"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Kelsey Davenport

Amid Rising Tensions, North, South Korea Exchange Threats

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

North and South Korea exchanged threats after the North Korean leader abandoned the goal of unifying the peninsula and labeled South Korea a hostile country. Despite the rising tensions, the Biden administration assesses that there is no immediate threat of a North Korean attack.

As tensions intensify between North Korea and South Korea, the North has been drawing closer to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on Oct. 19. (Photo by Russian FMA Telegram Channel/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)In December, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un forsook a long-standing policy of achieving unification with South Korea at some point in the indefinite future. (See ACT, January/February 2024.) As a result of the shift, Kim said on Feb. 8 that North Korea can legally “annihilate” South Korea now that it is defined as a “hostile country.”

He said North Korea has adopted a “national policy to occupy and pacify” South Korea “in case of emergency.” North Korea’s military advances and weapons development give the country the capability to implement that policy, he added.

South Korea still supports unification, but the administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol has threatened to respond to North Korean provocations and is taking steps to increase military readiness.

In a Jan. 13 speech, Yoon called the Kim regime “irrational” and said that a “sensible regime would give up nuclear weapons and find a way for its people to live.” He said that Kim’s comments and the country’s recent military drills “constitute a provocation and threat.”

Yoon also accused North Korea of conducting “psychological warfare and activities” against South Korea and said that South Korea expected provocations from North Korea, including at the border between the two countries, over the course of the year.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said during a Jan. 24 visit to an air force facility that the military must be prepared to respond to North Korea, including quickly eliminating the “enemy leadership” if Pyongyang decides to go to war.

Despite the rhetoric coming from Pyongyang and Seoul, the Biden administration dismissed suggestions that North Korea is preparing for war.

Jung Pak, the senior U.S. official for North Korea at the State Department, said in a press briefing on Feb. 15 that the United States does not see any signals of “an imminent or direct attack at this point.”

Pak said Kim’s posture has not fundamentally changed, despite the decision to abandon unification.

But North Korea is continuing to develop weapons systems that are more difficult to defend against and conducting live-fire exercises, including near the Northern Limit Line, the maritime boundary between North and South Korea.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said on Feb. 15 that North Korea’s testing of missiles “from various platforms” strengthens the country’s “surprise attack capabilities.”

In January, North Korea tested new missiles, including a solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile, a strategic cruise missile, and a submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM). The systems tested are more difficult to intercept using missile defenses and are nuclear capable, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The cruise missiles also give North Korea more launch options, which makes it more difficult to preemptively target the country’s systems.

The strategic cruise missile contributes to North Korea’s “rapid counterattack posture,” KCNA said in a Jan. 31 statement.

After the SLCM launch on Jan. 28, KCNA said that Kim oversaw the launch and emphasized that “nuclear weaponization of the navy is an urgent task” and a “core requirement for building the state nuclear strategic force.”

The intermediate-range ballistic missile, tested on Jan. 14, included a maneuverable reentry vehicle, which uses a technology that can be used to make the missile more challenging for missile defenses to shoot down.

KCNA said the test successfully verified “the gliding and maneuvering characteristics of intermediate-range hypersonic maneuverable controlled warhead and the reliability of newly developed multi-stage high-thrust solid-fuel engines.”

The North Korean missile test had “nothing to do with the regional situation,” KCNA reported.

Although the Biden administration assesses that North Korea’s missile advances and rhetoric are not signs of an imminent attack, Pranay Vaddi, the U.S. National Security Council senior director for arms control, warned that the “nature of North Korea as a threat in the region could drastically change over the coming decade.”

Vaddi, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 18, said that the “unprecedented level of cooperation in the military sphere” between Russia and North Korea could improve the North’s capabilities.

The United States and South Korea must continue to ensure that U.S. extended deterrence remains credible as the threat evolves, Vaddi said.

But the Biden administration sees no immediate threat of a North Korean attack. 

