaled up the Scud-B to create the Nodong, a medium-range missile, in the late 1980s,3 possibly in collaboration with technicians from the Makeyev Design Bureau, the Soviet company responsible for production of the Scud-B and the developer of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) for the Soviet navy. Media reports that Makeyev scientists were detained in late 1992 en route to Pyongyang are consistent with this hypothesis. 

    The role these scientists were to play in North Korea is not known with certainty. They might have been sent to aid in the design of a larger missile and help commission a production line, but this conflicts with the history of events in North Korea. Indeed, North Korea is believed to have attempted a flight test of the Nodong in 1990, although scorch marks left on the launch pad suggest the launch failed badly.4 Moreover, Pyongyang initiated discussions with possible foreign buyers of the Nodong in 1991 and hosted delegations from Pakistan and Iran in May 1993, where they witnessed a successful launch of a Nodong.5 Although one cannot discount the possibility that the Makeyev experts detained in 1992 were preceded by others, the rapid pace of development; a flight-test program limited to two firings, one of which failed; and the confidence Iran and Pakistan indicated by their commitment to make the purchase suggest otherwise. So too does the basic design of the Nodong. As noted by German missile experts Robert Schmucker and Markus Schiller, the Nodong’s dimensions are identical to those of the nuclear version of the Scud-B, not the conventional version.6 The nuclear version of the Scud-B is roughly 20 centimeters longer than the version designed to carry a conventional, high-explosive warhead. The additional length is found at the base of the nuclear warhead, where it is connected to the missile’s airframe. The Nodong shares this feature with the nuclear Scud-B, but North Korea never had access to that version of the missile. 

    Available evidence from the North Korean program, when combined with the history of missile development elsewhere, indicates that arguments offered by skeptics of the reverse-engineering process are likely correct. If this is the case, North Korean engineers accumulated very little experience designing, developing, and producing new missiles indigenously prior to the mid-1990s. Recent satellite launches, which employ a three-stage rocket of domestic design, albeit with engines of Soviet design and likely Russian manufacture, indicate that North Korea has begun the process of establishing the skills needed for indigenous design, development, and assembly of more-capable missiles. Yet, contrary to popular concerns, these satellite launch activities will not provide North Korea with a shortcut for developing a viable and reliable long-range ballistic missile.7


    1.   On December 10, 2002, Spanish and U.S. ships intercepted the North Korean ship Sosan en route to Yemen. The Scud missiles photographed and presented as public evidence of the interdiction are identical in appearance to the original Soviet version of the missile. See Markus Schiller, “Characterizing the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat,” RAND Corp., 2012, p. 77, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2012/RAND_TR1268.pdf.

    2.   Ibid., p. 24.

    3.   See George C. Marshall Institute and Claremont Institute, “Ballistic Missiles: No Dong 1,” Missile Threat, October 26, 2012, http://missilethreat.com/missiles/no-dong-1/.

    4.   Geoffrey Forden, “Master Proliferator or Simple Front Company?” 38 North, May 2, 2010, http://38north.org/2010/05/master-proliferator-or-simple-front-company/.

    5.   Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies Occasional Paper, No. 2 (November 1999), http://www.missilethreat.com/repository/doclib/19990000-CNS-dprk.pdf; Bill Gertz, “North Korea as Nuclear Exporter?” Washington Times, June 8, 1994.

    6.   Robert H. Schmucker and Markus Schiller, Raketenbedrohung 2.0: Technische und politische Grundlagen (Berlin: E.S. Mittler und Sohn, 2015). 

    7.   Michael Elleman, “Prelude to an ICBM? Putting North Korea’s Unha-3 Launch Into Context,” Arms Control Today, March 2013.

      Satellite Launch Rockets

      Mock-ups of the large rockets North Korea would eventually use in its attempts to loft satellites into low-earth orbit were first spotted by U.S. intelligence in February 1994 at the Sanum-dong research center outside Pyongyang.10 A little more than four years later, in August 1998, North Korea used the Taepo Dong-1, a three-stage rocket launched from Musudan-ri. The launch failed shortly after the third stage separated from the second. 

      Eight years after the Taepo Dong-1 firing, in July 2006, North Korea launched a much larger rocket, the Taepo Dong-2. The rocket exploded just 42 seconds into its flight; its intended mission therefore remains a mystery, as does its configuration. There are no publicly available photographs or videos of the launch. Then, on April 5, 2009, North Korea attempted to boost a small satellite into orbit using a three-stage Unha-2 rocket from the Musudan-ri launch facility. It failed after second-stage burnout, with remnants of the satellite and third stage of the rocket falling into the ocean roughly 3,200 kilometers from the launch site.

      North Korea again attempted a satellite launch on April 12, 2012, using the Unha-3, a slightly modified version of the Unha-2.11 The new rocket was fired from the Sohae facility, situated on the western shores of the Korean peninsula. It failed roughly 100 seconds into first-stage operation. Finally, on December 12, 2012, the Unha rocket successfully placed a satellite into orbit, although the satellite did not operate as designed. North Korea successfully repeated the launch in February 2016, when it placed the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into orbit. The new satellite reportedly weighed 200 kilograms, about twice as much as the previous one. The satellite continues to orbit the Earth at an altitude of roughly 500 kilometers. 

