North Korea and Iran: Test Cases for an Improved Nonproliferation Regime?

Joseph Cirincione and Jon B. Wolfsthal

If Iran and North Korea acquire nuclear arsenals, their weapons will present obvious and direct dangers to the United States, its troops, its allies, and regional and global stability. Yet, the current standoffs with Tehran and Pyongyang also represent an opportunity—a chance to fill in important gaps in the nonproliferation regime. Taking advantage of this opportunity will require near-term fixes to deal with Tehran and Pyongyang and longer-term solutions to prevent other states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) from following similar paths. But by doing so, the Bush administration can chart a course that will lead to enhanced security in the 21st century.

The most promising way to keep North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the effective, forceful, and determined use of the full range of nonproliferation tools, ranging from diplomacy to the threat of international sanctions and use of force. The norm of nonproliferation remains strong if not absolute, and the use of traditional nonproliferation approaches that have stood the test of time remain viable for addressing these current crises. Moreover, several of the motivations both states have to pursue nuclear weapons can be affected by concerted action by the United States and its allies. Although Washington may not hold all the cards, the means to affect the security of both states for better or for worse exist and can be applied to moderate their interest in going nuclear.

Still, the type of nuclear challenge posed by these two states has not been nor is likely to be fully prevented over the long term using only existing nonproliferation-regime mechanisms. This requires initiatives that go beyond the regime as currently defined. The two cases, aside from their immediate impact, shed new light on long-standing gaps within the regime.

Article IV: A Gap in the Regime?

Chief among these is that the NPT permits non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire technology that can create both the ingredients for nuclear weapons, namely highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and the lower-grade fuels needed for civilian nuclear reactors. As a condition, the NPT requires that any produced or processed uranium or plutonium, regardless of quality, be accounted for and placed under “safeguards,” that is, subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This system is supposed to serve as an alarm system but cannot and was never intended to physically prevent misuse of material.

Indeed, the NPT explicitly seeks to make such technology available to non-nuclear-weapon states. The preamble to the NPT affirms that “the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology…should be available for peaceful purposes to all Parties of the Treaty.” Article IV of the NPT describes this as an “inalienable right” to all nuclear fuel-cycle technologies including “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information.” Article IV was an essential provision in the “Grand Bargain” that convinced key non-nuclear-weapon states to accept the nuclear constraints of the NPT and has helped foster the near universal acceptance of the pact.

Yet, by allowing non-nuclear-weapon states to import nuclear technologies that can be used to build nuclear weapons, the NPT (and its predecessor, the “Atoms for Peace Program” [see page 26]), Article IV has also made it possible for states to use peaceful nuclear programs as a cover for weapons programs. North Korea’s and Iran’s misuse of these provisions, in particular, threatens to undercut the viability of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the entire system of international nuclear commerce. Is this a permanent state of affairs? Can sovereign states possess or pursue facilities that by their nature inherently present a threat to the security interests of their neighbors? Under what conditions can such facilities be made benign or less threatening? As the United States and its allies move to reinforce the regime and adapt it to the new insecurities of this era, these are only a few of the fundamental questions that must be addressed.

Some States Are More Equal than Others

Clearly, all states are not equal when we examine the potential security risk they might pose in possessing such facilities. Nuclear-weapon states that operate commercial enrichment or reprocessing facilities represent the lowest category of concern, as long as they maintain facility and material security at high international standards. A country with a nuclear weapons infrastructure has little or no incentive to appropriate safeguarded materials.

On the other hand, non-nuclear-weapon states with uranium-enrichment or plutonium-production and extraction capabilities represent at least a potential concern. Yet, context matters. States with potential incentives to acquire nuclear weapons, due to their location, regional instability, or leadership, present a greater concern than states fully integrated into the international political, diplomatic, and economic systems. Iran and North Korea clearly fit into the highest category of concern, just as Japan, Belgium, and Germany are a lesser worry.

Still, even “safe” states present more concern than states without any means of nuclear material production. Japan’s pursuit of an independent nuclear energy supply in the 1970s, for example, began a long-running debate between advocates and opponents of plutonium reprocessing, focused on concerns that Japan was either secretly interested in building nuclear weapons or at least had the potential for doing so by creating a plutonium-based fuel economy. These fears lay dormant for many years but have been recently revived by concern that North Korea’s nuclear weapons drive could prompt a reciprocal move from Japan. East Asia also has the examples of previous attempts by Taiwan and South Korea to misuse research reactors for weapons purposes—efforts that the United States clamped down on bilaterally but that left the systemic gaps in the nonproliferation regime unaddressed.

