“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
March 2024
Edition Date: 
Friday, March 1, 2024
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Keeping Outer Space Nuclear Weapons Free

March 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

Fifty-seven years ago, through the Outer Space Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to codify a fundamental nuclear taboo: nuclear weapons shall not be stationed in orbit or elsewhere in outer space. But there is growing concern that Russia is working on an orbiting anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system involving a nuclear explosive device that would, if deployed, violate the treaty, undermine space security, and worsen the technological and nuclear arms race.

The flash created by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test on July 9,1962 as seen from Honolulu, 900 miles away. (Wikimedia Commons) The White House confirmed on Feb. 15 that U.S. intelligence uncovered evidence that Russia is developing an ASAT weapon that “would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed up to, including Russia.” Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a nondenial denial, claiming on Feb. 20 that Russia remains “categorically against…the placement of nuclear weapons in space.”

An ASAT system involving a nuclear explosive device could produce a massive surge of radiation and a powerful electromagnetic pulse that, depending on the altitude of the explosion and the size of the warhead, could indiscriminately destroy, blind, or disable many of the 9,500 commercial and military space satellites now in orbit.

Russia’s reported pursuit of a nuclear-armed ASAT system is another troubling attempt by the Kremlin to challenge the fundamental norms against nuclear weapons and to use nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce. But it would not be a “Sputnik moment” requiring parallel ASAT weapons system development or radical new countermeasures by the United States.

As with the exotic nuclear delivery systems that Putin first announced in 2018, including a long-range, underwater torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-capable ASAT weapons system would add a dangerous capability. But it would not alter the existing military balance of terror.

Russia already fields a range of ASAT system capabilities, including co-orbital systems that can launch cyberattacks and engage in electronic jamming of specific adversary satellites. As with China, India, and the United States, Russia has already demonstrated a capability to use a ground-based missile to hit and destroy an orbiting satellite. All nations with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles also have the latent ability to detonate a nuclear explosive device in space. From 1958 to 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted nuclear explosive tests in the outer atmosphere.

The United States, which has the largest number of satellites in orbit, is already working to improve the resilience of its military communications, early-warning, and surveillance assets. A new Pentagon program soon will put constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites into orbit to counter space-based threats. Any corresponding U.S. nuclear-armed ASAT system effort would put U.S. and other satellites at even greater risk and do nothing to protect U.S. capabilities in space.

Off-and-on talks designed to maintain the peaceful use of space, including restrictions on ASAT weapons systems, have been stymied for years. A long-standing Chinese-Russian treaty proposal would ban objects placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. It also would ban the “threat or use of force against outer space objects,” which would still allow suborbital and ground-based ASAT weapons capabilities.

Until recently, the United States has been wary of any legally binding restrictions on ASAT weapons systems in part because they might restrict U.S. ground-based missile defense capabilities or a possible space-based, kinetic anti-missile system that could involve a number of orbiting interceptors that provide a thin defense against ground-based missiles. More recently, the Biden administration proposed and rallied support for a ban on direct-ascent ASAT missile tests, which create debris fields that pose a major hazard to orbiting objects.

In the coming weeks, Washington, Beijing, and other capitals need to pressure Putin to abandon any ideas about putting nuclear weapons in orbit. As President Joe Biden noted on Feb. 16, that deployment “hasn’t happened yet, and my hope is it will not.”

The possibility of a Russian nuclear-armed ASAT system should also spur Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and other space-faring nations to get serious finally about additional measures to protect space security. They need to implement effective limits on ASAT weapons systems, including direct-ascent ASAT weapons and space-based systems that can destroy satellites and other objects traveling through space.

Russian ASAT weapons systems are not the only destabilizing factor in the dangerous nuclear and deterrence equation. In the absence of new, agreed constraints on Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals and measures to halt the growth of China’s arsenal, a costly three-way nuclear arms race could accelerate after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires in 2026. In response, Biden needs to rally international pressure on Russia to support his proposals for talks on a new nuclear arms control framework and separate, regular dialogues with Moscow and Beijing on reducing nuclear dangers. Space and global security depend on it.

Fifty-seven years ago, through the Outer Space Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to codify a fundamental nuclear taboo: nuclear weapons shall not be stationed in orbit or elsewhere in outer space.

March 2024 Books of Note

March 2024

Under the Cap of Invisibility: The Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant and the Texas Panhandle
By Lucie Genay
University of New Mexico Press

This book explores how the Texas Panhandle has shaped “the cap of invisibility” covering a key U.S. nuclear weapons production site. For nearly 50 years, Pantex has been the sole U.S. nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. Yet to most people, Amarillo, home to Pantex, suggests oil and gas, cattle ranching, country western songs, and the place where you can eat a 72-ounce steak, well before thoughts of nuclear weapons. In Pantex’s first decades of operation, the surrounding community referred to it as the “soap factory” because the first site contractor was Procter and Gamble. Not until 1969 did the local newspaper clearly disclose the Pantex role in the nuclear weapons enterprise. Perhaps more than at other nuclear weapons sites, secrecy and invisibility have been cultivated here.

The book tells rich stories of the people who have tried to penetrate this invisibility, bringing moments of scrutiny and tension to Pantex. Challenges from some community religious leaders, sick workers, neighboring ranchers, and activist groups have brought into question the morality of Pantex weapons activities, its safety and health impact on workers, and its environmental impacts on the ranching industry. Efforts to expand and develop new Pantex missions, largely unsuccessful, also have brought controversy to the facility. As attention to these efforts has now subsided, invisibility is returning. The book sheds light on how new attention could be drawn to the facility, particularly by those who are interested in addressing nuclear weapons human and environmental harms.—KATHY CRANDALL ROBINSON



Death Dust: The Rise, Decline, and Future of Radiological Weapons Programs
By William C. Potter et al.
Stanford University Press


Death Dust is an in-depth exploration of the history and development of radiological weapons. The authors meticulously analyze why, despite their destructive potential, these weapons did not proliferate as other weapons of mass destruction did. Radiological weapons are defined as devices that spread radioactive substances without a nuclear blast.

