"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
July/August 2021
Edition Date: 
Thursday, July 1, 2021
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If a Nuclear War Must Never Be Fought, Then What?

July/August 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two largest nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their June 16 summit to engage in a robust “strategic stability” dialogue to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden prior to the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Just as importantly, the two men also reaffirmed the commonsense principle, agreed on by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The summit communiqué, albeit modest and overdue, is a vital recognition that the status quo is dangerous and unsustainable. It is a chance for a course correction that moves the world further from the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

Now, each side must walk the talk. The first step is promptly beginning a robust, bilateral, results-oriented nuclear risk reduction and disarmament dialogue. With the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms control agreement, expiring in 2026, there is little time to negotiate new arrangements necessary to further reduce the bloated U.S. and Russian strategic and nonstrategic nuclear stockpiles.

Second, if the two presidents are serious about nuclear wars being unwinnable, they need to formally declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond only to a nuclear attack, not non-nuclear threats. Once a nuclear weapon is used first by design, accident, or inadvertence, there is no guarantee that all-out nuclear war can be averted. Given the catastrophic effects of even limited nuclear use, neither side would be the winner.

Unfortunately, current Russian and U.S. nuclear use doctrines suggest that each side believes regional nuclear wars can be fought and won because such wars somehow can be kept limited.

In its 2020 iteration of policy, Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons…in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Whether Russia might contemplate an even lower threshold for use in a regional conflict has been the subject of much debate.

In 2018, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) expanded the “extreme circumstances” under which the United States would contemplate first use of nuclear weapons to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” The document
says “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” could include chemical and biological attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks.

These U.S. and Russian nuclear use policies are far too permissive and risky and must change. In a March 2020 Foreign Affairs essay, Biden said, “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack.” As president, Biden must put those words into practice.

Third, if a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought, the United States and Russia should not be expanding their capabilities to fight and prevail in such a war.

Russia has an obscene arsenal of some 1,500–2,000, lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, and the United States believes this arsenal is poised to grow in the years ahead. The Trump administration meanwhile proposed to double the types of lower-yield nuclear options in the U.S. arsenal.

Even though Biden, as a presidential candidate, said “[t]he United States does not need new nuclear weapons,” his fiscal year 2022 budget proposes funding for a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile,
one of the two new low-yield options pursued by Trump to provide additional strike options in a regional war.

Another way in which the “nuclear war cannot be won” statement can serve as a steppingstone to global risk reduction would be for all five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) to support that principle. At a P5 meeting last year, China proposed a joint statement along these lines, but the United States vetoed the idea. Shortly before the Biden-Putin summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi revived the proposal.

When the Security Council’s permanent members meet in France later this year on nuclear matters, it should endorse the Biden-Putin statement to signal a shared interest in avoiding nuclear war and agree to launch an expanded set of talks on nuclear risk reduction and arms control. In addition, Washington and Beijing could launch their own bilateral strategic stability dialogue to explore practical ideas for heading off destabilizing nuclear competition.

Luckily, nuclear weapons have not been used in combat since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But someday, our collective luck is certain to run out, with catastrophic consequences, unless the leaders of the world’s nuclear-armed states act now to forestall a new nuclear arms race and rediscover the path to a world free of nuclear weapons.

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two largest nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their June 16 summit to engage in a robust “strategic stability” dialogue to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

The Biden Administration’s North Korea Challenges

July/August 2021

In 1985, North Korea acceded to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which, in theory, meant it had forsaken nuclear weapons. In January 1992, it signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with South Korea, thus committing both countries not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” By the end of that year, however, there were growing concerns about Pyongyang’s ambitions that in time proved all too real and spurred a decades-long push for increasingly stricter sanctions and some kind of negotiated solution.

In this photo, released on July 4, 2017 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reported to be inspecting the test-fire of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, at an undisclosed location. What Kim sees today in terms of possible engagement with the Biden administration is anybody's guess.  (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)The 1994 Agreed Framework between Washington and Pyongyang, concluded during the Clinton administration, froze the North’s plutonium program until the deal unraveled in 2002. Despite repeated diplomatic efforts by the United States and other countries in the intervening decades to check North Korea’s capabilities, Pyongyang today possesses the fissile material for an estimated 40 to 50 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Moreover, the arsenal continues to expand in size and sophistication.

President Barak Obama’s hands-off “strategic patience” approach to North Korea was not successful at reversing the trend. Neither was President Donald Trump’s unorthodox, effusive embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The nuclear program remains a threat to stability on the Korean peninsula and to East Asia more generally. The question today is, can President Joe Biden do any better?­—CAROL GIACOMO


The Biden Administration’s North Korea Challenges

Restarting Diplomacy With Pyongyang

July/August 2021
By Jenny Town

As President Barack Obama was ending his term, he warned President Donald Trump that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions would be his top national security challenge, one that had eluded a sustainable solution under previous administrations. At the time, Pyongyang had already stepped up efforts to develop more diverse, longer-range ballistic missile systems and higher-yield nuclear weapons. Whether Trump wanted to heed Obama’s warning or not, North Korea quickly forced its way to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda by demonstrating preliminary intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and hydrogen bomb capabilities.

This September 2017 picture, released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), shows North Koreans holding a celebration rally at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang during a period when tensions with the United States were on the rise. Even in less fraught times, as now, engaging with North Korea is difficult.  (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)Although Trump’s unconventional approach to North Korea—from “fire and fury” to summit-driven diplomacy—got him enormous publicity, it failed to bring about substantive and sustainable changes in bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, as part of the diplomatic process, North Korea declared a moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile flight testing, which helped alleviate the escalating tensions of 2016 and 2017. At the first summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Singapore in 2018, the leaders committed to a common agenda for negotiations, including working toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, that could serve as the basis for future negotiations.

The Biden administration so far has had the luxury of relative calm on the Korean peninsula. Despite stalled relations with the United States, North Korea has upheld the testing moratoriums, whether by choice or by circumstance, keeping tensions low and the door to reviving diplomacy still cracked open. Meanwhile, the once rapidly progressing inter-Korean reconciliation process has come to a standstill, with South Korea no longer driving an ambitious push for peace and economic cooperation.

This lull created space and time for the Biden administration to conduct its North Korea policy review in close consultation with its key allies. Yet, reception of the new policy, despite allied endorsement of it, offers only cautious optimism that the negotiation process under President Joe Biden could be more productive and little clarity about how to get there.

Biden’s New Policy

The general principles of Biden’s new policy are not that different from past administrations.1 Although the expectations may be more realistic about the pacing of negotiations—expecting less up front and willing to work up toward bigger commitments—the principles are essentially the same: denuclearization as the focus, continued sanctions pressure in the meantime, and a negotiating strategy that requires North Korea to move first. This affords Pyongyang the agency to drive the process with silence, as demonstrated in recent weeks, or future positive or negative actions that force the United States to react. Given North Korea’s track record, a negative forcing event is more likely, putting Washington and its allies at a disadvantage from the start.

Because of the planned advancements in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that North Korea spelled out at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January, it is not difficult to imagine activities in which Pyongyang could engage that would again raise tensions.2 That includes further testing of solid-fueled missiles of varying ranges to improve performance and accuracy, as well as satellite launches and eventually, further nuclear weapons tests. The biggest challenge facing the administration now is how to get North Korea to reengage in negotiations without going down that route.

Pyongyang has been largely unresponsive to, or dismissive of, Seoul and Washington for months despite efforts to reopen communication channels. North Korea has had little to say since the new policy was announced, likely in part due to a preoccupation with its own domestic affairs, a flurry of party meetings, and efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

There was only a short Foreign Ministry rebuttal to Biden’s characterization of North Korea as a “serious threat to American security and the security of the world” in his April 29 speech to Congress and a mild clap back to U.S. criticisms on North Korea’s human rights record.3

Although both North Korean statements were relatively low-level, they reflected a perception that the new U.S. administration was set on maintaining a “hostile policy” against North Korea. As a result, despite talk about a more “calibrated” U.S. strategy, North Korea is unlikely to be convinced that engaging this administration will bring about different results.

For instance, Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in a joint statement after their White House summit in May, reaffirmed “a common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and [U.S.-North Korean] commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”4 The administration’s public messaging about the new policy, however, has focused only on the goal of denuclearization and the threat posed by North Korea, coupled with a renewed emphasis on North Korea’s human rights record.

Although denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is one pillar of the agenda in the Singapore statement, it is not the only one. The other pillars—building a new relationship between the United States and North Korea and a sustainable peace regime—were meant to be equal priorities to simultaneously address the underlying political and security challenges that Pyongyang uses to justify its nuclear deterrent. These were not issues to be addressed only after denuclearization is achieved, so the North Koreans may see the Singapore statement as void if the United States continues to focus only on denuclearization as the goal of negotiations.