      With the exception of the Taepo Dong-2 test-fired in July 2006, which exploded too soon after liftoff to determine its trajectory and mission, all of the large rockets launched by North Korea were designed to maximize performance as a satellite launcher. In each case, the Taepo Dong-1 and Unha rockets flew on trajectories fully consistent with a satellite launch. Furthermore, all employed low-thrust engines in the upper stages, which would not provide sufficient power if the rocket were to fly on a ballistic missile trajectory. Gravity losses resulting from the long-burning, low-output engines would rob the Unha rocket of 1,000 kilometers or more of range if used as a surface-to-surface missile. 

      The Unha-2 or -3 could serve as a springboard for the development of an ICBM, but the history of long-range missile development by other countries, including the Soviet Union, the United States, China, and France, indicates that satellite launch activities have limited impact on missile programs. No country has converted a satellite launch rocket into a long-range ballistic missile. China ran parallel programs, but it still conducted a full set of flight tests to validate the performance and reliability of the long-range missiles that are part of the Dongfeng series. Nonetheless, North Korea could attempt to transform the Unha rocket into a long-range missile.

      A militarized version of the satellite launch rocket would require a significant redesign, including new second and third stages. If done with existing options available to North Korea, the resultant missile could deliver a 1,000-kilogram warhead to a range of 10,000 kilometers. The transformation, however, would entail many challenges. First, the new missile would have to be flight-tested along a ballistic missile trajectory to include a warhead that survives re-entry into the atmosphere at speeds of roughly seven kilometers per second. A single flight test would not be sufficient; a series of tests would be required to verify the reliability and performance of the missile operating under a variety of conditions. If North Korea succeeded in developing an ICBM based on the Unha rocket, it would find that the ICBM would be too cumbersome for deployment on mobile platforms. In principle, Unha-based ICBMs could be placed in silos, but unlike China, Russia, and the United States, North Korea is small, making it more difficult to hide silo locations from U.S. surveillance satellites. Furthermore, the long preparation and fueling times would leave the missile exposed to pre-emption for extended periods. Nonetheless, North Korea could pursue this option as a more feasible alternative to developing a mobile ICBM. Western observers would receive advance notice of a new capability because the flight trials would take several years and would be detected by intelligence agencies. 

      The Musudan 

      The Musudan, as it is named by U.S. intelligence agencies, had been rumored to be under development in North Korea since the mid-2000s.12 Some reports contend that the missile was initially deployed by North Korea as early as 2003, with others suggesting 2006.13 The missile reportedly appeared in a military parade in April 2007,14 but no photographs were made public. In October 2010, a handful of Musudan mock-ups carried on TELs were unveiled during a parade broadcast by state-run television. The mock-ups show a missile similar in appearance to the Soviet-era R-27 (SS-N-6, Serb) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) although the North Korean version is longer. Other minor differences, such as the change in the position of the cable duct that runs along the missile’s outer frame, are visible.

      The technologies used by the Soviet R-27 are quite sophisticated relative to the Scud missiles North Korea has maintained and operated for the past three decades. The R-27 airframe and propellant tanks are made using a chemical etching process to provide it with considerable strength while remaining lightweight. It is unclear if North Korea has the technical knowledge, experience, and industrial infrastructure to replicate the processes needed to fabricate the airframe. Even if Pyongyang’s production engineers have mastered the etching process, additional structural elements would be needed to accommodate the added length of the Musudan and to ensure that the missile, which was designed to be housed in the relatively benign, temperature-controlled environment of a submarine launch tube, survives the rigors of deployment on a road-mobile TEL. Finally, the R-27 engine is a closed-cycle, high-pressure system, very different from and far more advanced than the low-pressure, open-cycle engines North Korean engineers have employed to date. If North Korea has struggled to replicate the Scud or Nodong engines, it would be almost impossible for it to master production of the R-27’s main engine. 

      Although mock-ups of the Musudan have been seen on numerous occasions, there is no public evidence that North Korea has conducted test flights of this missile.15 Yet, reports continue to suggest that the Musudan has been deployed to missile bases in Yangdok in South Pyongan province and Sangnam-ri, in North Hamgyong province.16 The Musudan missiles showcased during parades in Pyongyang are not copies of the original R-27 design, suggesting that North Korea has incorporated some changes. Like any new system, it therefore must be flight-tested to validate reliability and performance. Without undertaking the necessary developmental tasks, including flight trials, North Korea must accept considerable risk that it will not work if launched. 

      China, Russia, the United States, and other countries would not deploy a strategic weapon without first verifying its capabilities. Even Iraq, in the midst of its war with Iran in the 1980s, conducted 10 flight tests of a modified Scud-B, the al-Hussein missile, over approximately two years before firing them on Tehran and other cities. That North Korea has not test-flown the Musudan hints that Pyongyang either does not possess R-27 missiles and its major components or that it is willing to accept very poor reliability of the modified missile. The April test-firing of what appears to have been a pair of main engines from the R-27 at the vertical stand at the Sohae facility suggests that Pyongyang possesses some Soviet-made R-27 engines. If North Korea has such engines, its limited experience developing missiles indigenously and the typical imperfections contained in any new missile design will present challenges. Without flight-testing Musudan missiles, North Korea would run the risk that fewer than half of those missiles would reach their assigned targets. 