The book examines programs in Egypt, Iraq, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It thoroughly analyzes the technical obstacles and reduced military effectiveness that caused the discontinuation of radiological weapons programs. It also explores the role of science fiction in shaping the development of radiological weapons, drawing parallels between fiction and actual governmental strategies.

The authors explain why radiological weapons are obscure in historical literature and attribute this situation to such factors as the short lifespan of these programs and the shift in focus toward nuclear weapons. They emphasize the potential future relevance of these weapons and the need for international efforts to prevent their resurgence.

By providing a comprehensive study that blends historical facts with contemporary concerns, the book is a valuable addition to international security literature. It is a thought-provoking must-read for those interested in the history of weapons development and arms control issues.—CHAD ALLAN LAWHORN


Under the Cap of Invisibility: The Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant and the Texas Panhandle

Has Conflict on the Korean Peninsula Become Inevitable?

March 2024
By Jenny Town

There is a hot debate underway in international policy circles about how to interpret increased talk of war preparations in North Korean rhetoric.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 during their third meeting. Their hopes of revitalizing stalled nuclear talks failed. North Korea now is forging closer relations with China and Russia. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)Some analysts suggest a “decision has been made [in Pyongyang] to go to war,” but what a contemporary war on the Korean peninsula would look like is unclear.1 Other analysts refute this prospect of an all-out war. At the same time, they resign themselves to the notion that some kind of limited conflict or overly provocative behavior is likely in the near term, which is to say, actions that could easily escalate into a devastating conflict and potential nuclear use.2

In most of these scenarios, there tends to be an underlying acceptance that this dynamic is too advanced to stop. Despite the Biden administration’s multiple attempts to invite North Korea back into nuclear talks, the U.S. proposals have gone unanswered. In the meantime, South Korea and the United States have bolstered their cooperation not only in conventional capabilities but also in nuclear consultation and planning. They have doubled down on deterrence messaging and drills, demonstrating their combined firepower and reminding Pyongyang of the dire consequences of any kind of attack.

North Korea’s consistent response has been reciprocal deterrence messaging and drills. This power-for-power dynamic has made it difficult for either side to back down or even ease off without looking as if it has ceded ground to the other. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are no operative diplomatic channels of communication to clarify, convey, or choreograph deescalatory actions.

With both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) emphasizing the need to be ready for war, the question is, Has war become inevitable? This obviously is not the first time tensions have risen to turbulent heights on the Korean peninsula. The last frenzy was in 2017, when North Korean advancements in intercontinental ballistic missile technologies were met by threats of “fire and fury” from U.S. President Donald Trump.3 Although the fury was evident in the various exchanges and insults that characterized that era, fire did not follow.

The flashy diplomacy that came next was dashed in a dramatic fashion, with the failure to secure a first-phase agreement between North Korea and the United States that would kick off a denuclearization process and move the two countries toward more normal relations. Since then, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has implemented new policies, plans, and laws that demonstrate fundamental changes to his calculus about his nuclear weapons program and his country’s place in an evolving geopolitical landscape.

The level of conviction and decisiveness Kim is showing today raises questions about his endgame. What makes the situation different from 2017 or other moments in history when tensions flared? Does it make “fire” more or less likely in the near future? More importantly, instead of just hunkering down for the fight, what can be done on the diplomatic side to prevent it?

The Shifting Geopolitical Context

The consequences of not making a deal in 2019, when Kim was still willing to negotiate over his nuclear weapons program, have been more serious than after previous negotiations. In the past, agreeing to a first step, even if small, would have laid the foundation for more productive relations and for continued negotiations as progress was made. It also would have created the mechanism for both sides to test each other’s resolve—how far were they willing to go to reap the benefits of better relations? Moreover, with the support of key players, especially South Korea, China, and Russia, the potential for enhancing regional security and stability, establishing confidence-building and security measures, and moving further down the denuclearization path seemed promising.

That moment, however, has passed. At the end of 2019, Kim made clear his disillusionment with dangled promises that relations with the United States could change enough for North Korea to gain benefits. Since then, North Korea has undergone major policy shifts that demonstrate a fundamental change in its worldview. In 2021, for instance, North Korea embraced the suggestion that a “new Cold War” was emerging and quickly got on board.4 As South Korean-U.S. relations grew deeper, North Korea worked to expand its relations with China and Russia on the other side of the ideological paradigm.

By 2022, the North Korean defense minister pledged to undertake “strategic and tactic[al] coordinated operations” with China’s People’s Liberation Army, and Kim touted a level of “strategic and tactical cooperation” with Russia.5 The inclusion of tactical cooperation was new in both instances, going well beyond the historical parameters of their “friendships” over the previous 30 years. In the case of Russia in particular, this change has been consequential.

Within this new Cold War-like alignment, North Korea’s political support has been reciprocated as China and Russia have blocked the passage of new punitive measures against North Korea in international forums. Economic trade and cooperation have resumed and apparently food and medical aid as well, helping boost the North Korean economy as it emerges from its pandemic isolation. Military cooperation with Russia also creates opportunities for quick infusions of hardware and technology to help modernize North Korea’s conventional and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities.

Moreover, although North Korea may be a problematic partner for China in particular, increasing tensions on their shared border with continued weapons testing and deployment exercises, North Korean actions still fit within a Chinese geopolitical narrative. China’s own concerns about a growing buildup of U.S. military and strategic assets in the region and deepening U.S. alliance cooperation with South Korea and Japan cultivate strategic empathy for Pyongyang’s situation in Beijing.