The administration’s handling of the appointment of a special representative for North Korea policy has raised questions about how serious it is regarding North Korea and the priority the North plays in the broader national security landscape. When the policy was rolled out, there were indications the envoy position would not be filled in the short term because there were no negotiations taking place.5 That signaled a passive approach, essentially waiting for Pyongyang to act first before spending too much energy on the situation.

It also left big questions as to who inside government, if anyone, is leading the policy and whether North Korea could be set aside in deference to other priorities, such as the growing U.S.-Chinese rivalry.

Even after the surprise appointment of Kim, a veteran diplomat, to the special representative position at the Biden-Moon summit, subsequent administration clarification that the position would only be part-time and that Kim would continue to serve as ambassador to Indonesia, based out of Jakarta instead of Washington, did not inspire confidence that the administration was not simply still waiting to see what Pyongyang does.

North Korea’s Likely Response

The administration’s emphasis on denuclearization as a goal while maintaining all the traditional hardline parts of U.S. policy—deterrence, sanctions, and a renewed emphasis on human rights—will likely diminish any positive messages about the new policy.

At the same time, recent signals from Pyongyang have indicated no rush to reengage with the United States. Kim’s big gamble of summit diplomacy with Moon and Trump amounted to commitments on paper that went unfulfilled in practice, leaving him with few tangible benefits to show for his efforts. If a lesson was learned from that era, it was that high-level commitments by Washington and Seoul do not guarantee results, especially in the short term, and that there was no benefit to being the first mover.

Nursery school playground with a rocket-themed ride in Pyongyang. From a very young age, North Koreans are taught about the country's military capabilities and the need to fear the United States. (Photo by Carol Giacomo, 2017)The importance of that lesson should not be underestimated. At the party congress, in addition to issuing new goals for the WMD program, Kim seemed to indicate a reversal of thought when he suggested that improving the external security situation was a precondition for economic progress. Although it seems Kim had unrealistic expectations about how quickly relations with Washington and Seoul could change and have a positive impact on his country’s battered economy, this shift in calculus creates little urgency for further engagement with the United States and South Korea, when benefits likely will take years to materialize. Instead, economic plans laid out at the congress were premised on the need to improve internal structures and practices to build resiliency in a persistently hostile environment.6

Although Kim left the door to diplomacy open, he placed the onus on Washington and Seoul to make the first move and prove through actions that a different relationship and different outcomes were possible.

In this context, the message from Washington is not likely to compel the North Koreans to reengage soon. Although Pyongyang has not tested new strategic weapons in recent years, the lull should not be mistaken for complacency. A new larger ICBM and two new SLBMs were displayed during the last two military parades, and instructions to keep developing these capabilities have been clearly distributed to the relevant parties during the party congress.

Waiting for North Korea to make the first move on negotiations gives Pyongyang the power to set the terms and timing of engagement, including the possibility of raising the stakes to near fire-and-fury levels before coming back to the table. Meanwhile, it will continue to build up its nuclear arsenal to ensure that if it does choose to reengage, it does so from a position of strength.

Getting to the Table

The Biden administration may have more realistic expectations about how negotiations with North Korea should progress, seemingly willing to disaggregate what a deal may look like to create a process that builds trust and provides both sides with small, tangible wins along the way. The key challenge remains getting back to the table. That will be difficult without some clear demonstration that the administration can deliver the kind of results that past administrations could or would not.

One way of doing that is through unilateral measures, akin to what North Korea did in 2018 ahead of the Singapore summit when it released U.S. detainees, partially dismantled its nuclear test site, removed anti-U.S. propaganda from domestic consumption, and declared a moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile testing. Early signs from the administration make this option seem unlikely.

In lieu of unilateral actions, there are ways for the administration to try to engage the seemingly reluctant North Koreans, including modifying the negotiation process. Instead of starting over by asking for talks about principles and process, the administration could jump-start negotiations by putting forth an initial proposal.

If the policy is to pursue incremental steps, the administration could make clear in the proposal what it would like to see as a first step by the North Koreans and what the United States is offering as a reciprocal measure. That would give Pyongyang something concrete to respond to and demonstrate that an incremental, action-oriented, results-oriented process is possible.

Even if there is little appetite for a summit in the near future, high-level engagement can still be pursued outside of a summit format to keep the lines of communication open and convey a sense that the United States is serious about improving U.S.-North Korean relations. For instance, the administration could use the letters once passed between Trump and Kim in a more substantive way, by conveying principles, intentions, and opportunities, and providing a high-level endorsement for negotiations. Such letters could accommodate Kim’s interest in direct involvement in the process by serving as a mechanism for proposals to be conveyed to Kim and receiving his responses.

Finally, if the administration truly reaffirms the Singapore statement and the Panmunjom Declaration, then the messaging needs to be modified to reflect that. Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should remain a goal of negotiations, as reflected in both documents, but it should not be the only goal. It is vital that the administration publicly address the prospects for peace and for building a different relationship for the mutual benefit of both countries.

Although there is widespread skepticism that North Korea will ever choose the path of denuclearization, the purpose of diplomacy is to bring them around to that decision. Convincing any country possessing nuclear weapons to voluntarily abandon them is a difficult proposition, especially when existential threats still exist. Biden’s “calibrated and practical approach” to North Korea is a step in the right direction but only if it recognizes that it also requires addressing Pyongyang’s threat perception.


1. “Negotiating With North Korea: An Interview With Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun,” Arms Control Today, June 2021.

2. “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-Style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory on Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” KCNA Watch, January 9, 2021, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1610272851-580631610/great-programme-for-struggle-leading-korean-style-socialist-construction-to-fresh-victoryon-report-made-by-supreme-leader-kim-jong-un-at-eighth-congress-of-wpk/?t=1610568921077.

3. Statement of DPRK Foreign Ministry Director General of Department of U.S. Affairs, Korea Central News Agency, May 2, 2021; Statement of Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry, Korea Central News Agency, May 2, 2021.

4. The White House, “U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement,” May 21, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/u-s-rok-leaders-joint-statement/.

5. Josh Rogin, “Opinion: Biden’s North Korea Strategy: Hurry Up and Wait,” The Washington Post, May 5, 2021.

6. Robert Carlin, “North Korea’s Eighth Workers’ Party Congress: Putting Things Into Context,” 38 North, January 19, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/01/north-koreas-eighth-workers-party-congress-putting-things-into-context/.

Jenny Town is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of the center’s 38 North website.

President Joe Biden’s new policy offers only cautious optimism that negotiations with North Korea could be more productive and little clarity about how to get there.

Congressional Support Needed for Success

July/August 2021
By Jessica J. Lee

Any successful North Korea policy must include cooperation from Congress. Although President Joe Biden seems open to a negotiated solution to the growing North Korean nuclear threat, he has offered little information on how he plans to work with the deeply fractured U.S. legislative branch to support his policy. Without congressional backing, Biden is unlikely to take the decisive action needed to get the North Koreans interested in returning to talks, such as declaring a formal end to the 1950–53 Korean War and offering Pyongyang security guarantees in exchange for verifiable steps toward reducing its nuclear weapons.

North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared on Nov. 29, 2017 that the country had achieved full nuclear statehood. Four years later, the North's nuclear capabilities continue to advance, confronting President Joe Biden with the challenge.  (Photo by Kim Won-Jin/AFP via Getty Images)In short, congressional buy-in is central to the administration’s ability to execute an effective North Korea strategy, one that puts concrete offers on the table rather than waiting for Pyongyang to take the highly unlikely first step of giving up all of its nuclear weapons.

Biden’s North Korea Policy

Biden came into office committed to making diplomacy the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. No single issue will test that resolve more than North Korea, which experts estimate possesses between 40–50 nuclear weapons.1

Two months after Biden was elected president, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to develop even more advanced nuclear capabilities as a deterrence against its “biggest enemy,” the United States. Yet, North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons as a security guarantee has long posed a wide range of challenges for the United States, its allies, and the region.

In 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, which was large enough to have been a hydrogen bomb. Pyongyang has twice tested intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges that could reach the United States. It also has the world’s fourth-largest military, with more than 1.2 million personnel, and is believed to possess chemical and biological weapons.

There is growing acceptance within the policy community in the United States that Pyongyang has nuclear capabilities that are so advanced that it is no longer vulnerable to U.S. leverage and pressure, that it is unlikely to ever give up its arsenal, and that an arms control agreement to verify and monitor the North’s weapons is the most realistic pathway forward.2 The idea would be to cap the North’s arsenal to stop it from further destabilizing the region, while maintaining the long-term goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

On April 30, when the White House announced the completion of its North Korea policy review, press secretary Jen Psaki described the goal as a “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” It would seek “practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces,” not through a grand bargain or strategic patience but through a “calibrated and practical” strategy, she said.3

That same day, the Washington Post quoted a senior administration official as saying, “[W]e do not think what we are contemplating is likely to forestall provocation from the North,” and that the administration “fully intends to maintain sanctions pressure while this plays out.”