      North Korean ICBMs

      During an April 2012 military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea unveiled a three-stage missile carried on a 16-wheel TEL. A more detailed and slightly modified mock-up appeared in another military parade a year later. Dubbed the KN-08 and sometimes referenced as the Hwasong-13, the missile is very likely powered by liquid-propellant engines, as evidenced by the small fueling and draining ports positioned along the airframe’s length. Engineering reconstructions of the missile by Western experts suggest that the KN-08 first stage employs a cluster of four Scud engines with four small steering engines used to control the missile’s flight. The second stage is powered by the main and steering engines of the R-27, if indeed North Korea has them. Steering engines, which are also employed by the Unha rocket, are likely found on the third stage. If this reconstruction is accurate, the KN-08 could have a range of 7,500 to 9,000 kilometers when carrying a warhead and re-entry vehicle weighing between 500 and 700 kilograms.17 In principle, it could reach the west coast of the United States. 

      There is little doubt that North Korea has ambitions to field a viable ICBM fleet. The KN-08 and KN-14 currently are likely candidates to fulfill Pyongyang’s aspirations. Yet, neither missile has been flight-tested, and North Korea has not developed and tested a re-entry vehicle capable of withstanding the thermal and mechanical rigors of re-entry into the atmosphere at ICBM velocities. Engineers might have taken a first step toward the development of the technologies capable of facilitating re-entry by placing a nosecone replica under the exhaust plume of a Scud engine to simulate re-entry conditions.19 Such tests, however, are not a substitute for testing under real conditions. Further, the dimensions and geometry of the nosecone tested do not match those of any of North Korea’s long-range missile mock-ups. During a 2015 parade, North Korea unveiled what appears to be a two-stage, long-range missile, subsequently identified as the KN-14. The KN-14 mock-up shares many of the external features found on the Soviet R-29R SLBM. The R-29R (SS-N-18 Mod 1, Stingray) is a product of the Makeyev Design Bureau, the Russian entity with which North Korea allegedly has worked in the past. It is unclear, however, when and how the R-29R would have been transferred from Russia to North Korea because the missile is still deployed on Russia’s Delta III (667BDR) submarines and was test-fired by the Russian navy as recently as October 2012.18 It is difficult to imagine that Russia would export a strategic weapon that is currently serving on active duty. The range-payload capabilities of KN-14 are unknown or highly speculative.

      Regardless of the authenticity or success of the re-entry technology test, the fact that it was performed indicates that North Korea is pursuing the engineering activities needed to develop a functional ICBM. North Korea will need more than a handful of years of additional developmental actions, including multiple flight tests, before it has a viable, long-range nuclear capability. Satellite launches using the Unha rocket are not a substitute for KN-08 or KN-14 tests. Unha flights will contribute to the development of an ICBM but not decisively.20 

      As with the Musudan, North Korea could elect to use an unproven missile under emergency conditions. The failure rate of first- and second-generation, long-range missiles developed by other countries during initial flight trials was greater than the success rate, and each of those countries had far more experience designing and developing ballistic missiles prior to their respective long-range missile flight trials than North Korea now does. It is safe to assume that the KN-08 and KN-14 will not succeed more than half the time without test flights. More likely, only one-third to one-quarter of all launches under emergency conditions will succeed. One or two test launches would improve North Korea’s odds of success but not substantially. 

      Latest Developments

      In addition to its quest to develop a long-range nuclear strike capability, North Korea has initiated two new programs aimed at diversifying its strategic delivery options. 

      The first project was initially detected in late 2014 by Joseph Bermudez and the 38 North website when they spotted equipment commonly used to develop an SLBM at a navy yard in Sinpo, North Korea, on commercially available satellite imagery.21 Months later, on May 9, 2015, North Korea aired photographs of Kim Jong Un witnessing first hand a test of a sea-launched missile.22 Photographs from the test show a missile emerging from underwater and its main engine igniting, although the engine did not operate for more than a few seconds. Shutting down the engine shortly after ignition is a common practice when the primary test objective is focused on the launch-tube ejection system. Prudently, North Korea did not use a submarine for the test, instead electing to employ a submergible barge with a launch tube, towed by a surface ship. From its outward appearance, the missile appears to be a variant of the Musudan, although the exhaust plume seen in the photographs is not consistent with the propellant combination employed by the R-27 and the presumed Musudan. 

      Additional tests of the system have been reported in the media, a clear indication that North Korea aspires to develop an SLBM capability. If North Korea pursues the engineering steps at a healthy pace, it could have an operational system in about five years. Historically, however, projects undertaken by other countries to develop an SLBM have encountered unanticipated technical challenges that extended the timeline, sometimes more than doubling or tripling the development schedule. North Korea’s limited experience developing missiles domestically likely will prolong the developmental program beyond what other countries have encountered. The added time needed by North Korea to operationalize the capability provides the Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. navies a cushion in time to hone their respective anti-submarine warfare skills to be able to confidently detect and track North Korea’s underwater systems. 

      The second developmental effort appears to be focused on mastering the production of large, solid-propellant rocket motors. In late March 2016, North Korea released photographs of Kim attending a ground test of such a motor.23 Although the size of the motor is difficult to determine using the available pictures, it is likely about 1.25 meters in diameter and roughly three meters long. Its size indicates that it is designed to be the upper stage of a larger missile. 

      Several possibilities for its planned use come to mind. North Korea might be attempting to develop a solid-fueled version of the Nodong missile, much like what Iran has attempted to do with the two-stage, medium-range Sajjil. Solid-fueled missiles are easier to deploy on road-mobile platforms than liquid-fueled missiles are, and they require less logistical support for mobile operations. Because they do not require fueling prior to launch, they can be fired more quickly than their liquid-propellant counterparts. Moreover, the greater density of solid propellants reduces the overall size of the missile, which is preferable for mobile deployment. 