Reframing North Korean Nuclear Weapons

One of the most significant changes that North Korea has announced since 2019 is how it views its nuclear weapons program. Historically, descriptions of the country’s nuclear weapons were consistently framed as contingent on the United States maintaining its hostile policy against the North, thus leaving the door open to negotiations. In September 2022, when announcing a new nuclear law, however, Kim denounced future negotiations to this end and said that “[w]e have drawn the line of no retreat regarding our nuclear weapons so that there will be no longer any bargaining over them.”6

This new law described the country as a “responsible nuclear weapons state” and laid out five conditions under which it would consider nuclear use, three of which included preemptive clauses. There also is a clause that compels automatic nuclear use in case of leadership decapitation.7 Although much public attention has been focused on the troubling inclusion of potential preemptive nuclear use, there is strong deterrent messaging in the law and an emphasis on how clarity of strategy can help prevent miscalculation by other states with nuclear weapons.

In 2023, Kim announced a new constitutional amendment that “ensures the country’s right to existence and development, deter war and protect regional and global peace by rapidly developing nuclear weapons to a higher level.” He stressed the need for “exponentially boosting the production of nuclear weapons and diversifying the nuclear strike means and deploying them.”8

Enshrining the nuclear weapons strategy and the mandate to continue developing weapons of mass destruction in law has significant implications for future negotiations with North Korea. First, it means that getting back to any kind of denuclearization agenda is going to be enormously more difficult than in the past and will not be even remotely possible until there are major changes in the broader geopolitical environment. These definitive measures will not be reversed easily, especially while other countries in the region continue to build up and modernize their own military capabilities.

It also means that there is no longer any low-hanging fruit to use as a starting point in future negotiations. In the last round of negotiations, for instance, North Korea declared a unilateral moratorium on long-range ballistic missile and nuclear weapons testing to create the right environment for negotiations. It was an easy concession to make. Going forward, even freezes of nuclear testing or actual development activities will require a high price for Pyongyang to justify violating its constitution. Although it is not impossible that the right scenario could prove appealing enough for Kim to take such steps, it certainly will not be the kind of easy concession it has been previously.

South Korea as Principal Enemy

One of the newest policy shifts involves how North Korea views its relations with South Korea. At a recent meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim announced a fundamental change in the handling of North-South relations and rejected the notion that peaceful reunification could be achieved.9 Since then, a series of moves and statements have rebranded South Korea as the North’s principal enemy and reassigned the management of relations under the rubric of foreign policy rather than being treated as intra-Korean affairs.

In April 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) were all smiles during  the welcoming ceremony that was part of their meeting on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. Since then, Kim has designated the South as the North’s principal enemy.  (Photo by Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps / Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)The exact goal of such a policy shift remains unclear. Some analysts suggest it makes it easier to justify taking military actions against South Korea in the future, including the use of nuclear weapons. Yet, North Korea always has had South Korea in its sight when building its nuclear weapons program, long before it developed strategic-range delivery systems, and has rarely hesitated to threaten their use against Seoul.

Subsequent rhetoric and actions relay a strong sense of disillusionment that North-South relations ever could move forward independent from the North’s broader international relations. The recent decision to revoke the law on inter-Korean economic cooperation, for instance, cuts at the heart of the matter. The North-South joint tourism zone at Mount Kumgang has been shut down since 2008, when a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean guard for straying into a restricted zone. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, where several South Korean companies once employed around 55,000 North Korean workers, has been closed since 2016 due to political tensions. The revival of these initiatives has been a goal of both Koreas for several years, but sanctions remain an obstacle to resuming business.

The North-South joint railroad project, which South Korean President Moon Jae-in hoped to revive under the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018, never received the sanctions exemptions that it needed to make any substantial progress. Throughout 2018 and 2019, Kim urged Moon not to let external forces interfere in Korean affairs. Moon’s failure to convince the international community to carve out space for inter-Korean affairs to move forward seems to have reinforced North Korea’s perception of South Korea as a U.S. puppet state.

Designating South Korea as the North’s principal enemy certainly helps further justify building up arms against it, especially when Seoul is expanding its defense budgets, enhancing its conventional capabilities, and strengthening its extended deterrence capabilities against Pyongyang’s growing WMD stockpile. Moreover, preserving special relations made sense when there was a shared vision of unification, such as the one defined in the Joint Declaration of June 15, 2000, which made space for both governments to coexist in a confederation model.10 Yet, this is no longer the case. On many occasions, South Korea has talked about a vision of unification under a liberal democratic government, which by default poses an existential threat to the Kim regime.

Reframing relations with South Korea at this time also facilitates Kim’s domestic agenda. Eliminating institutions dedicated to inter-Korean cooperation enables Kim to redirect national resources from perceived lost causes to initiatives that are a higher priority and have a higher chance of success within his ambitious economic goals, especially in year four of a five-year plan.

Implications for Diplomacy

In the near term, there does not seem to be a real window of opportunity for restarting a North Korean-U.S. dialogue, especially South Korea-U.S. military exercises, such as these in January at a training field in Pocheon, often exacerbate tensions with North Korea. Some analysts say refraining from overly aggressive demonstrations of power could help reopen the door to diplomacy with Pyongyang. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)not without a major recalibration of the U.S. approach toward Pyongyang. If the United States intends to maintain a denuclearization-centered approach, meaning that eventually eliminating the nuclear program is the ultimate purpose of negotiations, then the window for diplomacy is closed. North Korea has enshrined its nuclear program and the continued development of weapons of mass destruction into its domestic laws in a way that will not be reversed easily. Furthermore, the current geopolitical environment affords Pyongyang ample political cover and other beneficial relationships to stay on its current course and still grow stronger.

Moreover, even approaches that broach the concept of arms control or risk reduction—concepts that North Korea might have entertained in the past—are now likely to fall on deaf ears. The potential for North Korea to agree to any kind of limitation or reduction of its arsenals will first require drastic changes to the broader geopolitical environment toward a more positive, more stable, less conflict-prone security situation. Such an environment is unlikely to be brokered without reciprocal military concessions from other key actors, especially South Korea, either alone or within the context of its alliance with the United States. The days of military concessions from North Korea in exchange for symbolic gestures such as food aid are gone for now, given all that it is able to secure from more like-minded states.

