Cooperative Threat Reduction Could Advance North Korean Denuclearization

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Negotiations leading to a comprehensive, verifiable, and enduring denuclearization of North Korea should include an offer to Pyongyang of a Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, according to a report released today by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).  Such a program would facilitate dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and other WMD programs and incentivize the DPRK by providing technical and economic assistance, both on denuclearization and on redirecting military activities toward civilian economic development.

Building Security Through Cooperation: Report of the NTI Working Group on Cooperative Threat Reduction with North Korea offers lessons from the CTR approach taken with former Soviet states following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It provides recommendations for how a similar program could offer technical and financial assistance to help North Korea implement specific commitments toward denuclearization and engage the scientists and engineers who now make weapons of mass destruction in peaceful scientific and technical work. Such a program would be enhanced by the involvement of key regional parties—China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia—and other countries to aid North Korea’s longer-term economic development and integration into the international community.

This concept for North Korea is inspired by the successful program championed by NTI Co-Chair Sam Nunn and the late Richard Lugar when they were serving together in the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s. The Nunn-Lugar CTR program ultimately resulted in the destruction and dismantlement of thousands of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction from the former Soviet Union and prevented the proliferation of weapons and know-how to other countries or terrorists.

In 2018, with the diplomatic opening between President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, Nunn and Lugar outlined the broad strokes of such an approach in a Washington Post op-ed. NTI then convened a working group of experts to explore further how a CTR-like program could be applied to North Korea, taking into account the significant differences between the situation with North Korea today and that of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

“North Korea’s economic future depends on a major transition toward non-military investment,” said Nunn. “This can only happen through verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This report provides a menu of options designed to help bring peace and stability to the most militarized region on the planet. The key word in this concept is ‘cooperative.’ It must be done with North Korea—not to North Korea. It must provide benefits to all parties and it must reduce the grave danger on the Korean Peninsula.” 

Among the areas addressed by the report are the elimination of nuclear weapons and materials, missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as dismantlement or conversion of production facilities, peaceful scientific cooperation, environmental remediation and humanitarian and health assistance. The report’s ideas are designed to advance the security interests of the United States and South Korea, other regional parties, and North Korea, as well as North Korea’s economic goals.

In making the recommendations, the working group was clear-eyed about the challenges. “That the North Korean nuclear program has resisted 25 years of diplomatic processes designed to address it should keep us humble as we present these recommendations,” NTI Co-chair and CEO Ernest Moniz said. “But that history should not deter policymakers from pursuing creative ways forward today.”

Watch the video of the launch event here.

About the Nuclear Threat Initiative

The Nuclear Threat Initiative protects lives, the environment, and our quality of life now and for future generations. Every day, we work to prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption—nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical and cyber.