      If this is what North Korea has in mind, it will require many years to perfect and field a medium-range missile powered by a solid propellant. Iran has been developing the Sajjil for more than a decade, with an initial ground test of the first-stage motor taking place in 2005. Flight tests began in 2008. Yet, technical difficulties appear to have slowed the Iranian effort, as it has not launched a Sajjil since 2011. North Korea will likely encounter many challenges as well, suggesting that it will not begin deploying a mature design to the military before 2022 at the earliest.

      The upper-stage motor might also be intended for use as the third stage of a militarized version of the Unha rocket. The current configuration of that rocket is optimized for satellite launches, not as a ballistic missile. North Korea might seek to replace the second and third stages of the Unha with higher-thrust, shorter-action time stages that would improve the range capabilities of the rocket by avoiding the gravity losses, and thus range reductions, resulting from the use of underpowered stages. The modification would require flight testing, although the flight trials could be shortened marginally because of North Korea’s experience working with the first stage, which is not likely to undergo significant modifications. Even so, a flight-test program would likely take at least two years and more likely three to five.

      In the near to medium term, North Korea will not benefit hugely from using solid-propellant technologies. In the longer term, however, the strategic significance could be consequential. Mastering the technology would enable Pyongyang to field reliable and capable long-range missiles on road-mobile launch platforms, making them more difficult to destroy before they are fired. On the other hand, mastering the art of producing a solid-propellant motor is expensive and time consuming. North Korea will struggle mightily to produce a flight-proven, solid-fueled ICBM before 2030.24

      Preventing an ICBM

      Activities over the past five years and perhaps much longer suggest that North Korea is edging toward the goal of creating a nuclear-armed ICBM. Underground nuclear tests, satellite launches, and the launching of Nodong missiles demonstrate capabilities, a key pillar of a deterrence posture. Unveiling mock-ups of the Musudan, KN-08, and KN-14 during military parades and showcasing a mock-up of a small nuclear device are more suggestive than real for now. 

      It should be remembered, however, that North Korea placed mock-ups of the Taepo Dong-1 and -2 rockets in the open for U.S. intelligence satellite to see in 1994. Four years later, North Korea launched a Taepo Dong-1 rocket in an attempt to orbit a small satellite. It took a dozen years before a Taepo Dong-2 was test-launched and 18 years until the Unha, a variant of the Taepo Dong-2, successfully lofted a satellite into orbit. It seems reasonable to project that North Korea could test-launch a KN-08 or KN-14 before 2020 and have it available for emergency operations. In other words, it could be available for use if the Kim regime’s hold on power is directly threatened by a foreign government. 

      More-recent revelations, including ground tests of re-entry technologies and solid-propellant motors, appear to serve as a warning to Pyongyang’s adversaries that North Korea is serious about its pursuit of a viable strategic deterrent capacity. These tests also provide preliminary technical data to support full development of the capability. The strategic significance of these tests is incremental at best. Yet, North Korea undeniably is inching forward and will likely succeed in fulfilling its ambitions over the long term.

      The United States and the international community have a limited capacity to inhibit North Korea’s aspirations to build an ICBM. Two immediate actions, however, could impede Pyongyang’s endeavors with regard to long-range missiles. First, if North Korea can be dissuaded or prevented from flight-testing the KN-08 or KN-14 or a variant of the Unha that has been optimized for ballistic missile missions, the reliability of any of these missiles will remain marginal. If North Korea fields only a dozen or so ICBMs of marginal reliability, the U.S. national missile defense system has a more than decent chance of blocking an attack. Dissuading Pyongyang could come in the form of negotiations or coercion. Prevention would be more difficult, as it could require military action. Ashton Carter and William Perry proposed a similar option in a 2006 op-ed, which argued for destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad.25 Today, somewhat less-provocative measures are possible, including the use of Aegis Standard Missile-3 interceptors to destroy a missile in the boost, or ascent, phase of flight. Such steps, however, carry greater risk today than in 2006 because North Korea now has nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the option deserves careful study.

      Second, strict adherence to trade sanctions would slow North Korea’s development of large, solid-fueled motors that could be used for long-range missiles. If North Korean engineers and motor producers are unable to establish a reliable and consistent supply of basic solid-propellant ingredients—for example, high-quality aluminum powder and ammonium perchlorate or a similar oxidizer component—from the same manufacturer, they will be severely challenged to master the production of large motors. Iran’s efforts to develop fully the Sajjil medium-range missile appears to have been hampered by UN sanctions that disrupted its supply line of ingredients.26 How much sanctions will set back North Korea’s solid-fuel program depends primarily on China’s willingness to enforce them along its border with North Korea. 

      Another variable is North Korea’s determination to gain an ICBM capability. If Pyongyang is determined to achieve that goal and is willing to accept the likelihood its long-range missiles will suffer from a high failure rate, the success of either of these two policy options, or anything less than the fall of the Kim regime, will likely be minimal. 


      1.   Phil Stewart, “U.S. Sees North Korea Becoming Direct Threat, Eyes ICBMs,” Reuters, January 11, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE70A1XR20110111

      2.   U.S. Mission to the United Nations, “Fact Sheet: DPRK Resolution 2270 (2016),” March 2, 2016, http://usun.state.gov/remarks/7161.

      3.   Jonathan D. Pollack, “China and North Korea: The Long Goodbye?” Brookings Institution, March 28, 2016, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2016/03/28-china-north-korea-sanctions-pollack.