Russia Uses North Korean Missiles Against Ukraine

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States accused Russia of launching North Korean ballistic missiles at Ukrainian targets and warned that Pyongyang will benefit from seeing how the missiles perform.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) are shown meeting in September in the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East region amid talk of a weapons deal. The United States recently accused Russia of launching North Korean ballistic missiles at Ukrainian targets. (Photo by Vladimir Smirnov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)In a Jan. 4 press briefing, John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said that Russia attacked Ukraine using North Korean ballistic missiles with a range of about 900 kilometers on Dec. 30 and Jan. 2.

The White House said in October that North Korea transferred armaments to Russia in September in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, but it appears that the Dec. 30 attack was the first time Russia used North Korean ballistic missiles against Ukraine. (See ACT, November 2023.)

The United States and its partners will impose additional sanctions on entities that facilitate the transfers of weapons and will call public attention to the arms deals, Kirby said.

He did not reference a specific North Korean ballistic missile, but experts and Ukrainian officials say missile fragments suggest Russia is using the short-range Hwasong-11A. Ukraine also accused Russia of using two Hwasong-11A missiles in a Feb. 7 attack on Kharkiv.

At a UN Security Council meeting on Jan. 10, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia disputed the allegation and accused the United States of spreading “deliberately false information.”

During the meeting, South Korea, which joined the Security Council for a two-year term beginning in 2024, raised concerns about the knowledge North Korea will gain from providing the systems to Russia. Ambassador Hwang Joon-kook said the launches “provide valuable technical and military insights” and that Moscow’s use of the missiles will encourage Pyongyang to export missiles to other states to “rake in new revenue to further finance” its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Although the Security Council did not take action against Russia, more than 50 states signed a Jan. 9 statement condemning North Korea’s export of missiles to Russia. The states said the “transfer of these weapons increases the suffering of the Ukrainian people, supports Russia’s war of aggression, and undermines the global non-proliferation regime.”

The accusations of North Korean involvement came from the United States, which promised to respond by imposing additional sanctions.

Russia Bars Ukrainian Operators From Zaporizhzhia

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised concerns that Russia’s decision to cut staff at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is compromising nuclear safety and security.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (C), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on Feb. 7, a week after Russia announced that workers employed by Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear energy company, would no longer be allowed to work at the site. (Photo by Fredrik Dahl/IAEA)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the facility on Feb. 7, a week after Russia announced that workers employed by Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear energy company, would no longer be allowed to work at the site.

After Russia illegally attacked and occupied the Zaporizhzhia complex in March 2022 as part of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it brought in employees from Rosatom, the Russian state-run nuclear company, to operate the nuclear power plant and pressured Ukrainian employees to sign contracts with Rosatom. Until Feb. 1, 120 Energoatom employees were still working there. Following the announcement, Russia informed the IAEA that it had sufficient personnel to run the facility without the 120 Energoatom staffers. Russia said it was necessary to bar Energoatom employees from the site to operate the plant in line with Russian regulations.

After his visit, Grossi said the number of staff is “significantly reduced” from prewar levels and warned that even though the reactor units are in shutdown mode, “the plant still requires sufficient numbers of qualified personnel to conduct both operational tasks and to ensure that equipment important for nuclear safety and security is properly maintained.”

Prior to visiting the Zaporizhzhia plant, Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and various Ukrainian officials, including Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom. Grossi said his agency is working to “assess the operational impact of this [Russian] decision.” There is “absolutely no place for complacency” regarding the security and safety of the facility, he said.

In January, the IAEA team at the Zaporizhzhia complex notified the agency that Russia mined the area between the internal and external fences surrounding the site. Russia previously had placed landmines in that zone, but removed them in November 2023.

In a Jan. 19 statement, Grossi said the use of landmines is inconsistent with IAEA standards for nuclear safety.

Russia defended its decision in a Jan. 31 statement to the IAEA, saying that landmines “do not pose any threat to personnel” at the Zaporizhzhia plant and that their use “does not contradict any IAEA recommendations.”