North Korea’s robust cooperation with Russia also is a major new obstacle for reviving talks with the United States. Kim’s open and consistent support for the full-scale Russian war in Ukraine has paid off. In addition to reciprocal political support at the United Nations and in other international forums, Russia appears to see a role for North Korea in its broader war against the West, where Chinese support tends to waver. This includes using North Korea as an arms supplier for Russia’s current war-fighting in Ukraine and as a military partner against the Western or U.S.-led world order.

Russia appears willing to do more than buy North Korean weapons with cash or via barter. Russia is investing in bolstering North Korea’s overall military capabilities, keeping U.S. attention divided, ensuring that the stakes for South Korea’s further involvement in Ukraine remain high, and guaranteeing that Russia consistently has a nuclear-armed partner at its side.

Moscow’s willingness to provide military cooperation, technology transfer, and deepening economic cooperation makes it the ultimate partner for Pyongyang and currently its top foreign policy priority. How long that priority lasts will depend on how long Russia is willing to engage in the same level of cooperation as now. If or when Russia’s favor fades, North Korea’s attention is likely to pivot back toward China or other options, depending on where opportunity is most abundant. In the meantime, no other country is going to be willing to offer as much as what Russia is doing now, especially the military cooperation, which limits room for further diplomacy, because North Korea will focus its resources, including diplomatic resources, where it sees greatest value.

The U.S. presidential election year is also an obstacle to cultivating a new diplomatic opening with North Korea. Even if the Biden administration were willing to make major changes to its approach, there is no credible reason to believe that any new strategy would be sustainable if President Joe Biden is defeated and a new administration takes office.

Although Pyongyang may seem to favor a return of Trump to the White House, this does not mean that Kim will come running back to negotiations with him either. The level of risk Kim was willing to take in 2018 and 2019 to meet with Trump multiple times and build up domestic expectation for success was enormously high, and his failure to secure an expected breakthrough agreement was consequential.

Since then, the shifts in North Korean policies reflect a more risk-averse strategy, directing resources and diplomatic efforts where tangible results can be brokered quickly with little to no political risk. The perception of risk for trying to secure some level of sanctions relief through negotiations with the United States will probably remain high regardless of whether it is a second Biden or Trump term. Any agreement on sanctions relief will surely require concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program. This may be too politically costly for Kim, especially when North Korea has had successes in cultivating deeper relations with states that will disregard or blatantly violate the sanctions regime while continuing to advance its nuclear goals.

A Way Ahead?

In the past, the United States used to describe its policy approach as working to narrow North Korea’s choices. The fact remains that Pyongyang still has choices, but more often than not, these choices push it further away from the kind of behavior and relationships that the international community would like to see. As North Korea’s commercial trade opportunities have been restricted, for instance, its cybercrime and cryptocurrency schemes have increased. Although these illicit efforts have been enormously successful for Pyongyang, with estimated revenues of $3 billion in 2023, this income comes with no social benefit.11 The North Korean government coffers have ample resources for weapons development and other priority initiatives, but textile workers, fishermen, and other laborers suffer without paid work.

Restarting diplomacy with North Korea will require more than open invitations to negotiate. As politically risk adverse and transactionally minded as North Korea tends to be, a new approach will need to build confidence that there is actually a reason to negotiate. That means demonstrating that results are possible.

In the past, when North Korea was still willing to negotiate, subtle, unilateral gestures might have signaled a new opportunity. Such actions could have included elevating the role of the U.S. special representative for North Korea back to a full-time position to strategize about new approaches, liaise with the policy community, and coordinate interagency efforts and be proactive in trying to create diplomatic openings with the North. Other initiatives could be meaningful, such as lifting the restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to North Korea; clearing out obstacles to informal and humanitarian engagement, such as those outlined in the Enhancing North Korea Humanitarian Assistance Act; refraining from reactive South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises and overly aggressive demonstrations of power; and moderating U.S. messaging about extended deterrence to avoid excessive and expletive language.

Although none of these moves in isolation were likely to jump-start diplomacy, together they could have worked to signal that U.S. policy is agile and adaptive and that Washington was prepared for diplomacy on multiple levels if and when the opportunity arose. Unfortunately, none of these options were pursued.

These are all still useful measures to consider in any new policy formation, but they are not nearly enough to build North Korea’s confidence that there is a reason to return to negotiations with the United States. Under the current conditions, creating new diplomatic opportunities will require political bravery and leadership to take steps that are not predicated on North Korean actions but that will reestablish an inclination toward more positive choices within North Korea’s calculus.

For instance, rather than trying to completely cut off North Korea’s revenue streams, there is value in restoring some of the commercial activities, such as textile or seafood exports, that provide inherent social benefit to the North Korean people in the form of jobs. To make this politically more palatable, policymakers could consider a sanctions swap arrangement: lifting one or two sanctions on legal, commercial activity while imposing new sanctions on illicit cyberactivities. Doing this would show that sanctions can be lifted and results are possible in future negotiations and are not meant to hurt the North Korean people, while the international community works to crack down on North Korea’s illicit behaviors in a targeted way.

Such an approach would provide Kim with pathways and incentives to move back toward more normal trade activity and perhaps give him a reason to reengage in economic reform attempts. Such a move also could help build cooperation with China and perhaps Russia, meeting them halfway on their previous attempts to broker sanctions relief for North Korea for humanitarian purposes. Finding common ground with Beijing at least could be a first step in developing a more coordinated strategy toward North Korea that enables more productive choices for all the parties involved.

The international community is always quick to react to every provocative action North Korea takes, but it remains relatively silent when North Korea demonstrates acts of goodwill. Although they may be few and far between, these acts should be highlighted in a more prominent way when they happen, to meet goodwill with goodwill and capitalize on the moment. For instance, the recent return of U.S. Army Private Travis King without incident took diplomatic coordination involving multiple stakeholders and was the best possible outcome for all parties involved.12 North Korea made no condition for his return, but the lack of a public, positive acknowledgment or act was a missed diplomatic opportunity.