      4.   International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment,” IISS Strategic Dossier, July 2011, p. 129.

      5.   Ibid., p. 130.

      6.   Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies Occasional Paper, No. 2 (November 1999), p. 6, http://cns.miis.edu/opapers/op2/op2.pdf.

      7.   Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Ballistic Ambitions Ascendant,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, Vol. 19, No. 15 (April 10, 1993), pp. 20-22.

      8.   IISS, North Korean Security Challenges, p. 130.

      9.   Ibid., p. 146.

      10.   Barbara Starr, “North Korean Missile R&D Gains New Pace,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Vol. 21, No. 25 (June 25, 1994), p. 10; Bermudez, “History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK,” p. 28.

      11.   David Wright, “A Comparison of North Korea’s Unha-2 and Unha-3,” Union of Concerned Scientists, April 8, 2012.

      12.   Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Japan Reveals Name of North Korea’s R-27 IRBM,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 21 (May 23, 2007).

      13.   Nuclear Threat Initiative, “North Korea’s Missile Capabilities,” May 1, 2010, http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/north-korea-missile-capabilities/.

      14.   Daniel Pinkston, “North Korea Displays Ballistic Missiles During Military Parade, Some for First Time,” WMD Insights, June 2007.

      15.   In defiance of U.N. sanctions, North Korea attempted to launch a missile on April 15. The flight test failed a few seconds after ignition, when the missile exploded. The missile is widely presumed to have been a Musudan, but no direct evidence has been made available to the public. If it was the Musudan, this would represent its first launch attempt. The cause of the failure is not known. See, Michael S. Schmidt and Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Ballistic Missile Launch a Failure, Pentagon Says,” The New York Times, April 15, 2016.

      16.   “Press Gets 1st Look at N. Korean Mid-Range Missile,” Chosun Ilbo, October 11, 2010.

      17.   John Schilling and Henry Kan, “The Future of North Korean Nuclear Delivery Systems,” 38 North, April 7, 2015, http://38north.org/2015/04/nukefuture040715/.

      18.   Pavel Podvig, “Launch of a R-29R Missile From the Pacific,” Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, November 2, 2012, http://russianforces.org/blog/2012/11/launch_of_a_r-29r_missile_from.shtml.

      19.   Jack Kim and James Pearson, “North Korean Leader Says Will Soon Test Nuclear Warhead,” Reuters, March 16, 2016.

      20.   Michael Elleman, “Prelude to an ICBM? Putting North Korea’s Unha-3 Launch Into Context,” Arms Control Today, March 2013. 

      21.   “Media Busters: Is North Korea Building a Ballistic Missile Submarine?” 38 North, November 4, 2014, http://38north.org/2014/11/editor110414/.

      22.   Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Underwater Test-Fire of Korean-Style Powerful Strategic Submarine Ballistic Missile,” 38 North, May 13, 2015, http://38north.org/2015/05/jbermudez051315/.

      23.   Elleman, “Prelude to an ICBM?” 

      24.   John Schilling, “A Solid but Incremental Improvement in North Korea’s Missiles,” 38 North, March 29, 2016, http://38north.org/2016/03/jschilling032916/.

      25.   Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2006.

      26.   “Iran: Sanctions Halt Long-Range Ballistic Missile Development,” IISS Strategic Comments, No. 22 (July 13, 2012).

      Michael Elleman is consulting senior fellow for missile defense for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Emily Werk is special assistant to the executive director for IISS-Americas.

      North Korea apparently is edging closer to creating a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. A key variable is Pyongyang’s determination to achieve that goal...

      Getting What We Need With North Korea

      April 2016

      By Leon V. Sigal

      While Washington’s chattering classes were all atwitter about North Korean nuclear testing and rocket launching and China’s backing for UN sanctions against Pyongyang in recent months, U.S. diplomats were tiptoeing to the negotiating table.

      Any chance of a nuclear deal with North Korea depends on giving top priority to stopping the North’s arming even if that means having Pyongyang keep the handful of weapons it has for the foreseeable future. Success will also require probing Kim Jong Un’s seriousness about ending enmity, starting with a peace process on the Korean peninsula.

      The revelation that Washington was willing to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions was a surprise to those who had not been tracking the evolution of U.S. policy closely. The Department of State confirmed that the United States held talks in New York last fall and rejected a proposal to begin negotiating a peace treaty. “To be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty,” department spokesman John Kirby said on February 21. “We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response.”1

      Intriguingly, the revelation came on the eve of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Washington. Four days earlier, while signaling China’s support for UN sanctions, Wang had made a more negotiable proposal of his own: “As chair country for the six-party talks, China proposes talks toward both achieving denuclearization and replacing the armistice agreement with a peace treaty.” The proposal, Wang said, was intended to “find a way back to dialogue quickly.”2

      Wang’s proposal was consistent with the September 19, 2005, six-party joint statement, which called for “the directly related parties” to “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum.”3 Those parties included the three countries with forces on the peninsula—North Korea, South Korea, and the United States—and China. They, along with Japan and Russia, agreed in six-party talks in September 2005 on the aim of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to be negotiated in parallel with a peace process in Korea and bilateral U.S.-North Korean and Japanese-North Korean talks on political and economic normalization.

      Wang’s initiative was also a way to bridge the gap between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea has long sought a peace treaty. Its position hardened, however, after Washington, backed by Seoul and Tokyo, demanded preconditions—“pre-steps” in diplomatic parlance—to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization before talks could begin. In response, Pyongyang began insisting that a peace treaty had to precede any denuclearization.