Fixing the Problems in Article IV

Although the seeds of the conflict are built into the NPT itself, changes to that agreement are not the answer. Amending the NPT would be impractical and inadvisable, but other mechanisms can and should be developed to reduce national control over materials and facilities that can be used to advance nuclear weapons capabilities. At least two areas of promising efforts exist: internationalization of the fuel cycle and fuel supply, and management guarantees.

The basic proliferation problem is not the construction and operation of a nuclear power reactor. It is what goes in and what comes out of the reactors that pose the challenge. Countries that build facilities for enriching uranium to the point needed for reactor fuel can also use those same machines and techniques to continue enriching the uranium to the point where it can be used for nuclear weapons. The plutonium-bearing spent fuel can be chemically treated, or reprocessed, to separate plutonium from unwanted radioactive waste by-products. The resulting plutonium can be used in reactors or in nuclear weapons.

Obviously, the greatest barrier to the misuse of enrichment or reprocessing facilities is for them not to exist in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, the greatest risk of misuse comes when these capabilities are built by states that have a track record of noncompliance with IAEA safeguards or have strong incentives to acquire nuclear weapons. There are, however, some interesting possibilities for a middle ground. Facilities can be operated and controlled in a way that makes misuse impractical or politically unattractive.

Alternative Fuel-Cycle Arrangements

One potentially useful model could be private enrichment or reprocessing facilities under multilateral or international control. For example, the enrichment company Urenco has capabilities owned jointly by Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Although the company’s enrichment facilities are able to produce weapons-grade uranium, actually doing so would require the acquiescence of three countries or the seizure of existing plants by national authorities in one of the three countries. Such highly observable events would not only draw attention but provoke such sharp national and international reactions that they significantly raise the cost to taking such action. Such multilateral control does not constitute a guarantee; nonetheless, the deterrent effect of such institutional barriers may be useful if applied to facilities in some other places. Japan’s facilities present a potentially attractive candidate for such measures.

More generally, in an October interview with Arms Control Today, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei suggested the “multilateralization of the fuel cycle.” A possible new protocol to the NPT, he said, could continue to guarantee access to nuclear technology for health, agriculture, medicine, and reactors but “would restrict the parts of the fuel cycle that create the most concern, and these are, in my view, the reprocessing and enrichment and also, possibly, a final repository where you have spent fuel with plutonium in it.”

Another approach is market based. Increased attention is now being paid to the idea of trying to create viable commercial and political alternatives to national fuel-cycle facilities for states willing to abandon domestic enrichment and reprocessing programs. One such option is guaranteed access to fresh-fuel and spent-fuel management at prices cheaper than any one nation could match. Such arrangements could go beyond simple commercial contracts and provide a broader international promise of access to supplies of fresh fuel for reactors and of management of irradiated materials.

Arrangements that pooled potential suppliers would carry greater weight and be more attractive to customers concerned about reliability of supply. Joint Russian, European, and U.S. commitments to provide fuel services would require prior development of a political and commercial consensus, but these too would need to be placed in a form that gave the client confidence in their durability. No guarantees are absolute, and the challenge is to develop a formula that gives both sides confidence that the underlying bargain—access to nuclear fuel services for abandonment of the domestic capability to produce weapons-usable materials—can be sustained.

In one model, the IAEA could act as an intermediate supplier, with material sold to it by enriching states as provided under the IAEA statute. A less complex (but by no means simple) arrangement would see the IAEA act as an auctioneer of fuel services to states, helping to ensure competitive pricing for recipient states. The IAEA could even glean much needed resources by taking a commission on sales. At present, such schemes only exist on paper. Many questions remain unanswered. It is not clear how states giving up the Article IV rights to fuel-cycle facilities would codify these commitments. Would a supplemental treaty be required or desirable? Could any of the states pull out for unrelated reasons? How would such agreements be verified? If potential violations are uncovered or alleged, could the guarantees be rescinded?