Another productive approach would involve developing a better understanding within U.S. alliances about where there is and is not room for concessions in the future. Although it may be difficult to imagine now, any kind of denuclearization or arms control negotiation will require reciprocal security-related measures, most likely from South Korea and the United States. Regular discussions within the alliance about where there may be redlines and where there is room to maneuver could help prevent them from fearing uncoordinated offers or actions during future negotiations with North Korea.

In the long run, the United States will need to come to terms with the broader challenge that North Korea poses, that is, how to deal with a nonpeer nuclear adversary in a coherent way across the various instruments of national power. If the goal is simply to manage the threat, then perhaps the current approach has merit: Washington and its allies have responded to Pyongyang’s increasing capabilities with their own increasing capabilities and cooperation.

If the goal is to reduce the threat or encourage disarmament, however, then this approach has failed because North Korea’s nuclear program today is robust with strategic and tactical capabilities. Relying on deterrence messaging and reminding the North of the overwhelming power of the United States and its allies combined has not had the desired effect. Instead, it has continued to feed into the North’s justification for continued development.

Rebuilding diplomacy with North Korea is necessary to reduce the risks of nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula, whether intentional or accidental, and to curb endless arms racing in this vital, dynamic region. To realize such a goal and carry it forward will take creative, concerted, and persistent efforts and a hefty dose of political leadership.



1. Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?,” 38 North, January 11, 2024., https://www.38north.org/2024/01/is-kim-jong-un-preparing-for-war/.

2. Markus V. Gralauskas, “The Rising Threat of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea,” Newsweek, January 30, 2024.

3. Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea If It Endangers U.S.,” The New York Times, August 8, 2017.

4. Rachel Minyoung Lee, “The Real Significance of North Korea’s Recent Military Activities,” 38 North, November 2, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/11/the-real-significance-of-north-koreas-recent-military-activities/.

5. Ibid.

6. “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at Seventh Session of the 14th SPA of DPRK,” Korean Central News Agency, September 10, 2022, http://kcna.kp/en/article/q/15f336993bdcb97a22f50fa590e6bc72.kcmsf.

7. “Law on DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces Promulgated,” Korean Central News Agency, September 9, 2022, http://kcna.kp/en/article/q/5f0e629e6d35b7e3154b4226597df4b8.kcmsf.

8. “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Speech at 9th Session of 14th SPA,” Rodong Sinmun, n.d., http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?MTVAMjAyMy0wOS0yOC1IMDA1QA== (accessed February 13, 2024).

9. Ruediger Frank, “North Korea’s New Unification Policy: Implications and Pitfalls,” 38 North, January 11, 2024, https://www.38north.org/2024/01/north-koreas-new-unification-policy-implications-and-pitfalls/.

10. “2000 Inter-Korean Summit,” KBS World Radio, n.d., https://world.kbs.co.kr/special/northkorea/contents/archives/summit/summit_2000.htm?lang=e (accessed February 13, 2024).

11. Michelle Nichols, “Exclusive: UN Experts Investigate 58 Cyberattacks Worth $3 Bln by North Korea,” Reuters, February 8, 2024.

12. Chantal Da Silva, “American Soldier Travis King Arrives Back in the U.S. After Being Expelled From North Korea,” NBC News, September 28, 2023.


Jenny Town is a senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center and co-founder and director of 38 North.

Rebuilding diplomacy with North Korea is necessary to reduce the risks of nuclear conflict.

Missiles, Preemption, and the Risk of Nuclear War on the Korean Peninsula

March 2024
By Ankit Panda

In the last decade, as North Korea has made tremendous qualitative progress in its nuclear and missile programs, non-nuclear South Korea has responded by shoring up its own precision strike arsenal.

When U.S. President Donald Trump (R) rejected North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s demands for sanctions relief, their 2019 summit in Hanoi ended in failure and began a freeze on diplomacy that continues to this day. (Photo by Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images)Beginning in 2021, North Korea explicitly stated an intention to develop tactical nuclear weapons, sharply intensifying the perceived threat in South Korea. Since then, Pyongyang has developed an array of new short-range nuclear delivery systems, rendering its ambitions more credible. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, has indicated that many of these short-range systems will be deployed with so-called frontline units of the Korean People’s Army. Although Kim remains the sole authority on nuclear weapons use in North Korea, he has indicated further that there may be conditions under which the authority to use nuclear weapons could devolve to military commanders. One such condition, outlined in a September 2022 law, could be the degradation of North Korea’s nuclear command-and-control systems in a conflict or the death of the country’s leader. Either circumstance could prompt an “automatic and immediate” nuclear retaliatory attack.1

North Korea’s adoption of such a fail-deadly posture for its nuclear forces is largely a response to South Korea and the United States. The advanced capabilities available to that alliance, including an array of long-range, non-nuclear strike options supplemented by U.S. nuclear capabilities, present a threat to the survivability of North Korean nuclear forces. More important, however, is the renewed public emphasis on preemptive disarming attacks and decapitation strikes by the conservative government in Seoul, which was inaugurated in May 2022.

Cumulatively, these developments in recent years have contributed to a sharply heightened risk of nuclear war. The two Koreas are mired in an intense security dilemma, which could cause future crises between them to spiral quickly into a possible, large-scale war. In turn, this likely would precipitate North Korean nuclear use, with devastating consequences.

To cope with North Korea’s advancing capabilities, South Korea has become a pioneer in what might be dubbed a strategy of conventional counterforce, namely relying on its advanced non-nuclear capabilities to hold at risk Pyongyang’s nuclear forces. The two Koreas remain stuck in a fierce asymmetric arms competition marked by an action-reaction cycle.

Since the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, from 2013 to 2017, Seoul has spent considerable resources developing a “three-axis” system, which includes a preemptive strike plan known as the “Kill Chain,” an air defense component known as “Korea Air and Missile Defense,” and a retaliatory decapitation plan known as “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation.”2 The first and third components of these plans are underwritten by Seoul’s growing array of conventional missile capabilities.