      The Chinese proposal is a testament that sanctions are unlikely to curb North Korean nuclear and missile programs and that negotiation, however difficult, is the only realistic way forward. So is Washington’s newfound openness to talks with Pyongyang.

      Many in Washington and Seoul, however, still contend that negotiation is pointless if North Korea remains unwilling to give up the handful of crude nuclear weapons it has. That premise ignores the potential danger that an unbounded weapons program in North Korea poses to U.S. and allied security.

      It also ignores the possibility that Pyongyang may be willing to suspend its nuclear and missile programs if its security concerns are satisfied. That was the gist of its January 9, 2015, offer of “temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned” if the United States “temporarily suspends joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.”4

      Like most opening bids, it was unacceptable. Instead of probing it further, however, Washington rejected it out of hand—within hours—and publicly denounced it as an “implicit threat.”5 That was a mistake Washington would not repeat in the fall.

      Unofficial contacts later that January indicated that Pyongyang was prepared to suspend not just nuclear testing, but also missile and satellite launches and fissile material production. In return, the North was willing to accept a toning-down of the scale and scope of U.S.-South Korean exercises instead of the cancellation it had sought. This underscored the need for reciprocal steps to improve both sides’ security.

      Those contacts might have opened the way to talks at that time, but the initiative was squelched in Washington. Instead, U.S. officials continued to insist Pyongyang had to take unilateral steps to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearizing and ruled out reciprocity by Washington. Their stance was based on the flawed premise that the North alone had failed to live up to past agreements.6 As Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, put it on February 4, “North Korea does not have the right to bargain, to trade or ask for a pay-off in return for abiding by international law.”7 This crime-and-punishment approach, however warranted by North Korean flouting of international law, has never stopped North Korea from arming in the past, and it is unrealistic to think it would work now.

      Tiptoeing Toward Talks

      Last September 18, U.S. negotiator Sung Kim dropped Washington’s preconditions for talks while still insisting that the agenda would be pre-steps North Korea would have to take to reassure Washington before formal negotiations could begin. “When we conveyed to Pyongyang that we are open to dialogue to discuss how we can resume credible and meaningful negotiations, of course we meant it. It was not an empty promise. We are willing to talk to them,” Kim said. “And frankly for me, whether that discussion takes place in Pyongyang, or some other place, is not important. I think what’s important is for us to be able to sit down with them and hear directly from them that they are committed to denuclearization and that if and when the six-party talks resume, they will work with us in meaningful and credible negotiations towards verifiable denuclearization.”8 In short, Washington would sit down with Pyongyang without preconditions in order to discuss U.S.  preconditions for negotiations. That opened the door to contacts with the North Koreans in the New York channel in November.

      In a November 3 interview, North Korean Foreign Ministry official Jong Tong Hak hinted at what the North might be proposing behind the scenes in New York. He said a permanent peace settlement on the Korean peninsula first required a North Korean-U.S. “peace agreement,” perhaps a declaration committing the sides to negotiate peace. That was an advance. It was accompanied by a step backward from previous North Korean positions: “If the American government is serious about respecting the sovereignty of the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and ending its ongoing hostile policy against the DPRK then it can be solved very easily between the two sides.”9 The apparent exclusion of South Korea made that proposal a nonstarter even if the North had been ready to suspend its nuclear and missile programs.

      Sung Kim reiterated the U.S. position on November 10. “I think for us it’s pretty straightforward: If [the North Koreans are] willing to talk about the nuclear issue and how we can move towards meaningful productive credible negotiations, [the United States would be] happy to meet with them anytime, anywhere,” he said. He went on to respond to Jong obliquely: “It’s not that we have no interest in seeking a permanent peace regime, peace mechanism or peace treaty. But I think they have the order wrong. Before we can get to a peace mechanism to replace the armistice, I think we need to make significant progress on the central issue of denuclearization.”10 The armistice agreement, signed in July 1953, established a cease-fire in the Korean War “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”11 That has yet to happen.

      The Obama administration deserves praise for agreeing to meet in New York to explore what the North Koreans had in mind and not to reject a peace process out of hand. Disappointingly, North Korea proved unready to discuss denuclearization, which is stymieing talks for now.

      The Limits of Sanctions

      North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test and February 7 satellite launch spurred more-stringent sanctions at the UN Security Council and in Washington. Even worse, the sanctions revived dreams of a North Korean collapse in Seoul, dreams that jeopardize a peace process.

      Sanctions might have helped bring Iran around to negotiating, but North Korea is no Iran. It is far more autarkic and less dependent on trade with the rest of the world. It has no big-ticket items such as oil that require access to the global banking system to transact business.

      An offer to ease sanctions may be of some utility in negotiations with Pyongyang, as it was with Tehran. The latest sanctions will squeeze Pyongyang but not enough to compel it to knuckle under and accept Washington’s preconditions for negotiating. If anything, Pyongyang’s nuclear advances have enhanced its leverage and given it greater confidence to proceed with negotiations on its own terms.

      Wang and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged as much in their February 23 joint press conference announcing their agreement to move ahead on sanctions and negotiations. “China would like to emphasize that the Security Council resolution cannot provide a fundamental solution to the Korean nuclear issue. To really do that, we need to return to the track of dialogue and negotiation. And the secretary and I discussed this many times, and we agree on this,” Wang said. Kerry echoed him, saying that the goal “is not to be in a series of cycling, repetitive punishments. That doesn’t lead anywhere. The goal is to try to get Kim Jong Un and the DPRK to recognize that…it can rejoin the community of nations, it can actually ultimately have a peace agreement with the United States of America that resolves the unresolved issues of the Korean peninsula, if it will come to the table and negotiate the denuclearization.”12 Once again, news reports focused on China’s willingness to endorse sanctions without paying attention to the U.S. commitment to negotiations.