At their May 21 summit, Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in issued a joint statement with additional details. It stressed diplomacy and affirmed commitments in the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between South Korea and North Korea and in the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement signed by President Donald Trump and Kim as being “essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.”4 The May statement also noted Biden’s support for “inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation,” and his commitment to address the human rights and humanitarian needs inside North Korea.

Based on publicly available information, the administration’s North Korea policy hits all the right notes. The question is whether it is concrete enough for members of Congress to support.

Congressional Involvement on North Korea

The recent history of congressional involvement on North Korea policy is fraught with misaligned executive-legislative branch expectations. After Republicans gained the majority in Congress in 1994, they obstructed the deal reached by President Bill Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il known as the Agreed Framework. Critics accused Clinton of being soft on Pyongyang, but Republicans did not offer any alternatives to the Agreed Framework’s freeze on North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for energy assistance. Eventually, their opposition enabled hard-liners in the next administration, led by President George W. Bush, to kill the Agreed Framework altogether.

Intelligence agencies also played a role in the agreement’s demise. Five years after the framework was signed in 1994, the Defense Intelligence Agency asserted North Korea was building a secret nuclear-related facility at Kumchang-ri in violation of the agreement. Joel Wit, who led the U.S. inspection of the alleged nuclear facility, noted that “the most important lesson from Kumchang-ri is that verifying a denuclearization deal between Washington and Pyongyang will be impossible without trust-building and reconciliation between the two countries.”5 Although the United States ultimately determined that Kumchang-ri was not a nuclear facility, the dispute generated enough controversy and bad feeling to scuttle the agreement.

Not all congressional involvement related to North Korea has been obstructionist. Some of it was motivated by a genuine interest in fostering trust and deepening understanding between the two countries. For example, in August 1997, a bipartisan, seven-member congressional delegation led by House Intelligence Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) visited Pyongyang, the first lawmakers ever to do so. The delegation expressed “bipartisan support for United States policy to encourage North Korea to engage in honest and good faith negotiations to lessen tensions in the region” and confirmed that “opportunity for further constructive dialogue exists.”

In May 2003, another bipartisan delegation made the trip, led by Representative Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), thus culminating an 11-month effort by Weldon to visit North Korea for the purpose of “engaging senior [North Korean] officials in informal discussions, free of the formality of traditional posturing and imposed pressures of negotiation objectives, to share mutual perspectives on the major political, military, and economic issues.”6

No matter how one feels about the regime in Pyongyang, diplomacy must be an essential component of policy, even if members of Congress do not always admit it. Traveling to the country can offer insights that can lead to breakthroughs. For example, a member of the 2003 delegation, Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), described North Korea as the “most totalitarian dictatorship ever devised,” but still expressed support for “the efforts of President Bush to seek a peaceful solution with North Korea that will eliminate the nuclear threat and save innocent North Korean civilians from tragedy.”7

COVID-related travel restrictions and border closures make congressional visits to North Korea unlikely for the foreseeable future. Yet the underlying premise for these visits remains valid. Direct talks at all levels are needed to understand both sides’ motives and should be resumed when possible. The absence of trust between Americans and North Koreans is a major barrier to progress on the nuclear or political front. Without trust, no agreements can survive across administrations, as Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal proved. The United States needs to understand what drives the decisions of North Korea’s leadership so that miscalculations do not flare into war. Similarly, Pyongyang could misread comments from various political leaders in Washington without multifaceted communication channels.

The Need for Constructive Engagement

Biden’s North Korea policy has something for everyone, which is a strength and a weakness when it comes to likely congressional reaction. The administration has pledged to be “calibrated and practical,” perhaps in recognition of the growing chorus among North Korea experts who favor a practical, interim deal to halt and monitor North Korea’s nuclear weapons program prior to complete denuclearization.

In expressing support for the 2018 Singapore statement, the administration gave a nod to these experts who advocate for a political settlement between the United States and North Korea that would declare an end to the Korean War and establish diplomatic relations between the two countries, with a long-term goal of signing a peace treaty to be ratified by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. The aim should be to pursue this political settlement in parallel with a phased denuclearization process that in the short-term seeks to limit North Korea’s nuclear force and reduce proliferation risks while maintaining the long-term goal of a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula. At the same time, the administration plans to maintain sanctions pressure while diplomacy plays out, a nod to hawks on Capitol Hill who prefer coercive tools as the main vehicle for changing North Korea’s behavior.

In the coming months, members of Congress will look for opportunities to make their mark on North Korea policy, especially if there is an absence of leadership from the White House. The first legislative vehicle is a China-focused technology investment bill that is making its way through Congress. The United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which passed the Senate 68–32 on June 8, stipulates that the United States will “sustain maximum economic pressure” against North Korea until the regime undertakes “complete, verifiable, and irreversible actions toward denuclearization.”8 The bill also calls for universal implementation of existing UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea. If enacted, this provision could seriously disincentivize diplomacy.9

The House companion bill does not include such language on North Korea, setting up a potential face-off between the two chambers. In general, emphasizing coercive measures such as sanctions without factoring in noncoercive diplomatic measures would constrain negotiations and make it more difficult for the United States to properly use its leverage on North Korea.

The second potential legislative vehicle for mandating policy on North Korea is the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the Senate Armed Services Committee will mark up in July and the House Armed Services Committee will take up in September. One of the only bills to reliably become law, the NDAA has become a go-to vehicle for authorizing new initiatives and shaping U.S. military engagement around the world.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is co-sponsoring legislation with Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) that aims to ensure sanctions imposed on North Korea do not prevent humanitarian aid from reaching those in need. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)Finally, members of Congress could introduce stand-alone bills to shape U.S. policy. Some measures are quite constructive, such as one introduced by Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), which calls for a formal end to the Korean War and expresses support for establishing U.S. and North Korean liaison offices in their respective capitals.10 A bill introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Representative Andy Levin (D-Mich.), titled Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act, aims to ensure that U.S. and UN sanctions imposed on North Korea do not prevent humanitarian aid from reaching those in need.

Other stand-alone bills are more punitive. For example, the No Social Media Accounts for Terrorists or State Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2021 would require social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to delete accounts belonging to senior officials from North Korea and anyone else who is defined in U.S. law as a “specifically designated national.”11 The SAFE Banking Act includes North Korea among the countries whose entities would be hit with greater financial restrictions.

Even if none are enacted, these measures can be used as messaging tools for members of Congress to sway public opinion. The administration needs a Capitol Hill strategy that anticipates and blunts criticisms in advance, including engaging members beyond the traditional national security committees that have long played an outsized, mostly hard-line, role in North Korea-related matters. Members of Congress who belong to the War Powers Caucus, Progressive Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and other bipartisan affinity groups also represent public preferences on these issues, sometimes with equal or greater intensity than those on national security committees.

Making meaningful progress will be impossible without a willing partner in Pyongyang. The Kim government should engage the administration in good faith, rather than keep it at arm’s length as it has done.12 It should engage in working level talks, even if it prefers the top-down diplomacy of the Trump era. Absent a common understanding on short-term and long-term steps toward reducing tensions and eventually denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, U.S.-North Korean relations will remain stuck. No matter how aligned U.S. policymakers and lawmakers are on policy aims, a coordinated approach by the administration and Congress would send a clear message that the United States wants to engage in serious diplomacy. Biden and his team should reach out to members of Congress early and often, as well as engage outside groups that support more positive U.S.-North Korean relations, with a clear message about what the administration plans to offer and how progress could advance U.S. interests.

One way is by getting North Korea to agree to what Siegfried Hecker, the former Los Alamos weapons laboratory director, called “the three no’s—no more bombs, no better bombs, and no exports—in return for one yes: Washington’s willingness to seriously address North Korea’s fundamental insecurity along the lines of the [2000 U.S.-North Korean] joint communique” which calls for permanently ending the Korean War and affirming that neither government would have “hostile intent” toward the other. The communique also stated both sides’ desire to “remove mistrust, build mutual confidence” including through economic cooperation and exchanges.13

Another possibility is to get North Korea to permanently freeze nuclear and missile tests and to stop transferring proliferation sensitive technologies to other states and non-state groups in return for security guarantees and partial sanctions relief that can snap back if North Korea is noncompliant.

As a U.S. senator for 36 years, Biden understands Congress’ role in shaping foreign policy. He should make building political and public support for his approach to North Korea a top priority. If Congress plays games, Biden should make his case directly to the American people, and not let his North Korea policy become a de facto Obama-era “strategic patience” of maximalist demands and non-engagement.



1. “Global Nuclear Arsenals Grow as States Continue to Modernize—New SIPRI Yearbook Out Now,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, June 14, 2021, https://sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/global-nuclear-arsenals-grow-states-continue-modernize-new-sipri-yearbook-out-now

2. David Ignatius, “Biden’s Approach to North Korea Is the Opposite of ‘Fire and Fury,’” The Washington Post, April 15, 2021.