North Korean Missile Modernization

Despite acute resource constraints in North Korea, Kim, like his father and grandfather, has ensured that the country’s military readiness remains high. Since taking the reins of power in late 2011, he has made the development of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery a major priority. Between 2013 and 2017, Kim pursued a major nuclear development campaign that culminated in the testing of two different types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a thermonuclear device in 2017.

Following the inaugural flight test of an ICBM known as the Hwasong-15, in November 2017, Kim declared his nuclear deterrent “complete” and pivoted by early 2018 to diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. Although this diplomacy temporarily resulted in a pause in North Korean missile testing activity and quickly kept tensions from boiling over as they might have in 2017, it ultimately proved unsustainable. Kim found himself empty-handed after the North Korean-U.S. summit in Hanoi in 2019 when U.S. President Donald Trump rebuffed his demands for sanctions relief in exchange for concessions on uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing at the Yongbyon complex.

Since the collapse of diplomacy in 2019, North Korea has doubled down on its nuclear force development efforts. The hallmarks of its ongoing nuclear modernization program center on tactical nuclear weapons, improved responsiveness, and force dispersal. The two latter components represent Pyongyang’s chosen path to a broadly survivable nuclear deterrent, designed to be robust against South Korea’s conventional counterforce strategy.

Even as North Korea advances its missile and nuclear capability, South Korea and the United States could take steps to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation, contributor Ankit Panda writes. On February 14, North Korea test-fired a new surface-to-sea missile, named Padasuri-6, off the eastern port city of Wonsan into the East Sea. (Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)The diversity of North Korea’s nuclear forces reached breathtaking levels as of early 2024. Pyongyang has indicated that it is actively pursuing everything from lake-submerged, short-range ballistic missile launchers to fixed silos to an autonomous, underwater, nuclear-armed torpedo to rail-mobile missile launchers to submarine-launched cruise missiles.

Kim likely does not yet possess the requisite weapons-grade fissile material to produce a sufficient number of warheads to enable the deployment of this wide range of delivery systems at scale, but he has articulated a goal of increasing fissile material output in an “exponential” manner in the coming years. Kim’s ambition should be taken seriously if not literally. North Korea likely possesses sufficient fissile material to enable the manufacture of 60 to 80 nuclear warheads today.

Given the apparent entry into operation of a new, suspected, experimental light-water reactor; efforts to continue plutonium reprocessing at the old gas-graphite reactor at Yongbyon; and unconstrained uranium enrichment, North Korea slowly is shoring up its stocks of weapons-grade fissile material. Over time, Kim’s ability to flesh out his tactical nuclear forces will grow, and additional nuclear testing likely lies ahead under the ongoing military modernization campaign.

Instability, Arms Control, and the Risk of War

Circumstances between the two Koreas today manifest a clear-cut example of crisis instability risks. Thomas Schelling once described this as the problem of the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack,” in which even if neither side wants a war, the benefits of shooting first in a crisis are perceived as so great for each that both have strong incentives to do so, fearing that the other might act instead.3

North Korea expects to seek tactical surprise and strategic advantage in a crisis by resorting to an early, large-scale nuclear attack to degrade the ability of South Korea and the United States to prosecute a war. Kim has described the purpose of his nuclear forces as twofold: to “deter” and, should deterrence fail, then to “repel” an attack with nuclear use.4

The latter would include nuclear use to destroy ports, airfields hosting fifth-generation stealth fighters, command-and-control nodes, radars, and missile defense systems. South Korea, meanwhile, plans to prevent precisely such an attack by shooting the proverbial archers in North Korea by destroying as much of the mobile missile and strike complex as possible with precise, conventional weapons.

As each side publicly communicates these sets of goals, the other’s belief in the advantages and the necessity of shooting first grows. Failing to shoot first comes to be seen as fatal in a crisis. Neither appears to see any benefit in walking back from this fundamental orientation toward preemptive attack.

Critically, the powerful nature of the incentives to attack under mutual postures of preemption is most likely to manifest in escalation even when neither side has an interest in escalation as such. It is the fear that the adversary may preempt that could drive one to consider escalation rational in the course of what might otherwise have been a limited crisis.

Given the poor state of political relations between the two Koreas and the lack of any interest in diplomacy, conditions are hardly propitious for any formal arms control initiatives in the near term. What little remained in the form of confidence-building measures also has largely disintegrated as tensions flared between Seoul and Pyongyang in recent years.

The Comprehensive Military Agreement, agreed by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their summit in Pyongyang in September 2018, has been scrapped completely by North Korea. South Korea too has started to resume proscribed activities, such as flying military helicopters along the Military Demarcation Line separating the two sides.5

Although limited in scope, the agreement was built on an important premise, namely that accidental clashes could spark serious crises that could quickly propel the two sides into a general war. The agreement sought to prohibit a range of activities within the immediate vicinity of the demarcation line that could increase perceived threats.

In Seoul’s assessment, North Korean violations of the agreement had been ongoing since late 2019.6 With the arrival of the Yoon administration, violations increased in frequency and severity. In December 2022, for instance, North Korea flew multiple drones into South Korean airspace in precisely the sort of action that could be interpreted as a precursor to a major armed attack.7

South Korea retaliated in kind, sending drones of its own into North Korean airspace. The UN Command, which oversees the implementation of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, assessed that both Koreas violated the armistice with these actions.8

This South Korean propensity for disproportionality has manifested acutely under the Yoon administration, which has come to espouse a philosophy that holds that only resolute shows of force can contribute to deterring North Korea. Beyond the drone incident in December 2022, at least two other incidents are evocative of this tendency. In November 2022, a North Korean missile for the first time transgressed the maritime delimitation between the two Koreas. In response, the South Korean side launched three air-to-ground missiles across that same threshold, upping the ante threefold. In the first few days of January 2024, meanwhile, South Korea responded to North Korea’s firing of 200 artillery rounds near the inter-Korean demarcation line by firing 400 rounds of its own.9

Worsening prospects for engagement, North Korea’s newfound strategic partnership with Russia in the aftermath of the latter’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine is likely to raise Kim’s confidence in unconstrained competition with South Korea. Pyongyang’s decision to reject its decades-long objective of unification with South Korea may be in part a reflection of this.