      Kirby, the State Department spokesman, improved that formulation on March 3: “We haven’t ruled out the possibility that there could sort of be some sort of parallel process here. But—and this is not a small ‘but’—there has to be denuclearization on the peninsula and work through the six-party process to get there.”13

      Many in Washington may question whether Beijing will enforce UN-mandated sanctions. By the same token, many in Beijing may wonder whether Washington will keep its commitment to negotiate.

      Focus on the Urgent

      North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test, its fourth, was nothing to disparage. Even if it was neither a hydrogen bomb nor a boosted energy device, the test likely advanced Pyongyang’s effort to develop a compact nuclear warhead that it can deliver by missile.

      That is not all. The North has restarted its reactor at Yongbyon, which is working fitfully to generate more plutonium. It also is moving to complete a new reactor and has expanded its uranium-enrichment capacity. It has paraded two new longer-range missiles, the Musudan and KN-08, which it has yet to test-launch, and it is developing its first solid-fueled missile, the short-range Toksa.

      That makes stopping the North’s nuclear and missile programs a matter of urgency. Doing so should take priority over eliminating the handful of nuclear weapons Pyongyang already has, however desirable that may be. Such a negotiating approach is also more likely to bear fruit, given Kim Jong Un’s goals.

      What Is in It for Kim?

      For nearly three decades, Pyongyang has sought to reconcile—end enmity—with Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo or, in the words of the 1994 Agreed Framework, “move toward full political and economic normalization.”14 To that end, it was prepared to suspend its weapons program or ramp it up if the other parties thwarted the reconciliation effort. Although North Korea’s nuclear and missile brinkmanship is well understood, it is often forgotten that, from 1991 to 2003, North Korea reprocessed no fissile material and conducted very few test launches of medium- or long-range missiles. It suspended its weapons programs again from 2007 to early 2009.

      U.S. negotiators need to probe whether an end to enmity remains Kim Jong Un’s aim. He is not motivated by economic desperation, as many in Seoul and Washington believe. On the contrary, his economy has been growing over the past decade. Yet, he has publicly staked his rule on improving his people’s standard of living, unlike his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il. To deliver on his pledge, he needs to divert investment from military production to civilian goods.

      That was the basis of his so-called byungjin, or “strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously under the prevailing situation,”15 meaning as long as U.S. “hostile policy” persists.

      To curb military spending, Kim needs a calm international environment. Failing that, he will strengthen his deterrent, reducing the need for greater spending on conventional forces—a Korean version of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s bigger bang for the buck.

      Pushback from the military on the budget may explain what prompted him to have his defense minister executed last spring.16 It may also account for Kim Jong Un’s exaggerated claims about testing an “H-bomb” in January. By crediting the party and the government, not the National Defense Commission, for the test, he was putting the military in its place.17 The role that nuclear weapons play in putting a cap on defense spending was explicit in his March 9 claim of a “miniaturized” warhead deliverable by missile, which he called “a firm guarantee for making a breakthrough in the drive for economic construction and improving the people’s standard of living on the basis of the powerful nuclear war deterrent.”18

      If Kim Jong Un still wants a fundamentally transformed relationship with his enemies or a calmer international climate in order to improve economic conditions in his country, a peace process is his way forward.

      Probing for Peace

      Testing whether North Korea means what it says about a peace process is also in the security interests of the United States and its allies, especially now that North Korea has nuclear weapons.

      North Korea’s March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in retaliation for the fatal November 2009 South Korean shooting up of a North Korean naval vessel in the contested waters of the West (Yellow) Sea showed that steps taken by each side to bolster deterrence can cause armed clashes. So did North Korea’s November 2010 artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island in reprisal for South Korea’s live-fire exercise. A peace process could reduce the risk of such clashes.

      Negotiating a peace treaty is a formidable task. To be politically meaningful, it would require normalization of diplomatic, social, and economic relations and rectification of land and sea borders, whether those borders are temporary, pending unification, or permanent. To be militarily meaningful, it would require changes in force postures and war plans that pose excessive risks of unintended war on each side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. That would mean, above all, redeployment of the North’s forward-deployed artillery and short-range missiles to the rear, putting Seoul out of range. Yet, to the extent Pyongyang would see that redeployment as weakening its deterrent against attack, it might be more determined to keep its nuclear arms.

      A peace treaty is unlikely without a more amicable political environment. One way to nurture that environment is a peace process, using a series of interim peace agreements as stepping stones to a treaty. Such agreements, with South Korea and the United States as signatories, would constitute token acknowledgment of Pyongyang’s sovereignty. In return, North Korea would have to take a reciprocal step by disabling and then dismantling its nuclear and missile production facilities.

      A first step could be a “peace declaration.” Signed by North Korea, South Korea, and the United States and perhaps China, Japan, and Russia, such a document would declare an end to enmity by reiterating the language of the October 12, 2000, U.S.-North Korean joint communiqué stating that “neither government would have hostile intent toward the other” and confirming “the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.” It could also commit the three parties to commence a peace process culminating in the signing of a peace treaty. The declaration could be issued at a meeting of the six foreign ministers.