These are important long-term questions that require careful study and serious debate. In the more immediate future, however, the nuclear-weapon states, especially the United States, need to deal with North Korea’s and Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons. In doing so, a balance must be maintained between immediate resolution of nonproliferation challenges and preservation and strengthening of the regime for the future. In dealing with Iran, for now there appears to be some room to maneuver, thanks to U.S. pressure and an agreement negotiated between European foreign ministers and their Iranian counterparts in October (See ACT, November 2003). In North Korea, with a repeated record of violating treaties and promises, the only solutions may rest in complete nuclear abstinence, at least until the nature of the regime, if not the regime itself, changes. Below is a broad outline of how these new concepts and arrangements could be applied to the twin crises.

Dealing with Iran and North Korea

Resolving Iran

The goal in Iran is to prevent that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. An Iranian nuclear program could soon be matched by similar programs in other Middle Eastern states, possibly including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya; and Israel would almost certainly accelerate the modernization of its nuclear deterrent. The misuse of the NPT and a new, even regional, nuclear arms race would cripple nuclear commerce globally and shatter the regime from within, forcing dozens of states to question the value and future of the agreement that has helped keep the number of nuclear-weapon states down to single digits.

Iran’s clear violations of its safeguards obligations also mean that in the future Tehran must not be permitted the means to produce weapons-usable uranium or plutonium. Otherwise, such assets would give Iran the ability at some point in the future to leave the NPT and deploy nuclear weapons. In order to obtain Iranian acquiescence to these restrictions, which go well beyond Tehran’s NPT commitments, the United States and its allies should be willing to offer Iran appropriate alternatives. In particular, offering Iran a commercially viable method of acquiring fresh fuel for its nuclear reactors and removing and disposing of the spent fuel would be a powerful lure. Russia’s plans to supply fresh fuel for Iran’s Bushehr reactor as long as Tehran guarantees that it will return any spent fuel is an appropriate example. In exchange, Iran should be required to verifiably and legally abandon its rights to develop and operate facilities to enrich uranium and produce and separate plutonium.

Developing such a plan would have several benefits. First, it would undercut the economic and energy security argument used by Iran to justify these destabilizing programs. A decision by Iran to pursue such a proposal, backed by effective verification, would begin building trust between Iran and the rest of the world, which in the end is the only way to head off long-term nuclear ambitions in Iran. Rejection of a viable plan along these lines would then lay bare Iran’s underlying ambitions to acquire advanced nuclear capabilities, allowing the international community to pursue alternatives means, which may include a mix of punitive and positive measures.

If Iran is going to remain a non-nuclear-weapon state or, at the very least, abandon the most critical facilities needed to acquire nuclear materials, it must make the decision to do so from within. There are signs that Iran is moving in this direction. Although trust remains justifiably low in Washington and European capitals, Iran’s initial steps to deepen cooperation with the IAEA and to disclose all past nuclear activities are promising.

Still, in order to enhance confidence that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, the United States, Europe, and Russia must press Tehran to abandon all uranium-enrichment activities, including operation and construction of pilot or commercial facilities; uranium conversion; and research, development, and construction of centrifuges and other enrichment methods. In addition, Iran must give up plans to build a proliferation-sensitive heavy-water reactor and other plutonium-production and extraction facilities. The initiative undertaken by the European foreign ministers is a promising step in this direction. In that accord, Iran pledged to sign agreements to make it easier for the agency to carry out wide-ranging inspections on its territory. Tehran also agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Still, it is clear that the nuclear question is only one part of the long-standing problems between the United States and Iran. Historical issues aside, Tehran’s human rights record, its continued support for terrorist groups, and its opposition to the Middle East peace process make improvements in direct ties difficult. Moreover, the process of political reform in Iran and the special role that policies toward the United States play in Iranian politics complicates any broad efforts to improve the relationship. Oddly, it appears that the nuclear issue—among the most sensitive imaginable—holds out the prospects for near-term progress that could allow the two sides to build something broader in the near future.

Dealing with North Korea

In many ways, the situation in North Korea is more dangerous, immediate, and complex. However, the range of possible solutions is easier to define and determine. That North Korea is capable of building nuclear weapons is no longer in doubt, even though claims (by either the United States or North Korea) regarding its nuclear capabilities should be viewed with some skepticism. What remains in doubt and what must be addressed if any efforts to end Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are to be successful is the desire and willingness of North Korea to negotiate a verifiable end to its nuclear weapons program. Despite more than 10 years of direct and indirect negotiations, threats, confrontations, and analysis, the United States still does not know with any certainty the answer to the question: Will North Korea eliminate all of its nuclear facilities and give up all of its nuclear materials under effective international inspection if the terms are right?