Russia said that landmines are necessary “to deter potential saboteurs.” It argued that deterring sabotage “corresponds” to the five IAEA principles for ensuring the safety and security of the plant, specifically that all structures at the facility must be “protected from attacks or acts of sabotage.” Grossi introduced the five principles at a UN Security Council meeting in May 2023 and continues to reiterate their importance. (See ACT, June 2023.)

In addition to staffing and landmines, Grossi raised additional concerns about nuclear safety and security during a Jan. 25 briefing to the Security Council. He said that the IAEA expert team at the Zaporizhzhia site “has not had timely access to some areas of the plant” and stressed that access is necessary to “effectively conduct” assessments of safety and security.

After the Feb. 8 visit, Grossi emphasized that IAEA personnel must be able to ask questions about conditions at the site. He said that “there were situations where there were suggestions that [agency experts should] look but not talk.” Preventing questions “is not good,” Grossi said.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Russia’s decision to cut staff at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant compromises safety. 

IAEA Warns Iran About Lack of Transparency

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran’s failure to provide full transparency into its nuclear program is increasing risk, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appearing at the the World Government Summit in Dubai on Feb. 13, says Iran’s failure to provide full transparency into its nuclear program is increasing risk. (Photo by RYAN LIM/AFP via Getty Images)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on Feb. 13 that Iran is “not entirely transparent” regarding its nuclear activities, which “increases dangers,” particularly given the “accumulation of complexities” in the Middle East.

In addition to seeking answers about undeclared uranium activities at two sites from the pre-2003 period, when Iran had a nuclear weapons program, Iran is not providing the IAEA with design information about new nuclear facilities, as required by its safeguards agreement, or following through on a voluntary commitment in March 2023 to enhance agency monitoring at sites that support the country’s nuclear program but do not hold fissile materials.

Grossi, speaking at the World Governor’s Summit in Dubai, also referenced an uptick in “loose talk about nuclear weapons” in Iran and said a “very high official said…we have everything” to make a nuclear weapon.

Grossi’s remarks appeared to refer to a comment by Ali Akhbar Salehi, former foreign minister and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) from 2013 to 2020. Asked if Iran has the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a Feb. 11 interview with Nasim TV, Salehi said that the country has crossed “all the scientific and technological nuclear thresholds” necessary to build a weapon.

Salehi’s declaration that Iran has a nuclear weapons capability is not surprising. The U.S. intelligence community has long assessed that Iran has the technical and scientific capacity to build a nuclear weapon if the political decision is made to do so.

Iranian officials, including the current head of the AEOI, Mohammad Eslami, continue to say Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons. In a Jan. 13 interview with Ofogh TV, Eslami said that nuclear weapons are not part of Iran’s defense and security strategy. He said Iran can build a nuclear arsenal but “we do not want to do it.”

Regardless, clashes between the United States and Iranian-backed forces in the region increase the risk that Tehran could determine that the benefits of pursuing nuclear weapons outweigh the costs.

Iran’s nuclear advances since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May 2018 would allow Tehran to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for five bombs in about four weeks. U.S. officials have suggested that the weaponization process could take another six to 12 months.

The speed at which Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is due largely to Iran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, a level just shy of the 90 percent-enriched U-235 that is considered weapons grade.

The IAEA reported in December that Iran accelerated the production of 60 percent-enriched U-235 after a decrease in production from June through November. But in a Feb. 19 interview with Reuters, Grossi said Iran had again decreased the rate of production.

He said Iran’s recent changes to the rate of production of 60 percent-enriched U-235 “does not alter the fundamental trend,” which is a “constant increase in inventory” of highly enriched uranium.”

Iran does not have any practical need for uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235. The country’s sole operating nuclear power reactor, at Bushehr, runs on uranium enriched to less than 5 percent U-235, and Russia provides that fuel. Iran operates a research reactor with fuel that uses uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235, which Tehran imports.

Iran recently announced the start of construction on several new reactors but none of the units will require fuel with 60 percent-enriched U-235.

On Feb. 5, Eslami said Iran began pouring the foundation for a new research reactor at Esfahan that will be used to produce isotopes for medical treatments and industrial purposes.