Political Courage and Military Organizational Change

Although arms control continues to be a useful tool for practically reducing the risk of unwanted war on the Korean peninsula, it will require a willing counterpart. North Korea’s post-2019 political and diplomatic recalibration has resulted in a fundamental lack of interest in reciprocating any external overtures from South Korea or the United States.

Although the conditions for proactive arms control and cooperative risk reduction could again manifest on the Korean peninsula at some point, there is an urgency today that demands attention. Policymakers in South Korea and the United States should recognize that even without North Korean reciprocity, they can take measures to reduce the risk of unwanted war and escalation from a conventional war to a nuclear war that do not necessarily require Pyongyang’s involvement.

Such measures would not require compromising general deterrence of North Korea. Instead, South Korea and the United States should recognize that even as North Korea postures its own forces offensively and irresponsibly, some of their own policies and military plans exacerbate the risk of escalation within a conventional war and the risk of nuclear conflict. Unilateral policy change by South Korea and the United States could reduce these risks and lead to a long-term adjustment in North Korean threat perceptions that could be propitious for an eventual return to negotiated, cooperative measures like the 2018 agreement.

Two such measures are easily identified. First, South Korea’s current emphasis on preemption as a matter of its core national defense strategy for dealing with North Korea contributes to escalation risks. To preserve deterrence while reducing escalation pressures, Seoul could adapt its strategic communications toward Pyongyang to emphasize that it would not seek to attack North Korean nuclear forces massively and preemptively early in a war.

Eliminating this source of use-it-or-lose-it pressures for Kim is likely to reduce significantly the risk of nuclear escalation. South Korean policymakers recognize the nuclear risks that manifest on the Korean peninsula as a result of North Korea’s stated intention to resort to the early use of nuclear weapons in a war to mitigate its conventional military vulnerabilities. Yet, preemption continues to be a preferred strategy in Seoul.

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shake hands during a joint press conference at the White House in April 2023. The Washington Declaration they agreed upon is designed in part to deepen bilateral coordination to ensure Seoul does not escalate crises with Pyongyang. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Second, the United States can eliminate a prominent source of use-it-or-lose-it pressures for North Korea. Under the Trump administration, the United States publicized a counterproductive effort to seek “left-of-launch” techniques that could disable North Korean missiles prior to their launch in a conflict.10 Although the precise nature of such capabilities remains obscure and perhaps exaggerated, North Korea is likely to take this seriously. The Biden administration’s 2022 Missile Defense Review retains a commitment to “comprehensive missile defeat,” which John Plumb, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for space policy, clarified involves a continued reliance on measures to left and right of launch.11 This comprehensive approach includes nonkinetic measures, such as possible offensive cyberattacks on North Korean nuclear command and control.

In addition to precise South Korean missiles seeking to preempt his nuclear forces, Kim would have to concern himself with the possibility that an exquisite, undisclosed U.S. offensive cybercapability could sever him from his nuclear forces. Command and control, the central nervous system of any nuclear force, has been considered a unique vulnerability since the 1950s. Yet, as the United States and the Soviet Union discovered early in the Cold War, threatening to hold an adversary’s ability to use its nuclear weapons at risk creates powerful incentives to escalate in ways that may actually undermine a defender’s interests.

The United States and its allies have an interest in depriving Kim of such incentives. Although it would have been ideal for the Biden administration to include these sorts of assurances on interference with nuclear command and control in its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review or Missile Defense Review, it still would be a useful to convey this intention today. Such a statement need not be specific to North Korea, but could apply to all nuclear-armed adversaries of the United States, inclusive of North Korea.

These various measures can be implemented without compromising deterrence of North Korea. Kim will continue to understand that nuclear use can be met with appropriate punishment by the United States and South Korea and that nuclear use will not automatically confer strategic or tactical benefits disproportionate to the costs North Korea is likely to incur.

To preserve deterrence messaging without needlessly contributing to nuclear risks with threats of nuclear force preemption, leadership decapitation, and possible interference in nuclear command and control, the allies should hew closely to the declaratory policy that they articulated in the Washington Declaration from 2023, which simply notes that North Korean nuclear use would be met with a “swift, overwhelming, and decisive” response.12 What that may mean in practice is left as an exercise in ambiguity for Kim.

Implementing these changes is worthwhile as a means of nuclear risk reduction on the Korean peninsula that does not depend on a change in current political circumstances. Although cooperative arms control and risk reduction efforts are no doubt desirable, North Korea’s unwillingness to pick up the proverbial phone should not be a deterrent to the allies taking matters into their own hands where possible.

Unfortunately, a change of this sort will require political courage in Washington and Seoul, where national leaders must come to terms with the unsustainability of the status quo and thus chart a new path. This is easier said than done. Under U.S. President Joe Biden, North Korea has never topped the U.S. geopolitical agenda. Insofar as his administration has a strategy for the Korean peninsula, it has been one of deepening U.S.-South Korean cooperation and accelerating trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

For South Korea, meanwhile, the fundamental disposition toward North Korea under the Yoon administration is one of competition paired with the “audacious initiative,” which seeks to lure the North away from its nuclear weapons with promises of economic benefits. Yoon’s initial North Korea policy efforts appeared to be driven substantially by the experiences of several prominent officials who had served in the Lee Myung-bak administration, from 2008 to 2013. In particular, veterans of the twin crises of 2010, when North Korea sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing scores of South Koreans, reentered government with the determination to convey resolute strength at all costs to Pyongyang. As a result, Seoul is reluctant to consider any measures that could be perceived as undermining the projection of strength, even if they might contribute to a reduced risk of a confrontation with North Korea.