3. “Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jen Psaki Aboard Air Force One en Route Philadelphia, PA,” White House, April 30, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/04/30/press-gaggle-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-aboard-air-force-one-en-route-philadelphia-pa/.

4. The White House, “U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement,” May 21, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/u-s-rok-leaders-joint-statement/.

5. Joel Wit, “Opinion: What I Learned Leading America's 1st Nuclear Inspection in North Korea,” NPR, January 22, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/22/681174887/opinion-what-i-learned-leading-americas-1st-nuclear-inspection-in-north-korea.

6. 149 Cong. Rec. H4970 (daily ed. June 4, 2003).

7. Joe Wilson, “North Korea: Dialogue With a Bankrupt State,” Official Website of Congressman Joe Wilson, June 15, 2003, https://joewilson.house.gov/media-center/articles/north-korea-dialogue-with-a-bankrupt-state.

8. United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, S. 1260, 117th Cong., sec. 3234 (2021).

9. Jessica J. Lee, “How the ‘Strategic Competition Act’ Could Actually Stonewall Talks With North Korea,” Responsible Statecraft, May 7, 2021, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/05/07/how-the-strategic-competition-act-could-actually-stonewall-talks-with-north-korea/.

10. Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, H.R. 3446, 117th Cong. (2021).

11. No Social Media Accounts for Terrorists or State Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2021, H.R. 1543, 117th Cong. (2021).

12. “Exclusive: North Korea Unresponsive to Behind-the-Scenes Biden Administration Outreach—U.S. Official,” Reuters, March 13, 2021.

13. Office of the Spokesman, U.S. Department of State, “U.S.-D.P.R.K. Joint Communique,” October 12, 2000, https://1997-2001.state.gov/regions/eap/001012_usdprk_jointcom.html.

Jessica J. Lee is Senior Research Fellow for East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a former congressional staff member.

Congressional buy-in is central to the Biden administration’s ability to execute an effective North Korea strategy.

Hope and Concern in Seoul

July/August 2021
By Manseok Lee and Hyeongpil Ham

With the release of President Joe Biden’s new North Korea policy, a protracted tug of war has begun between the United States and North Korea to gain the upper hand in negotiations on the North’s nuclear weapons program. That will continue until Pyongyang decides it can no longer withstand international sanctions or Washington decides that the sanctions are no longer effective given the North’s rapidly growing nuclear capabilities. The former case would be an auspicious start for a successful denuclearization process, but the latter could result in North Korea being accepted as a nuclear-armed state.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Sung Kim (center, L) talks with South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young (center, R) about issues relating to North Korea on June 22 in Seoul, South Korea. Kim said he looks forward to Pyongyang giving a "positive response soon" to Washington's offer for dialogue.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)Although national security experts in South Korea have welcomed the new U.S. policy overall, concerns remain that Biden’s approach will pave the way for North Korea’s nuclear status to become a fait accompli. That would be unacceptable to Seoul, with dire consequences for the security of South Korea and the region. Therefore, the United States should carefully navigate the pitfalls that could result in a negotiated outcome beneficial to Pyongyang but detrimental to the interests of Washington and its regional allies.

The South Korean View

Shortly after Biden took office, South Korean strategists worried that his administration would be unable to make North Korea a priority due to pressing domestic issues and other international concerns such as Taiwan, the South and East China seas, and the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. The strategists were also concerned that the dialogue between the United States and North Korea would be suspended because, during the final presidential debate, Biden accused President Donald Trump of “legitimatizing North Korea,” saying he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un only if Pyongyang agreed to “draw down [its] nuclear capacity.”1 These concerns seem to have been mitigated during the following months as Seoul and Washington held a series of discussions about the emerging U.S. approach toward North Korea and prepared for the South Korean-U.S. summit in Washington on May 21.

Above all, these consultations convinced the Biden administration to formalize the common goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, not just North Korea, thus reaffirming the goals articulated by Trump and Kim after their 2018 Singapore summit and in the Panmunjon Declaration issued by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in that same year. These measures could lay the groundwork for bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table by avoiding the language Pyongyang has opposed. Furthermore, respecting these previously agreed official statements is crucial to maintaining the continuity of negotiations.

Biden has also dispelled South Korea’s concern that the nuclear issue could be pushed off of Washington’s agenda by underscoring his intention to engage North Korea through the appointment of veteran diplomat Sung Kim as special representative for North Korea policy. This marked a dramatic change of position because the administration had originally intended to keep the position vacant for a time.2

Nevertheless, there is a lingering worry that if Pyongyang exploits the complexity and uncertainty of the denuclearization process to corner Washington, the administration’s phased approach could have the undesired consequence of ensuring that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons becomes a foregone conclusion.3

Pyongyang has long sought to make Washington and Seoul anxious by creating an impression that North Korea is successfully enduring sanctions through ideological fortitude and cooperation with China and that its nuclear programs are proceeding smoothly. If Washington were to determine that international sanctions against the Kim regime have become ineffective and that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were developing rapidly and without impediment, the administration could feel pressured to wrap up any negotiations in a hurry.

Against this backdrop, it is understandable that some South Korean experts are gravely concerned that Washington would choose to reach an interim agreement with Pyongyang for the sake of more limited gains, such as capping North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program—the element of its weapons program that most threatens U.S. national security—in exchange for the partial or complete lifting of U.S. sanctions.4 In that case, incomplete denuclearization would become a lasting condition, and U.S. allies in the region would be left permanently exposed to the dangers of North Korea’s intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles.

Failing to completely denuclearize North Korea would have significant consequences for East Asian security. For one, it would cause U.S. allies, such as South Korea and Japan, to question whether the United States really takes their security seriously. The United States would then find it more difficult to assure them of the reliability of its extended deterrence. Then, some analysts fear, these allies could seek to acquire nuclear weapons as a self-help measure by calling on the United States to station nuclear weapons in the region or developing their own.5

Furthermore, if North Korea were to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state and international sanctions were reduced or lifted, that would shake the foundations of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. In particular, it would encourage other potential proliferators to believe that even after undermining international norms, they will eventually get to keep their nuclear weapons if they can withstand sanctions for some period of time.

Kim’s Playbook

For the United States, the path to North Korean denuclearization is riddled with the pitfalls that Pyongyang is certain to create. To avoid the unwanted outcome of incomplete denuclearization, Biden should be careful not to fall into these traps. His ability to navigate these negotiations successfully will determine whether he can mitigate allied concerns and ultimately persuade Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program for good.

Washington should be wary of underestimating or overestimating North Korea’s nuclear program. Pyongyang has long sought to conceal and downplay its nuclear capabilities. Thus, it is always critical to identify the hidden nuclear facilities and weapons stockpiles.6 Pyongyang also has an incentive to exaggerate its capabilities because the operational nuclear weapons that it claims to already possess represent bargaining chips that can be traded away in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and the provision of economic aid.

A man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a television show of a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's ruling party released in October 2020 by Korean Central News Agency, the North's state news agency.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)North Korea will present its nuclear capabilities as greater than they really are through demonstrations at military parades and weapons tests and will claim that its nuclear deterrent is continuously growing. If Washington overestimates the North’s capabilities and offers excessive incentives, it could lose bargaining power early and undermine its ability to persuade Pyongyang to genuinely engage in negotiations until it achieves complete denuclearization.

Washington should be aware that Pyongyang will exploit the extremely complex nature of the denuclearization process to ensure its possession of nuclear weapons becomes a fait accompli.7 Nuclear programs comprise diverse parts, such as fissile material, reactors, assembly and storage facilities, nuclear warheads, delivery vehicles, and personnel. Denuclearization involves time-consuming procedures such as the declaration of inventories, inspection of facilities, dismantlement, and monitoring. The highly technical nature of the denuclearization process offers North Korea many opportunities to renege on its commitments at some point in the future.8

If Pyongyang fails to deliver on its promises to dismantle part of its nuclear program or violates obligations as it did during the six-party talks that took place between 2003 and 2009, the negotiations would have to start over. If North Korea’s nuclear capability continued to grow in the meantime, Washington could face strong domestic pressure to wrap up the negotiations quickly, even if it means incomplete denuclearization.

North Korea may try to strike a deal on issues related to the security of U.S. allies in the region, such as permanently halting the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises or facilitating a partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. It is understandable that issues concerning the security of U.S. allies be treated as bargaining chips toward the ultimate goal of complete denuclearization.

Yet, the allies should be consulted before these issues are placed on the negotiating table. Otherwise, proposals intended to encourage North Korea to enter into dialogue could undermine the security of key allies, damage their relationships with the United States,9 and sour unified efforts to advance denuclearization. Such disharmony between allies would only benefit North Korea.