The previous week, Iran began constructing a new nuclear power plant. The site, located on Iran’s east coast, will include four reactor units and take nine years to build, according to Eslami.

Iran did not notify the IAEA when it began construction of these facilities, as required under its safeguards agreement. Iran maintains that it suspended the safeguards provision, known as modified Code 3.1, that requires it to notify the agency when the decision is made to construct a new nuclear facility. Iran says it will abide by the previous requirements, which stipulate that a country must notify the IAEA 180 days before nuclear material is introduced into a facility.

The IAEA argues that Iran cannot unilaterally suspend modified Code 3.1. The agency changed the notification requirements to give inspectors a longer lead time to develop effective safeguards.

While in Davos for the World Economic Forum in January, Grossi emphasized the importance of Iran providing more transparency regarding its nuclear program. He also said it is “unacceptable” for Iran to “hold the IAEA hostage” over “political disputes with others.” Specifically, Grossi said Iran is punishing the agency because of actions taken by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States that Iran’s leaders consider to be objectionable.

He called for diplomacy to prevent the “situation deteriorating to a degree where it would be impossible to retrieve.”

Risks associated with Iran’s nuclear program are heightened by “complexities” in the Middle East, the IAEA chief said.

Global Partnership Identifies New Priorities

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Italy has identified new priorities for a multilateral initiative aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including a focus on the nexus between climate change and chemical security and counterproliferation financing.

Italy aims to stress chemical safety and security during its year chairing the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Dethlingen pond near Munster, Germany, a graveyard for World War II chemical weapons that is the focus of a multi-million dollar cleanup effort, reflects the challenges that exist in this area. (Photo by Philipp Schulze/picture alliance via Getty Images)As chair of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction for 2024, Italy is responsible for setting priorities for the 31-member initiative. The Global Partnership, which was established in 2002 by the Group of Eight industrialized countries, works to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

According to a January statement, Italy aims, during its presidency, to improve the “common understanding of well-known and emerging” WMD challenges among member states.

Specifically, Italy said it intends to “increase awareness on chemical safety and security” given the “huge impact of major adverse climate changes and natural disasters associated with the accidental release of chemical material.” Italy said the Global Partnership will focus on enhancing preparedness to respond to such events.

Italy also identified proliferation finance as a priority for 2024 and said it would look to build on domestic experience to “renew a strong commitment on counter-proliferation financing” and focus on countering states that use “a variety of illicit activity and sanction evasions schemes” to fund nuclear and missile programs.

Furthermore, the initiative will look at the impact of disinformation on policy responses in the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear domains, Italy said.

In addition to the new priorities, Italy said the Global Partnership will continue biosecurity work prioritized under Japan’s leadership in 2023, including efforts to “address emerging and ongoing biothreats by building capacities” in Africa, and will pay special attention to WMD risk reduction efforts in Ukraine. (See ACT, January/February 2024.)

One of the mechanisms that the Global Partnership uses to achieve its goals is a match-making process that pairs states with funds and expertise with recipients looking to implement projects that align with the initiative’s mission.

In 2023, Global Partnership members provided funding and expertise for 319 projects across 96 states, according to an activity report released by Japan.

In addition to promoting biosecurity projects in Africa and WMD risk reduction in Ukraine, Japan prioritized the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to implement measures to prevent WMD proliferation to nonstate actors.

According to the report, projects funded in Ukraine included a multiyear project to bolster public health and crisis response capabilities in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear incident. Other projects related to Ukraine focused on providing expertise and funding for nuclear security, including rebuilding security at the former Chernobyl nuclear plant and strengthening the security of radioactive sources.

In the biosecurity space, Japan reported “meaningful progress” in all areas of the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa, including projects aimed at “strengthening international capacities to prevent, detect and respond to deliberate biological threats.”

Consistent with Resolution 1540, the Global Partnership’s members provided “extensive support” to states and regional organizations aimed at strengthening capacities to “prevent, detect, and respond to [WMD] terrorism.” For example, Mexico partnered with Chile and Brazil to conduct a trilateral peer review of national legal frameworks for implementing the resolution.

