NTI Experts Discuss a Menu of Cooperative Threat Reduction Options for North Korea

This post was written by Margaret Miller, an intern with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Miller graduated from the College of William & Mary – University of St Andrews Joint Degree Programme and will begin graduate studies at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in the fall.

On June 19, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) hosted foreign diplomats, government officials, journalists, and members of the nonproliferation expert community for the release of Building Security Through Cooperation: Report of the NTI Working Group on Cooperative Threat Reduction with North Korea, co-authored by NTI Vice President for Global Nuclear Policy Program Lynn Rusten and NTI Senior Director for Fuel Cycle and Verification Richard Johnson. The report comes in the context of stalled diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula and heightened concerns about North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities.

The Report: Cooperation to Reduce WMD Risks in North Korea

Building Security Through Cooperation calls for incorporating lessons from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program following the break-up of the Soviet Union into today’s diplomacy with North Korea. The report recognizes that important differences exist with North Korea, but the model of CTR with former Soviet states offers a valuable precedent for how a cooperative approach can facilitate the safe and enduring dismantlement of WMD materials and facilities and prevent proliferation.

A similar approach with North Korea would build trust between DPRK and foreign scientists and open opportunities for redirecting infrastructure and technical experts to civilian purposes. Critically, a program modelled after CTR would work with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and involve key regional parties in the effort.

A Menu of Options for Security on the Korean Peninsula

At the report release, NTI Executive Vice President Deborah Rosenblum posed the question: “Could a CTR-like assistance program be an incentive in the negotiations with North Korea?” She noted that the report offered “a very creative approach to what will undoubtedly be a very daunting task” of dismantling WMD programs on the Korean Peninsula.

NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz spoke to the legacy of the late senator (and NTI Board member) Richard Lugar and his role in championing the CTR program alongside NTI Co-Chair Sam Nunn, who also was serving in the Senate when the Soviet Union dissolved. Moniz credited Lugar and Nunn with inspiring the formation of an NTI working group to determine whether a similar approach could be taken in North Korea. Moniz noted the need to move beyond the important symbolism of the 2018 Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and to have empowered negotiating envoys start hammering out the details of a verifiable agreement. Moniz acknowledged that North Korea has viewed WMD capabilities as central to its survival and emphasized the need for a “staged approach” that likely would begin with the cessation of fissile material production and lead to dismantlement of nuclear weapons at a later stage. 

Nunn explained that the report is “not a roadmap for diplomacy, but rather it’s a menu of options for Cooperative Threat Reduction” for leaders in the United States, North Korea, and other regional states to consider. While recognizing the differences between post-Soviet states and the DPRK, he emphasized three similarities that make CTR mutually beneficial:

1.      North Korea wants the negotiations to bring economic development, and CTR would provide assistance and help transition the economy.

2.     CTR would facilitate buy-in from technical personnel by treating them with respect and offering them opportunities to transition to peaceful and constructive employment.

3.     The North Korean people would potentially receive economic and health benefits.

Rusten explained that despite the fragile and uncertain state of negotiations, CTR concepts are relevant now for two reasons:

1.      The report’s recommendation that CTR should be integrated into the diplomatic process early, rather than introduced after a deal is reached.

2.     The United States (and other countries) should undertake necessary planning and preparation, including putting in place legislative authorities; planning for funding for a CTR-type program; developing policy guidance and delineating permitted areas for scientific cooperation with North Korea;  reviewing sanctions and laws that could inadvertently impede the provision of CTR assistance and preparing remedies;  inventorying technical and human resources that will be needed to implement CTR programs in North Korea; bolstering congressional and public support; and encouraging other countries to prepare to contribute to a CTR approach with North Korea. 

Johnson addressed “what would this [concept] actually look like in practice?” He reiterated that the “report does not assume any specific outcome of negotiations” with North Korea, but rather offers a menu of ideas relevant to a range of possible outcomes. However, he noted that “the likelihood of long-term, sustainable cooperation would be greater if the DPRK is allowed to maintain” even a small-scale civil nuclear program, because North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers could transition to peaceful employment.  Johnson gave specific examples of CTR projects such as the dilution and removal of weapons-grade fissile materials from North Korea in return for either low-enriched uranium fuel to be used for civil purposes in North Korea or for reuse in another country’s nuclear power reactors; as well as environmental remediation at locations and facilities where nuclear activities were conducted.  

Takeaways: Incorporate CTR into North Korean Dialogue Now, Not Later

Rusten expressed NTI’s desire that this report could “stimulate the U.S. government to continue thinking about incorporating [the CTR] concept in the negotiations;  North Korea to think about how it might benefit by this kind of approach; and other countries to think about how they could contribute.” The authors were clear-eyed, however, about the serious challenges that remain. Johnson explained that “a culture of secrecy in North Korea” continues to impair cooperation about verification measures, and it remains to be seen if negotiators can overcome this and many other barriers. 

Creative diplomacy will be critical to establishing a Korean Peninsula that is peaceful, prosperous, and free from the threat of WMDs. Nunn concluded that “CTR is not a magic bullet to solve all diplomatic challenges, but it can be a powerful tool for both diplomacy and for implementation.”

Download the full report here.

Watch video from the release event here.

June 24, 2019

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