Washington should be prepared for a scenario in which Pyongyang leverages its relationship with Beijing to improve its bargaining position. China’s ties with North Korea are complex. Although Pyongyang’s decision to engage in nuclear proliferation and risky provocations implies that it has chosen to willfully ignore Beijing’s security interests, North Korea remains a strategically important neighbor for China.10

For this geostrategic reason, Beijing prefers the status quo and will adamantly oppose North Korea becoming a neutral or pro-U.S. country.11 For example, when the United States appeared to be pushing North Korea to the brink of war in 2017, China responded by issuing stark warnings and participating in UN sanctions in an effort to pressure Pyongyang to stand down. Yet, when diplomatic efforts between Washington and Pyongyang accelerated in 2018, Beijing betrayed its concern about North Korea drifting out of its orbit by moving decisively to reassert itself through an unprecedented series of summits between Xi Jinping and Kim, who met five times between 2018 and 2019, including the first visit by a Chinese leader to Pyongyang in 14 years.12

North Korea is well aware of the strategic value it holds for China and of the priority that Beijing assigns to maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula over denuclearization. Therefore, Pyongyang will try to reduce the effectiveness of international sanctions through cooperation with Beijing, and it may escalate the crisis in order to draw China’s support when the situation is unfavorable. Consequently, a strengthened Sino-North Korean coalition would weaken Washington’s bargaining position and pressure it to offer concessions first.

The ultimate success of the denuclearization process rests on whether North Korea can be made to feel that it can no longer withstand sanctions, continue its nuclear development, or hide its nuclear capabilities and that its existing nuclear weapons have low strategic utility. Only then will Pyongyang stop dragging its feet and engage seriously in negotiations. To this end, Washington should keep the following recommendations in mind.

The United States and its allies in the region should preserve a credible deterrence posture against North Korea. The United States’ extended nuclear deterrence and its allies’ advanced conventional deterrence are key capabilities in reducing the strategic utility of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Until fully denuclearized, North Korea will continue to have nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them and could be tempted to play these cards whenever the situation becomes unfavorable. Diplomatic engagement by Washington and its allies with Pyongyang based on a robust deterrent will discourage North Korea’s miscalculation with regard to the usefulness of its nuclear weapons.

International sanctions must be sustained and implemented thoroughly until full-fledged negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang begin. Even if negotiations begin and Washington agrees to partially lift sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s partial reduction of its nuclear capabilities, doing so should not be allowed to weaken the remaining sanctions regime. If sanctions are lifted too early and North Korea is allowed to revive its economy, it would no longer have an incentive to abide by the terms of a protracted denuclearization process and would instead gain incentives to further advance its nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, once the sanctions have been reduced, it may be difficult to ratchet them up again.

The United States and its regional allies, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia, should increase their cooperation toward the goal of complete denuclearization by presenting a unified, organized front against Pyongyang. They are key to maintaining a robust sanctions regime and to preventing North Korea from trading nuclear-related materials. Their integrated intelligence activities will help identify when North Korea is concealing or exaggerating its nuclear capabilities. Finally, U.S. allies are major stakeholders in the North Korean nuclear issue and will share the burden of whatever outcome these negotiations yield. The United States should act as the fulcrum around which these countries can unite and work together.

At some point, the denuclearization negotiations should be expanded into multilateral negotiations including China. Beijing is unlikely to welcome or accept any outcome reached by Washington and Pyongyang bilaterally, and Chinese officials and scholars have expressed the view that China may agree to participate in multilateral denuclearization talks.13 Thus, Washington should consult with Beijing regarding the timing of a transition to multilateral negotiations to dissuade China from offering competing incentives to North Korea that could strengthen Pyongyang’s endurance against international sanctions.

Biden’s emphasis on the importance of enhancing allied security and strengthening cooperation among countries with shared values has bolstered the allies’ confidence in his approach. Nevertheless, the stability of the Korean peninsula would rapidly deteriorate if the United States were to act rashly with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue. The administration, together with its regional allies and partners, needs to tackle the 30-year challenge that is the North Korean nuclear problem in a flexible but cautious manner.



1. Kim Gamel, "Biden Calls North Korean Leader a ‘Thug’ but Says He’d Meet Kim If Denuclearization Is Agreed," Stars and Stripes, October 23, 2020.

2. Josh Rogin, "Biden’s North Korea Strategy: Hurry Up and Wait," The Washington Post, May 5, 2021.

3. Duhyun Cha, “Prospect of Biden’s North Korea Policy, [차두현, 바이든 행정부의 대북정책 전망: 쟁점, 북한의 대응, 그리고 한국의 과제]", Issue Brief, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, May 18, 2021, https://www.asaninst.org/contents/%EB%B0%94%EC%9D%B4%EB%93%A0%ED%96%89%EC%A0%95%EB%B6%80%EC%9D%98%EB%8C%80%EB%B6%81%EC%A0%95%EC%B1%85-%EC%A0%84%EB%A7%9D-%EC%9F%81%EC%A0%90-%EB%B6%81%ED%95%9C%EC%9D%98-%EB%8C%80%EC%9D%91%EA%B7%B8/. (In Korean)

4. Ibid.

5. For example, Toby Dalton and Ain Han, "Elections, Nukes, and the Future of the South Korea-U.S. Alliance," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 26, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/10/26/elections-nukes-and-future-of-south-korea-u.s.-alliance-pub-83044.

6. For example, during the 2019 Hanoi summit, Pyongyang’s representatives spoke as if there were no nuclear facilities in North Korea other than Yongbyon. See Edward Wong, “Trump’s Talks With Kim Jong-un Collapse, and Both Sides Point Fingers,” The New York Times, February 28, 2019.

7. William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “North Korea Nuclear Disarmament Could Take 15 Years, Expert Warns,” The New York Times, May 28, 2018.

8. Cui Lei, “Why It’s Nearly Impossible to Denuclearize North Korea,” The Diplomat, June 22, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/why-its-nearly-impossible-to-denuclearize-north-korea/.

9. For example, immediately following the Singapore summit in 2018, Washington unilaterally announced the suspension of South Korean-U.S. joint exercises without first securing an explicit concession from North Korea on reducing its nuclear threats. This led to security concerns for South Korean strategists. See Josh Smith and Phil Stewart, “Trump Surprises With Pledge to End Military Exercises in South Korea,” Reuters, June 12, 2018; Kim Gwi-geun, “Trump’s Remarks About ‘Suspending Joint Exercises’…Ministry of Defense ‘Embarrassed,’” Yonhap News, June 12, 2018, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20180612162400014 (in Korean).

10. Evans J.R. Revere, “Lips and Teeth: Repairing China-North Korea Relations,” Brookings Institution, November 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FP_20191118_china_nk_revere.pdf.

11. Yun Sun, Statements During the 38 North Webinar “Biden’s North Korea Policy Review: Perspectives From the Region,” April 19, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prC9a9m3NDk.

12. Revere, “Lips and Teeth.”

13. Jeong Seong-jang, “Biden Administration’s North Korea Policy Review and Strategic Cooperation Direction Between Korea and the U.S.,” Sejong Policy Brief, No. 2021-8 (April 29, 2021), pp. 14–18, https://www.sejong.org/boad/1/egofiledn.php?conf_seq=3&bd_seq=5945&file_seq=16429 (in Korean).

Manseok Lee is a U.S.-Asia Grand Strategy predoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Hyeongpil Ham received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has worked for more than 30 years at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions of the South Korean government.

Although South Korean experts welcomed the new U.S. policy, concerns remain that President Biden’s approach will let North Korea’s nuclear status become a fait accompli.

The Future of the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons: An Interview With Susanne Baumann, German Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control

July/August 2021

World War I taught the horrors of using chemicals against adversaries, but it was not until 1997 that the international community agreed to a treaty that aimed to outlaw this entire category of weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) took effect in 1997, and today, 193 countries count themselves as adherents. The treaty encompasses 98 percent of the global population and has resulted in the destruction of more than 98 percent of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.

Susanne Baumann, the German Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control, says in an interview with Arms Control Today that it is essential for the UN Security Council to continue to deal monthly with the issue of Syria's use of chemical weapons.  (Photo by German government)Yet, concerns are rising that some desperate leaders have become newly emboldened to use chemical weapons, which generally cause slow, agonizing deaths. Russia, for instance, has been accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, opponents of President Vladimir Putin. In 17 cases, Syria was found to likely or definitely have used chemical weapons, according to the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Arms Control Today interviewed Susanne Baumann, German commissioner for disarmament and arms control, by email on the status of the global norm against chemical weapons and how it can be strengthened.

Arms Control Today: The global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding. In the past five years, chemical weapons have been used in violation of the CWC in the poisoning of political dissidents or high-level officials and in numerous and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Violators of the treaty have done so with relative impunity. What is the reason for this trend? Has the world become numb to such weapons? Are nuclear weapons viewed as so much more lethal that chemical weapons are dwarfed?