Global Partnership member states also supported projects to mitigate WMD threats beyond the specific priorities articulated by Japan.

The report noted several projects aimed at building capacity to implement UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea and to prevent the reemergence of chemical weapons in Syria.

Italy has new aims for an initiative to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Enhancing Nuclear Transparency in Iran Could Help Prevent a Wider War

As U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias clash in the Middle East, there is a growing risk that another dangerous flash point could ignite conflict between Tehran and Washington: Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Iran is already on the threshold of nuclear weapons six years on from U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral arrangement that had, to that point, successfully contained its nuclear program. Escalating regional tensions could push Tehran to determine it needs a nuclear deterrent for security or the United States to miscalculate Iran’s intentions and prematurely use military force...

IAEA Head Calls for Diplomacy with Iran as Nuclear Activities Advance

The P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reiterated concerns about Iran’s advancing nuclear program and called for diplomacy with Tehran. During the Jan. 15-19 World Economic Forum in Davos, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Iran is “restricting cooperation in a very unprecedented way” and is punishing the agency for actions taken by the United States and European countries. He said it is “unacceptable” for the IAEA to be held “hostage” to Iran’s “political disputes with others.” Grossi emphasized that diplomacy is necessary...

North Korea Ends Inter-Korean Military Agreement

January/February 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

The tenuous relationship between North and South Korea deteriorated further after Seoul announced its intention to suspend part of a joint military agreement in response to Pyongyang’s illegal launch of a satellite in November. North Korea responded by terminating its participation entirely. It later announced that unification with South Korea is no longer a viable policy goal.

A TV at Yongsan Railway Station in Seoul shows a Hwasong-18 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that was launched by North Korea on Dec. 18. It is among the recent provocative acts that are fueling tensions on the Korean peninsula. (Photo by KIM Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)South Korea announced on Nov. 22 that it will no longer abide by a no-fly zone established over the border area between the two Koreas in the Comprehensive Military Agreement. That agreement, concluded in September 2018 between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, also contains restrictions on guard posts and live-fire exercises near the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.

The move by South Korea to rescind the no-fly zone component of the agreement in response to the satellite launch does not come as a surprise. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik repeatedly has raised concerns about the agreement limiting South Korea’s ability to conduct surveillance and threatened to withdraw if North Korea launched a satellite.

Later on Nov. 22, North Korea’s Central Military Commission responded to the South Korean announcement, saying that, “from now on [North Korea] will never be bound” by the 2018 agreement. The commission said that North Korea will “immediately restore all military measures” that were halted by the agreement.

The commission blamed the collapse of the agreement and heightened tensions on South Korea, saying Seoul is creating the “most dangerous situation” and will be “wholly accountable” if conflict breaks out between the two countries.

Since Nov. 22, the two sides have redeployed additional soldiers along the demarcation line and taken steps to restore guard posts that were not in use under the agreement.

Although not directly referencing the agreement, Moon appeared to criticize the current South Korean government for revoking the agreement and its hard-line approach. In a Dec. 10 post on Facebook, Moon said that “abandoning agreements” and dialogue has “only hastened the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”

In addition to withdrawing from the miltiary agreement, Kim suggested that unification of the Korean peninsula is “impossible,” departing from a long-standing policy goal of uniting the two countries. In remarks on Dec. 31, he said that “reunification can never be achieved,” given South Korea’s goal of absorbing North Korea into its democracy, and that the two countries are no longer “homogenous.”

Kim Yung-ho, the South Korean minister of unification, disputed the claim that unification is impossible. In a Jan. 1 speech, he said that Seoul will work to establish a “master plan” for unification and warned that Kim Jong Un is trying to “suppress” South Korea.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un announced further plans to accelerate the production of nuclear warheads and launch an additional three surveillance satellites in 2024. Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea started operating a nuclear reactor in late 2023 that would provide additional fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Dec. 21 that the agency observed signs consistent with commissioning what may be a light-water reactor at the Yongbyong nuclear complex.