      A second step long sought by Pyongyang is the establishment of a “peace mechanism” to replace the Military Armistice Commission set up to monitor the cease-fire at the end of the Korean War. This peace mechanism could serve as a venue for resolving disputes such as the 1994 North Korea downing of a U.S. reconnaissance helicopter that strayed across the DMZ or the 1996 incursion by a North Korean spy submarine that ran aground in South Korean waters while dropping off agents. The peace mechanism would include the United States and the two Koreas.

      The peace mechanism also could serve as the venue for negotiating a series of agreements on specific confidence-building measures, whether between the North and South, between the North and the United States, or among all three parties. A joint fishing area in the West Sea, as agreed in principle in the October 2007 North-South summit meeting, is one. Naval confidence-building measures such as “rules of the road” and a navy-to-navy hotline are also worth pursuing.

      Lacking satellite reconnaissance, North Korea has conducted surveillance by infiltrating agents into the South. An “open skies” agreement allowing reconnaissance flights across the DMZ by both sides might reduce that risk. In October 2000, Kim Jong Il offered to end exports, production, and deployment of medium- and longer-range missiles. In return, he wanted the United States to launch North Korean satellites, along with other compensation. A more far-reaching arrangement might be to set up a joint North-South watch center that could download real-time data from U.S. or Japanese reconnaissance satellites. It is unclear how much such confidence-building measures will reduce the risk of inadvertent war, but they would provide political reassurance of an end to enmity.

      A Starting Point

      Before the sides can get to a peace process, they need to take steps to rebuild some trust. For Washington, that means verifiable suspension of all of North Korea’s nuclear tests, missile and satellite launches, and fissile material production. For Pyongyang, that means an easing of what it calls U.S. “hostile policy,” starting with a toning-down of joint military exercises, partial relaxation of sanctions, and some commitment to initiating a peace process. Such reciprocal steps could lead to resumption of parallel negotiations among the six parties as envisioned in their September 2005 joint statement.

      If the two sides can avoid deadly clashes triggered by the current joint military exercises, they may get back to exploring the only realistic off-ramp from the current impasse: reciprocal steps to open the way to negotiations that would address denuclearization and a peace process in Korea. That, however, would require a change of heart in Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington. As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes, well you just might find/You get what you need.” 


      1.   “U.S. Rejected Peace Talks Before Last Nuclear Test,” Reuters, February 21, 2016.

      2.   Lee Je-hun, “Could Wang’s Two-Track Proposal Lead to a Breakthrough?” Hankyoreh, February 19, 2016.

      3.   U.S. Department of State, “Six-Party Talks, Beijing, China,” n.d., http://www.state.gov/p/eap/regional/c15455.htm (text of the joint statement of the fourth round of six-party talks on September 19, 2005).

      4.   Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), KCNA Report, January 10, 2015, www.kcna.co.jp/item2015/201501/news10/20150110-12ee.htm.

      5.   Marie Harf, transcript of U.S. Department of State daily briefing, January 12, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2015/01/235866.htm.

      6.   On the history of reneging by various parties, see Leon V. Sigal, “How to Bring North Korea Back Into the NPT,” in Nuclear Proliferation and International Order, ed. Olaf Njolstad (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 65-82.

      7.   “US: No Sign Yet NKorea Serious on Nuke Talks,” Associated Press, February 4, 2015.

      8.   Chang Jae-soon and Roh Hyo-dong, “U.S. Nuclear Envoy Willing to Hold Talks With N. Korea in Pyongyang,” Yonhap, September 19, 2015.

      9.   “N. Korea Accuses U.S. of ‘Nuclear Blackmail,’” Associated Press, November 4, 2015.

      10.   Chang Jae-soon, “Amb. Sung Kim: U.S. ‘Happy to Meet’ With N. Korean ‘Anytime, Anywhere,’” Yonhap, November 11, 2015.

      11.   Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State, North Korea-U.S., July 27, 1953, 4 U.S.T. 234.

      12.   U.S. Department of State, remarks of Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Washington, DC, February 23, 2016, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/02/253164.htm.

      13.    John Kirby, transcript of U.S. Department of State daily briefing, March 3, 2016, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/03/253948.htm.

      14.   Bureau of Arms Control, U.S. Department of State, “Agreed Framework Between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” October 21, 1994, http://2001-2009.state.gov/t/ac/rls/or/2004/31009.htm.

      15.   KCNA, “Report on Plenary Meeting of WPK Central Committee,” March 31, 2013, www.kcna.co.jp/item/201303/news31/20130331-24ee.htm.

      16.   “N. Korean Ex-Army Chief ‘Locked Horns With Technocrats,’” Chosun Ilbo, May 15, 2015, http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2015/05/15/2015051500971.html.

      17.   KCNA, “DPRK Proves Successful in H-Bomb Test,” January 6, 2016, www.kcna.co.jp/2016/201601/news06/20160106-12ee.htm; KCNA, “WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test,” January 6, 2016, www.kcna.co.jp/item/2016/201601/news06/20160106-11ee.htm.

      18.   KCNA, “Kim Jong-un Guides Work for Mounting Nuclear Warheads on Ballistic Rockets,” March 9, 2016, http://www.kcna.kp/kcna.user.special.getArticlePage.kcmsf;jsessionid=823D154834DB0E5032E668C39EDE74B3.

      Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea (1998). A portion of this article draws from a piece that appeared in the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability’s NAPSNet Policy Forum.

      The only realistic way out of the impasse over the North Korean nuclear program is reciprocal steps to open the way to negotiations that would address denuclearization in parallel with a peace process in Korea.


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