Commissioner Susanne Baumann: Nuclear and chemical weapons are both weapons of mass destruction that could cause horrible human losses and suffering. At the same time, chemical weapons are in many respects different from nuclear systems. Access to chemical weapons is easier, and their manufacturing, handling, and use are technically less demanding compared to nuclear weapons. In addition, correct and rapid attribution can be a challenge if chemical weapons are used in asymmetric conflicts or for the targeted assassination of individuals. In my view, it is exactly these characteristics of chemical weapons that have led to their use in a number of cases in recent years, ranging from the notorious and appalling chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war to the infamous cases of Skripal and Navalny. These incidents come with new challenges for the international community and the rules-based order. It is now extremely important that we strengthen the notion that the CWC is not only about banning the use of chemical weapons in international conflicts. On the contrary, the CWC is based on the principle that the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, and under any circumstances constitutes a violation of international law. That is why the German government cooperated very closely with the OPCW after the attack on Navalny. That is also why we actively support the efforts of the OPCW to shed light on chemical weapons use cases in Syria.

ACT: What specific steps could be taken within the next five years to reinforce the global norm and strengthen compliance with the CWC?

Baumann: It is obvious that norms have to be enforced in order to really be effective. In today’s international environment, this is often easier said than done. Yet, the recent cases of chemical weapons use clearly show that the international community is not willing to accept the erosion of the CWC. Within the OPCW framework, a number of new mechanisms have been established in order to clarify the circumstances of the chemical attacks in Syria and to attribute responsibility. This evolution has not been self-evident. The OPCW became the central player on the Syrian file because Russia vetoed several decisions at the UN Security Council that would have allowed further clarification and investigation into the issue of responsibility for the attacks. As a consequence, a growing majority of OPCW state-parties supported the creation the OPCW’s own investigative instruments.

ACT: Moving forward, how can the treaty be strengthened to provide for stronger accountability mechanisms against CWC violators?

Baumann: With the new mechanisms, the OPCW has successfully started not only to determine whether, when, and where chemical weapons were used in Syria, but also, based on reports of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), to identify the guilty parties. Given the circumstances, that is an almost revolutionary step forward for the CWC and, in more general terms, for the international rules-based order. In times of hybrid warfare and disguised attacks, the notion of accountability and impunity becomes increasingly central. That is also why initiatives like the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons are of great importance for raising international awareness and generating support for international bodies like the OPCW. It is also essential that the UN Security Council continues to deal with chemical weapons use in Syria on a monthly basis despite opposition from some Security Council member states.

ACT: What additional steps could be taken to deter would-be CWC violators?

Baumann: Deterrence is closely linked to the concept of individual accountability. The OPCW has investigative mechanisms at its disposal but no judicial means to penalize individuals. To this end, states-parties are required by the CWC to put effective national legislation in place, explicitly penalizing any activity banned by the CWC. Roughly two-thirds of OPCW states-parties, including Germany, have translated the CWC into their respective national legislation. Although having laws on paper is an important first step, what counts is implementation. Training and education of experts is key. In this field, international cooperation, including with the OPCW, remains essential. Here too, Germany is supporting the organization very strongly.

ACT: CWC states-parties have voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under CWC Article XII, which states that a noncompliant state’s rights and privileges may be suspended until it returns to full compliance under the treaty. Syria has been called on to declare the entirety of its chemical weapons stockpile and affiliated facilities to regain its rights and privileges. In your view, what next steps should the CWC states-parties and the international community writ large take if Syria fails to cooperate with the OPCW and return to compliance with the CWC?

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks to his airplane seat on a January 2021 trip to Moscow from Berlin, where he was treated for a poisoning attack that he said was carried out under orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was arrested upon arrival in the Russian capital and remains imprisoned. His case has exacerbated concerns about the eroding global norm against chemical weapons use. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)Baumann: With the decision to suspend Syria's rights and privileges under the CWC, the conference of states-parties in April 2021 for the first time made use of the sanctions mechanism provided for by the CWC, thus making clear that chemical weapons use is not tolerated by the international community and will not avoid consequences. In a next step, this decision will be submitted to the UN Security Council and General Assembly through the secretary-general. If Syria does not return to compliance with the CWC, the international community might decide on further steps in the UN framework. It should not be overlooked that the European Union, as a consequence of the chemical attacks in Syria, established a sanctions mechanism specifically to react to violations of the CWC. The EU used this mechanism to impose sanctions on Syrian individuals and institutions and, more recently, on Russian individuals and institutions in connection with the Navalny case.

ACT: In the latest progress report, the OPCW identified a new issue with Syria’s stockpile declaration, which was described as an undeclared chemical warfare agent. As the OPCW works to clarify inconsistencies with Syria’s dossier, how can the organization ensure the completeness of Syria’s stockpile declaration?

Baumann: Ensuring the complete declaration of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is the mandate of the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team. The team has worked in a very thorough way since its inception in 2014. There have been numerous rounds of consultations with Syria. The next visit to Syria is planned for early this summer. The detection of a newly undeclared chemical warfare agent by the team in samples taken in September 2020 shows that there are still open questions and, what is even worse, there are new inconsistencies. What is also obvious is that the team experts are extremely able and cannot be easily fooled by Syria. Even if progress is very slow and not without setbacks, the work has to continue. The Syrian case cannot be closed. The more imminent worry remains, of course, to ensure that the Syrian regime does not embark on the use of chemical weapons again.

ACT: Nearly nine months have passed since Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was poisoned in Russia with a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. Despite strong evidence of Moscow’s involvement, the Kremlin has yet to be held accountable for violating the CWC’s prohibition on developing, possessing, or using chemical weapons. What can be done to ensure that Russia is held accountable for violating the CWC?

Baumann: The use of a chemical nerve agent against Navalny, a Russian citizen, represents an outrageous breach of the taboo against using chemical weapons. The attack happened on Russian territory. It is up to Russia to clarify the circumstances of this attack, which raises a number of questions on Russia’s compliance with the CWC. Russia has all necessary evidence to start criminal investigations into this attack. In this regard, it is also regrettable that Russia has so far not cooperated with the OPCW, which stands ready to provide technical assistance to Russia. The pressure has to be maintained by CWC states-parties in order to assure that Russia actually fulfills its obligations under Article VII of the CWC.

ACT: Can the CWC ever really be a credible restraint on chemical weapons use if Russia, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, violates it?

Baumann: International efforts on disarmament and arms control are uphill battles by nature. Enforcing arms control norms is the biggest challenge. Arms control and nonproliferation arrangements like the CWC provide only limited tools for sanctioning or penalizing the guilty party. That is why concerted action taken by different international organizations and bodies is needed. In the case of the poisoning of Navalny, the EU has reacted very rapidly by imposing sanctions. We have to uphold this pressure together, with and through other international forums like the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, the UN International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and human rights bodies. Progress is possible when we put the necessary commitment to the task and cooperate with one another. The latest decisions at the OPCW on creating investigative mechanisms and taking measures against Syria show a growing support for the concept of attribution or the notion of accountability. This is encouraging.

ACT: The OPCW IIT is an important mechanism to ensure that instances of chemical weapons use in Syria are properly attributed and that the perpetrators of those attacks are identified. In your view, are there benefits to expanding the IIT’s mandate beyond Syria to investigate instances of chemical weapons use on the territory of any CWC state-party?

Baumann: The decision of the conference of states-parties in 2018 already foresees support by the OPCW for investigations of chemical weapons use beyond Syria. The director-general, if requested by a state-party to investigate possible chemical weapons use on its territory, can provide technical expertise to identify those who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors, or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons. Hence, there is a path to broadening the mandate of the IIT for other cases. It would require further detailing and, first of all, the consent and the cooperation of the state-party concerned.

ACT: What role do you see the IIT playing in future efforts to strengthen compliance and accountability under the CWC?

Baumann: The IIT plays an essential role because it identifies those responsible for the use of chemical weapons and thus prepares the ground for holding them accountable. Professional, independent investigations and the identification of perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks send out a clear message: chemical weapons use will not be without consequences. More IIT reports are to come, as only four of nine incidents that the IIT planned to investigate have been addressed up to now.

ACT: During a recent UN Security Council Arria Formula meeting, several nations, including Russia, expressed concern over what they view as “politicization” of the OPCW, despite offering little concrete evidence. Those states reiterated their concerns during the CWC Conference of States Parties and voted against the call to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty. How would you respond to this and similar remarks that the OPCW’s work is politicized?

Baumann: Claims of a politicization of the OPCW have been pronounced by states-parties who apparently fear naming and shaming and, quintessentially, fear attribution and the establishment of accountability. In a very blunt and absurd manner, they try to question the professionalism and the impartiality of the OPCW experts. The current problem in this respect is the state-sponsored chemical weapons use by Syria. Very few allies of Syria seem determined to shield Syria against consequences in international forums. The camp of those who want to slow down the evolution toward stronger attribution and stronger norms remains small. The Syria attacks and the cases involving Skripal and Navalny have shown the growing strong support for the OPCW and the CWC.