North Korea justified its military actions and nuclear expansion as a necessary response to the United States.

During a UN Security Council meeting on Nov. 27, Kim Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that it is North Korea’s “legitimate right…to develop, test, manufacture, and possess weapons systems equivalent to those that the United States already possess.”

The Security Council meeting was convened to discuss North Korea’s Nov. 21 satellite launch. Pyongyang is prohibited from launching satellites under council resolutions because the rockets utilize technologies common in ballistic missiles.

Kim said that the sanctions are “illegal and unlawful” and it is necessary for North Korea to pursue satellites to “get a clear picture of the dire military moves” of the United States.

The Security Council did not take any formal action to respond to North Korea’s activities due to continued resistance from Russia and China.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield asked the council “how many more times” it must gather in response to illegal North Korean activities before China and Russia “join us in demanding [that North Korea] abandon its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”

During the meeting, Russia denied accusations that it provided North Korea with any technical military assistance.

Anna Evstigneeva, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, called the allegations “groundless” during the council meeting and said that attempts to “vilify” Russia reflect a desire to “divert” the council’s attention from “the United States’ ambitions to strangle Pyongyang at any cost.”

She said that Russia “does not support steps by either side that run counter to the objectives of establishing long-term peace in the region…[but that it] does not come as a surprise” that North Korea would take steps in the “interests of self-defense.”

Thomas-Greenfield disputed the idea that North Korea is reacting to U.S. military activities. She said Pyongyang is “unabashedly trying to advance its nuclear weapons delivery systems by testing ballistic missile technology” and warned that the “reckless, unlawful behavior” is a threat. She reiterated the Biden administration’s “call for dialogue on any topic” with North Korea.

As the United States urges dialogue with North Korea, it continues to take steps to strengthen its alliance with South Korea. The two countries met on Dec. 15 for a second meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group, which was announced when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met with U.S. President Joe Biden in April. (See ACT, May 2023.)

In a joint statement following the Dec. 15 meeting, the United States and South Korea reiterated that “any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime.”

The Dec. 16 statement noted that U.S. and South Korean officials acknowledged that “nuclear deterrence cooperation deepened” through the Nuclear Consultative Group process. It said that the United States and South Korea “reviewed the enhanced visibility of strategic assets to bolster extended deterrence” and discussed “future plans to demonstrate a strengthening of deterrence.”

In a Dec. 17 statement published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, a spokesperson from the North Korean Defense Ministry described the work of the Nuclear Consultative Group as “an open declaration on nuclear confrontation.”

The spokesperson accused South Korea and the United States of “maximizing the tension in and around the Korean peninsula with hostile and provocative acts” against North Korea and said the move “pressurizes our armed forces to opt for more offensive countermeasure[s].”

The following day, North Korea tested what appears to be a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on a lofted trajectory from near Pyongyang. North Korea last tested an ICBM in July.


The tenuous relationship between North and South Korea deteriorated further after Pyongyang’s illegal launch of a satellite in November.

Iran Accelerates Highly Enriched Uranium Production

January/February 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran accelerated its production of uranium enriched to near-weapons grade levels in November, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, seen attending a meeting in Moscow, said in a Dec. 9 speech that the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is becoming “useless.”  (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu via Getty Images)In a Dec. 26 report, the IAEA noted that Iran is now producing approximately nine kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 per month. Iran was producing 60 percent enriched U-235 at a similar rate in early 2023, but decreased production by about two-thirds in June. (See ACT, October 2023.)

Accelerating the production of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 is concerning because the material can be quickly enriched to weapons-grade levels or 90 percent.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States condemned Iran’s decision in a Dec. 28 statement and described it as a “backwards step” that demonstrates Tehran’s “lack of good will” toward deescalation. The statement said that Iran’s actions “represent reckless behavior in a tense regional context” and urged Tehran to “immediately reverse these steps.”