There is clear and compelling evidence to support speculation on both sides, but neither case is conclusive. Yes, North Korea cheated on its 1994 agreement with the United States to freeze its nuclear activities, but it is equally true that the United States had abandoned its efforts to normalize relations and improve ties with the North. The debate is not whether North Korea can be trusted; it clearly cannot. The questions that need to be answered are whether Pyongyang can be motivated truly to abandon its nuclear program and, if not, what outside states can do about it.

When North Korea’s nuclear program was still in its infancy, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and others could afford to wait to answer these questions. Now that the North’s program is coming of age, they cannot. In a worst-case scenario, North Korea could produce more than 100 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. Such an arsenal not only threatens U.S. allies and troops in the region, but given North Korea’s economic strains, it is conceivable that it could be motivated to sell nuclear materials to other states or even terrorist groups if the price is right. Such a scenario is so grave that U.S. policymakers could soon face a truly appalling choice between accepting its realization or plunging into a full-fledged war on the Korean peninsula. By comparison, many negotiated settlements—no matter how distasteful—become attractive.

It is time for the United States to get serious about negotiations with the North. President George W. Bush’s October statement that he is willing to consider some form of security guarantees for North Korea was a positive step. There is enough collective experience in the United States after 10 years of efforts to know how the North negotiates and how to make progress. At a minimum, it takes time and a complex mixture of resolve and open respect for the negotiations themselves. Any mixed messages, public or otherwise, can quickly derail progress and undercut efforts at negotiations.

To test whether North Korea is prepared to eliminate its program under effective verification, the United States needs to:

· Establish a full-time and ongoing negotiating mechanism based on the six-party talks. They should be continuous, or close to it, and work to establish a fixed timeline for conclusion.
· Appoint higher-level representation for the talks, including a presidentially appointed envoy. This person must be fully committed to the negotiations and prepared and empowered to make serious progress.
· Ensure continued presidential engagement with the negotiating process and effectively impose a coordinated position in the administration (no loose statements or diatribes).
· Create a coordinated position among itself, Japan, and South Korea. The lack of a common position within the six-party talks is a major reason for its lack of progress.
· Continue to encourage Chinese engagement, with the awareness of the limits of Chinese influence over North Korea.

Lastly, the United States needs to determine what it is prepared to offer North Korea if that country is willing to terminate its nuclear program and eliminate, under effective verification, its nuclear capability. This can involve a broad mix of political, diplomatic, economic, and symbolic steps including establishment of diplomatic relations and the provision of considerable agricultural assistance. Moreover, as many have suggested, the United States should be prepared to offer more to North Korea than it did under the 1994 Agreed Framework as long as Pyongyang also agrees to do more. The nuclear issue is so pressing, however, that it should not become hostage to issues related to ballistic missiles, conventional force deployments, chemical and biological weapon programs, and human rights. The United States should work to resolve those issues but only once the nuclear question is answered.

To date, President Bush has moved from a wholesale rejection of negotiations with the North to the verge of a new set of real talks. To make progress, he must take the next step: test North Korea directly and conclusively. If a positive result materializes, the president must be willing to invest his personal prestige domestically and abroad to make and sell a deal with the North. If the result is negative, having tried the alternative, punitive options will remain viable, and broader support for confronting North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons may materialize.


In the 1960 presidential debates, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) warned that, if the United States did not change its policy, there would soon be dozens of nuclear states instead of the four that then existed. Fortunately for America, Kennedy did change government policy and started the process that led to the negotiations for the NPT. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon finished the treaty and brought into being a system that, through the cooperative work of liberals and conservatives, large nations and small, has effectively proscribed, though not completely stopped, the spread of nuclear weapons ever since. It is under a greater strain than ever before, both internally and externally. Yet, 43 years later, we have eight known nuclear-weapon states, not 20. The criticisms, justified and not, should not be allowed to overshadow this seminal success. Even as we reach to build new nonproliferation frameworks, officials have to take great care not to burn the bridges on which we now stand.

Forceful diplomacy utilizing and expanding the treaty regime has put solutions to the Iranian and North Korean crises within reach. They have also pointed the way toward a broader nonproliferation regime that can help maintain global security well into the 21st century. Doing so will require political will and the courage to lead. It is still possible, as Kennedy said, to abolish the weapons of war before they abolish us.

Joseph Cirincione is director and Jon B. Wolfsthal is deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They are authors of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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