ACT: What is your view on the role of the OPCW in identifying perpetrators of chemical weapons use?

Baumann: The OPCW has the necessary instruments and expertise at its disposal to identify guilty parties, including individuals. Yet, it does need the cooperation of the respective state-party to fulfill its mandate. Moving from attribution to judicial accountability remains one of the biggest challenges in fighting the use of chemical weapons. But again, here the OPCW and the states-parties have made significant progress over the last decade, which gives reason for optimism that the OPCW can become a driving force in the overall fight for more accountability.




International reaction to the recent cases of chemical weapons use clearly shows that the world is not willing to accept the erosion of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, Baumann tells Arms Control Today.          

U.S., Russia Agree to Strategic Stability Dialogue

July/August 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during their June summit to relaunch a bilateral strategic stability dialogue focused on “ensuring predictability,” reducing the risk of nuclear war, and setting the stage “for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

During their June 16 summit in Geneva, U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to relaunch a strategic stability dialogue aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war. (Photo by Peter Klaunzer—Pool/Keystone via Getty Images)The announcement marked the first step in what could be a long, contentious process to make progress on nuclear arms control after more than a decade of deadlock and before the last remaining arms control agreement expires in five years between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

In a joint statement released following their June 16 meeting, the two presidents said the strategic stability dialogue their countries planned to initiate would be “integrated,” “deliberate,” and “robust.”

Biden added at a press conference after the summit that the dialogue would “work on a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons that are coming on the scene now that reduce the times of response, that raise the prospects of accidental war.” Biden did not detail what specific weapons systems he has in mind.

He said that “we’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”

The date and location of the dialogue is not set, but will soon be determined by officials at the U.S. State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin noted during his postsummit press conference.

On June 22, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference that Moscow has proposed as “a first step, a joint review of each other’s security concerns.” The next step, he said, would be to “outline possible ways how to address these concerns,” with the goal being an agreed framework that “will be instrumental for further engagement in actual negotiations on eventual, practical agreements and arrangements.”

A strategic stability dialogue was last held in August 2020 under the Trump administration in the lead-up to the expiration of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in February 2021. (See ACT, September 2020.) But two days before the treaty’s expiration, Biden and Putin agreed to extend New START by five years, until 2026. (See ACT, March 2021.)

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) welcomed the dialogue’s planned resumption. “President Biden made clear his administration understands the critical principle that we have to engage with Russia on arms control issues to ensure a nuclear war never happens,” Menendez said in a June 16 statement.

But Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the committee’s ranking member, expressed his disappointment in the outcome of the summit, stating that “Biden made no efforts to address Russia’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty violations.” The United States withdrew from the 1987 INF Treaty in 2019, claiming that Russia had violated the treaty by testing and deploying a banned missile system. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The two presidents in their joint statement reaffirmed the 1985 statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Dozens of international nuclear policy experts and former senior government officials encouraged the two presidents to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev principle and announce the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue.

But the United States and Russia appear to have different priorities for the dialogue. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on June 10 that the administration will aim to discuss “the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries,” such as what may come after New START, “how…we deal with the fact that the INF Treaty is no more, [and] how…we deal with our concerns about Russia’s new nuclear systems.” Washington has also previously expressed its desire to address Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process.

Sullivan added that “whether additional elements get added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber[space] or other areas, that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”

As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on June 9 that “anything that affects strategic stability must be discussed during a dialogue,” including “nuclear and non-nuclear and offensive and defensive weapons.” Russia additionally has suggested the inclusion not only of China in arms control but also France and the United Kingdom.

Ryabkov added on June 22 that “[t]he parties may decide to adopt a package of interrelated arrangements and/or agreements that might have a different status if necessary. Moreover, it might be possible to design some elements in a way to make the room for others to join.”

China welcomed the U.S.-Russian decision to launch a strategic dialogue.

“China always actively supports international efforts in nuclear arms control, and will continue to hold discussions on a broad range of issues bearing on strategic stability with relevant parties within such frameworks as the cooperation mechanism of the five nuclear-weapon states, Conference on Disarmament, and the [UN General Assembly] First Committee. We also stand ready to have bilateral dialogue with relevant sides with mutual respect and on an equal footing,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said June 17.

During a round of the strategic stability dialogue in June 2020, the two countries agreed to form three working groups, which met the next month. (See ACT, July/August and September 2020.) A U.S. official at the time said the topics for the working groups were nuclear warheads and doctrine, verification, and space systems.

Whether those groups have continued their work since then is unclear.

The new strategic stability dialogue would be separate from any future negotiations on a potential arms control agreement to follow New START, but it could help set the foundation for those formal follow-on talks.

Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START, emphasized in a June 14 Politico op-ed that the goal for the strategic stability dialogue should be “a good discussion rather than a treaty, although over time the two sides may agree to some measures to build mutual understanding, confidence and predictability.”

Regarding future negotiations on a replacement for New START, Gottemoeller urged Biden and Putin to “issue clear, simple guidance about what exactly the new treaty will cover and when it should be completed.”

The summit between Biden and Putin came at the tail end of Biden’s first international trip as president, which also included the NATO leaders’ summit on June 14. In the communiqué released after that summit, the 30 heads of state expressed “their strong support for [New START’s] continued implementation and for early and active dialogue on ways to improve strategic stability. Allies will welcome new strategic talks between the United States and Russia on future arms control measures, taking into account all Allies’ security.”

The bilateral dialogue could be the first step in making progress on arms control after more than a decade of deadlock.

Biden Continues Trump Nuclear Funding

July/August 2021
By Kingston Reif

As the Biden administration prepares to initiate a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request would continue the expensive and controversial nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization efforts it inherited from the Trump administration.

The submission has prompted mixed reactions in Congress. Republicans have generally expressed support, but some Democrats said it is inconsistent with the concerns President Joe Biden raised on the campaign trail about the ambition and price tag of the modernization plans, which grew significantly over the past four years.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report published in May estimated the cost of the Trump administration’s approach at $634 billion from fiscal years 2021 through 2030. (See ACT, June 2021.) That is an increase of $140 billion, or 28 percent, from the CBO’s previous 10-year projection two years ago. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Whether the fiscal year 2022 budget proposal turns out to be a placeholder pending the outcome of the administration’s forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) or a harbinger that Biden intends to stick with the Trump plans remains to be seen.

The administration is requesting $43.2 billion in 2022 for the Defense and Energy departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure. That includes $27.7 billion for the Pentagon and $15.5 billion for the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 5.7 percent of the total national defense request of $753 billion.

A direct comparison of the Biden submission to what President Donald Trump requested and Congress largely supported in fiscal year 2021 ($44.5 billion) and what Trump projected to request for 2022 ($45.9 billion) is difficult because the Biden proposal appears to reclassify how spending on nuclear command, control, and communications programs is counted, leading to a lower requested amount.

“The nuclear triad remains the bedrock of our national defense and strategic deterrence,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 10.

The 2022 budget “invests in nuclear modernization efforts, and the department will always seek to balance the best capability with the most cost-effective solution,” he added.

The budget request would notably continue the controversial Trump proposals to expand U.S. nuclear capabilities. (See ACT, March 2018.) It includes $15 million to begin development of a new low-yield nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), nearly $134 million for a new high-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead (the W93) and associated aeroshell, $98.5 million for indefinite sustainment of the megaton-class B83-1 gravity bomb, and nearly $1.9 billion to build the capability to expand the production of plutonium pits, or cores, for nuclear warheads to 80 per year.

As with most new administrations, the Biden administration only had time for a quick reexamination of the fiscal year 2022 budget plans bequeathed by its predecessor. But the Pentagon did review some nuclear weapons programs, notably the Trump plans for a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and the new nuclear-armed SLCM. (See ACT, April 2021.)

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. (See ACT, March 2020.) The new cruise missile is undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapons system.

The future of the new cruise missile appears to be a controversial issue within the Pentagon. Despite the inclusion of funding for it in the budget request, guidance issued by acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker on June 4 called on the service not to fund the weapons system in fiscal year 2023.

The budget request would also sustain plans that began during the Obama administration to replace long-range delivery systems for all three legs of the nuclear triad.

Three of these programs—the long-range standoff missile program for a new fleet of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), the Columbia-class program for a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program for a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—are slated to receive altogether a nearly 15 percent increase above what the Trump administration was planning to request in 2022.

The proposed growth in spending on nuclear weapons continues to force difficult choices for the Pentagon as to what other priorities must be cut back, especially at a time when military budgets are flat. Overall, the administration is seeking $753 billion for national defense programs in 2022, an increase of 1.7 percent from 2021 but a 0.8 percent decrease from the Trump inflation growth projection for 2022 of $759 billion.

Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s budget director, told reporters on May 28 that the service’s decision to buy one instead of two new destroyers “was absolutely an affordability question, where the goal of the department was to balance the first priority, which was investment in Columbia[-class submarine] recapitalization.”

The administration’s request of about $15.5 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the NNSA is an increase of $139 million above the 2021 level appropriated by Congress, but a decrease of about $460 million from the Trump projection of $15.9 billion for 2022.

The request for NNSA weapons activities is the first decrease from a prior year request since fiscal year 2013 and from a prior year projection since fiscal year 2016, albeit from a much larger baseline. Last year, Congress provided approximately $15.4 billion, a mammoth increase of $2.9 billion above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

In addition to funding the new warhead and facility projects first proposed by Trump, the request also keeps on track programs for the B61-12 gravity bomb, W87-1 ICBM, and W80-4 ALCM warhead upgrade.

The budget request would seem to be inconsistent with statements Biden made during the campaign to adjust Trump’s spending plans.

Biden told the Council for a Livable World in responses to a 2019 candidate questionnaire that the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “administration will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) expressed concern that the budget request “expands almost every nuclear [weapons] program proposed by the previous administration” at a June 9 hearing on the budget request with acting Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young.

Young said that as the administration begins the NPR process, Biden “remains committed to taking steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.” She added, “So you see a continuation of a program but [it’s] certainly subject to what [the NPR process] will yield out.”

Austin said that process will begin “very shortly,” and other administration officials have indicated it will be closely tied to a larger Pentagon defense strategy review. It remains to be seen, however, whether the review will be a stand-alone review, as past ones have been, or subsumed within an integrated deterrence review that also addresses missile defense, space, and cyberspace issues.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, on June 10 echoed other Republicans when she lauded the request for prioritizing nuclear modernization and keeping the programs to recapitalize the nuclear triad “on track.”

But she and other Republican lawmakers expressed concern about reports that the Navy might cancel the SLCM program prior to the commencement of the NPR process.

“We have serious questions for senior Pentagon leaders on this reported decision and how it was reached,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement June 9.

Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the memo was “predecisional” and that the fate of the weapons system would be determined by the administration’s review.

Despite concerns voiced on the campaign trail about the ambition and price tag of modernization plans, President Biden sticks with Trump era increases in nuclear weapons funding.

New Iran President May Complicate Nuclear Talks

July/August 2021
By Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson

Iran’s election of conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi to be the country’s next president may complicate efforts to restore the United States and Iran to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but is unlikely to alter Tehran’s interest in reviving the accord.

Ebrahim Raisi is pictured June 21 during his first press conference since his election as Iran's next president. The victory of the hardline cleric could complicate efforts by Iran and the United States to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.  (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)Raisi, the former head of the judiciary and a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposed the nuclear deal in 2015, but during the campaign voiced his support for restoring it. Although Raisi will not take office until August, he is expected to weigh in on the ongoing negotiations to restore the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Raisi’s election was expected after a number of possible challengers were ruled ineligible to run by the 12-member Guardian Council, which vets and approves all presidential candidates.

Raisi won 62 percent of the vote, but less than half of eligible voters cast ballots, suggesting low enthusiasm for the candidates. In the 2017 presidential election, when Raisi ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Hassan Rouhani, 73 percent of the population voted.

Prior to the election, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, told al-Jazeera that if Raisi were elected, “there will be no disruption” in talks to restore the nuclear deal. He said that Iran’s policies are “unchanging, irrespective of different administrations.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan similarly said that Iran’s position on talks to restore the JCPOA is unlikely to change with Raisi’s election. Sullivan told ABC on June 20 that the “ultimate decision” to return to the deal will be made by the supreme leader and “he was the same person before the election as he is after the election.”

In a June 21 press conference, Raisi reiterated Iran’s position on restoring the deal, saying that U.S. sanctions must be lifted and their removal verified.

The sixth round of indirect talks between the United States and Iran on restoring the JCPOA wrapped up June 20, two days after the election.

Araghchi told journalists that day that progress has been made in all areas, but some “major differences” have not been resolved. He said the remaining issues “require serious decisions in the capitals.”

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, tweeted on June 17 that progress was made during recent talks on one of the most controversial issues, the sequencing of steps each side needs to take. He also noted that “difficult and time-consuming topics” remain unresolved.

One of the outstanding issues appears to be Iran’s demand that the United States provide some guarantee that it will not withdraw from the nuclear deal again and reimpose sanctions, as President Donald Trump did in May 2018. Araghchi told Iranian state TV on June 20 that Iran seeks “guarantees that assure” that “what the previous [U.S.] administration did…will not happen again.” He said some progress has been made on this issue but it requires more work.

Another issue that does not appear to have been resolved is the U.S. desire for Iran to agree to future talks on a range of issues once the nuclear deal is restored. U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled his determination to pursue further negotiations with Iran to build on the nuclear deal and to address regional security issues.

Raisi’s election may complicate those goals. In his June 21 press conference, Raisi said Iran seeks a balanced relationship with the outside world and the country’s foreign policy does not begin and end with the nuclear deal. He said that Iran’s ballistic missile program will not be a subject of negotiations. Raisi also asked why Iran should engage with the United States on a broader range of issues when Washington has not met its obligations under the nuclear deal.

U.S. policymakers have frequently raised concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile activities, which are limited by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 but not covered by the nuclear deal. Biden is also under pressure to force Iran to end support for its militant proxies such as Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a June 21 press briefing that the administration is confident that if the nuclear deal is restored, the United States will have “additional tools” to address issues outside of the nuclear deal, including ballistic missiles. He said Iran has “no doubt” about where the United States stands on follow-on diplomacy.


Iran’s election of Ebrahim Raisi to be the country’s next president could complicate efforts to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.a

Pyongyang Cool to Washington Talks

July/August 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

North Korea is dismissing offers by the United States to begin diplomatic contacts, signaling a diminished potential for talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program and other major issues for the foreseeable future.

Ri Son Gwon (C), now the North Korean foreign minister, arrives at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on January 9, 2018 for the first official face-to-face talks with South Korea in two years. At the moment, the North Koreans are reportedly resisting contacts with both Seoul and Washington. (Photo by Korea Pool/Getty Images)The latest rebuke came from Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon, who said on June 23 that North Korea is “not thinking about any meaningless contact with the U.S. or its possibility, where we would lose precious time,” according to a translation by the website 38 North.

The minister’s comments, reported by the state news agency, came after Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, announced on June 21 that he was ready to meet North Korean officials “anytime, anywhere without preconditions.”

One day earlier, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, appearing on ABC News, characterized remarks by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a recent party meeting as an “interesting signal.” Kim had said he was preparing for “dialogue and confrontation” in his dealings with the new Biden administration.

Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, on June 22 warned Washington against interpreting signals from Pyongyang “the wrong way” because that “would plunge [the United States] into a greater disappointment.”

Pyongyang has also resisted efforts at engagement by Seoul, which reportedly has called North Korea every day for the past year without a response.

Meanwhile, North Korea began operating the steam plant at its Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory in February, marking a plausible length of time for a reprocessing campaign to produce weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel for nuclear weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Although reprocessing cannot be confirmed, the North’s “nuclear activities remain a cause for serious concern. The continuation of [its] nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors on June 7.

A reprocessing campaign would increase Pyongyang’s stockpile of nuclear weapons-useable material. It is estimated that North Korea already has enough fissile material for 40 to 50 nuclear warheads, according to a 2021 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

North Korea has also continued to operate some of its other nuclear facilities, including Yongbyon’s experimental light-water reactor and a suspected second enrichment site at Kangson, Grossi reported. The IAEA observed no ongoing operations at Yongbyon’s five-megawatt electrical reactor, which is capable of producing seven kilograms of plutonium annually, or at the complex’s centrifuge enrichment facility, which produces enriched uranium, he added.

The United States has failed over many decades to halt the North’s nuclear weapons program. President Joe Biden recently pledged to undertake a new diplomatic policy, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said on June 3 that the appointment of veteran diplomat Sung Kim as the special representative for North Korea signals “readiness for dialogue.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 10 that Washington “will remain focused” on the increasing threat from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and will work to mitigate its destabilizing and provocative behavior, leading with diplomacy.

The Group of Seven industrialized countries struck a stronger tone in its June 13 summit communiqué, calling for “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the verifiable and irreversible abandonment of [North Korea’s] unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also been engaging with regional states affected by North Korea’s behavior. Its special representative on Korean peninsula affairs, Liu Xiaoming, had a phone call with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov on June 7 to discuss views on the Korean peninsula and affirmed China’s desire to “play constructive roles.”

Yang Jiechi, a member of China’s Politburo and director of the Office of Foreign Affairs, spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on June 11 and committed to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea is brushing away overtures from the United States for new talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.


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