Mohammad Elsami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, dismissed the IAEA report as propaganda. The increase in enrichment of uranium to 60 percent U-235 comes amid mixed signals from Tehran regarding its interest in nuclear diplomacy and restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a Dec. 9 speech that the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is becoming “useless.” The United States and Iran are “not currently on the path to return” to the nuclear deal, he said, but Iran would consider restoring the accord if it “serves our interest.”

The comments appear to suggest a subtle shift in Iranian messaging regarding the JCPOA. Iran publicly continued to support restoring the accord long after the United States signaled that returning to the nuclear deal is no longer a U.S. priority.

Kurt Campbell, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, reaffirmed the U.S. position before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 7. Campbell, the Biden administration’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, said that the nuclear deal is “just not on the table” in the current environment.

It is unclear how the United States intends to respond to Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Iran took limited steps to slow certain nuclear activities in the second half of 2023, but the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza appear to have put discussions on further deescalatory measures on hold. (See ACT, October 2023.)

The Biden administration continues to enforce sanctions against Iran, but it is more challenging now for the United States to garner international support than it was in the period leading up to the JCPOA, when Washington, Beijing, and Moscow were aligned on pressing Tehran to negotiate.

Elsami said that sanctions have failed to halt the country’s nuclear program. In a Dec. 15 speech, he said that Iran will continue to invest in expanding its nuclear energy activities.

Tehran also is strengthening ties with Moscow and supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met on Dec. 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that Russia “gained good momentum over the past year” thanks to the support of Iran.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran of “deliberately supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine” and knowingly transferring drones for use against Ukrainian civilians.

The three states made the accusation during a UN Security Council meeting on Dec. 18 to discuss the UN secretary-general’s biannual report on implementation of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and modified UN sanctions on Iran.

They described Iran’s “continued and long-lasting contempt” for Resolution 2231 and urged Tehran to “cease its reckless proliferative activities in the region and beyond.”

The UN missile restrictions in the resolution expired in October, but the three states referred to evidence that Iran transferred missiles, drones, and related technologies without Security Council approval prior to that date. (See ACT, November 2023.)

During the Dec. 18 meeting, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, denied that Moscow received military assistance from Iran in violation of Resolution 2231. He said “there were not and could not be any deliveries to circumvent” the resolution.

Nebenzia also disputed that the UN Secretariat has the authority to investigate and attribute violations of the resolution and blamed the United States and Europe for the current nuclear crisis.

The United States and the European parties to the JCPOA “bear the key responsibility for the failure to implement the nuclear deal,” he said. Nebenzia added that Russia “remains convinced there are no alternatives” to the 2015 nuclear deal and expects “Western countries to abandon their policy of unilateral restrictions” against Iran.

In a report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran is now producing approximately nine kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 per month.

Global Partnership Reaffirms Support for Ukraine

January/February 2024

A multilateral group of countries pledged to continue efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support efforts in Ukraine to mitigate the threat posed by those weapons.

Participants from 15 of the 30 member states of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction attended the Nov. 9-10 meeting in Nagasaki. The Global Partnership, an initiative of the Group of Seven industrialized countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States), was founded in 2002 to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons and related materials.

In a statement opening the meeting, Takei Shunsuke, Japan’s state minister for foreign affairs, said the work of the Global Partnership “has become increasingly important” in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic and “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” which “caused concerns over nuclear safety and security” at power plants.

When Japan took over as chair of the Global Partnership for 2023, it identified support for counterproliferation efforts in Ukraine as a key priority.

According to a Nov. 10 press release, the countries “made statements on [their] own initiatives under the Global Partnership and…exchanged their opinions on [counterproliferation] support to Ukraine in light of Russia's aggression.”

Participants also discussed funding for projects under the initiative’s match-making process. The process provides a forum for states with funds and expertise to connect with recipients looking to implement projects that align with the initiative’s mission.

The meeting included technical discussions among members of the four working groups: biosecurity, chemical security, nuclear and radiological security, and counterproliferation.

Italy will chair the Global Partnership in 2024.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Global Partnership Reaffirms Support for Ukraine


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