For the United States, South Korea’s disposition toward disproportionate retaliation, paired with its significant autonomous conventional counterforce capabilities, are a source of concern.13 The Biden administration has undertaken significant efforts to reconcile several countervailing interests with Seoul. On the one hand, it has undertaken new forms of nuclear reassurance at a time when an increasing number of South Koreans view an independent nuclear deterrent for the country as desirable. On the other hand, it has started to seek better operational coordination with Seoul to ensure that South Korea does not escalate crises with North Korea in ways that could be detrimental to U.S. interests. Both of these elements are addressed in the Washington Declaration, which established a new Nuclear Consultative Group while setting up an effort to “closely connect” the existing alliance Combined Forces Command with South Korea’s planned Strategic Command, which will oversee many of the country’s conventional counterforce capabilities.

Seoul and Washington should quietly, candidly, and privately begin exploring the sorts of risk reduction measures that would advance their own interests. This could entail the adoption of the recommendations above in addition to proposing proactively to North Korea potential future cooperative efforts, up to and including formal arms control.

As much as it will be a bitter pill for the allies to recognize that their long-standing objective of a fully denuclearized Korean peninsula is unlikely to manifest soon, focusing on near-term risk reduction is a core interest. Simply put, lowering the risk of nuclear war is worth the trade-offs that come with deprioritizing denuclearization diplomacy with Pyongyang. Doing so does not require any sort of formal recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear-weapon power, but simply accepting the reality that is plainly clear on the Korean peninsula.

Coexistence with a nuclear North Korea can be unbounded, unconstrained, and dangerous as it is today. Alternatively, it can be managed. U.S. and allied interests will be better served by turning toward alternatives.



1. “Law on DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces Promulgated,” Korean Central News Agency, September 9, 2022, http://kcna.kp/en/article/q/5f0e629e6d35b7e3154b4226597df4b8.kcmsf.

2. Josh Smith, “Analysis: South Korea Doubles Down on Risky ‘Kill Chain’ Plans to Counter North Korea Nuclear Threat,” Reuters, July 26, 2022.

3. Thomas C. Schelling, “The Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack,” RAND Corp., January 1, 1958, https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P1342.html.

4. Kelsey Davenport, “North Korea Passes Nuclear Law,” Arms Control Today, October 2022.

5. Chad O’Carroll, “ROK Choppers Spotted Near DMZ After Collapse of Military Deal With North Korea,” NK News, December 6, 2023.

6. Ankit Panda, “South Korea Expresses ‘Regret’ at North Korean Violation of 2018 Military Agreement,” The Diplomat, November 26, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/11/south-korea-expresses-regret-at-north-korean-violation-of-2018-military-agreement/.

7. Choe Sang-Hun, “South Koreans’ Steely Nerves Are Shaken by North Korean Drones,” The New York Times, December 28, 2022.

8. Josh Smith, “Both North and South Korea Violated Armistice With Drone Flights, U.N. Command Says,” Reuters, January 26, 2023.

9. Hyung-Jim Kim, “South Korea Says the North Has Again Fired Artillery Shells Near Their Sea Border,” Associated Press, January 6, 2024.

10. Ankit Panda, “The Right Way to Manage a Nuclear North Korea,” Foreign Affairs, December 6, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2018-11-19/right-way-manage-nuclear-north-korea.

11. “The 2022 Missile Defense Review - A Conversation With John Plumb,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, November 4, 2022, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/2023-01/ts221114_Plumb_Defense_Review.pdf.

12. “Washington Declaration,” The White House, April 26, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/04/26/washington-declaration-2/.

13. Ankit Panda, “Indo-Pacific Missile Arsenals: Avoiding Spirals and Mitigating Escalation Risks,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2023, pp. 21-25, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Panda_Indo-Pacific_Missiles_final_1.pdf.


Ankit Panda is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowship senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The two Koreas are mired in an intense security dilemma, which could cause future crises between them to spiral quickly into a possible, large-scale war.

Premonitions of War on the Korean Peninsula

March 2024
By Keith Luse

In the 1964 nuclear thriller “Fail Safe,” a squadron of U.S. nuclear bombers destroy Moscow when the aircraft inadvertently were ordered to bomb the Russian capital.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) is rapidly advancing his missile and other military capabilities and putting them on full display. On February 14, he inspected the test-firing of a new surface-to-sea missile, according to North Korean state media and video shown on a television at Seoul’s Yongsan Railway Station. (Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)Although U.S. and Soviet forces were sent to intercept the bombers, launched by accident due to a fault in the electronic system, they failed. The U.S. president, portrayed by Henry Fonda, simultaneously ordered the destruction of New York City in a desperate move to prove that the U.S. attack was a mistake and thus prevent all-out nuclear war between the two nuclear-armed countries.1 In the end, New York and Moscow were obliterated, and millions of people died. Despite a hotline that allowed the U.S. and Soviet leaders to talk to each other, they were ultimately unable to prevent Armageddon. It was a haunting, if fictional, case of war by accident.

Such fiction may become reality on the Korean peninsula, which is now a hot spot with verbal volcanic ash spewing from both sides of the 38th parallel. Due to these tensions, which began to build after the failed 2019 Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and later intensified following the election of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, the prospect of war resulting from accident or miscalculation has increased. By all indications, however, this rising threat has been lost on the international community. Global leaders appear numb to the festering crisis, much like the frog that remains in the pot of steadily heating water until it boils to death.

Provocative Behavior

For anyone paying attention, there is no lack of evidence that leaders in North and South Korea are acting provocatively. A prime example is Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, who has emerged as an authorized, key spokesperson for her brother, channeling his sentiments by offering unceasing, critical assessments of South Korean and U.S. leaders.

A case in point was her 2022 reference to South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook’s statement about his country’s capability to launch a preemptive military strike if there were indications of a potential North Korean missile attack on the South. Kim Yo Jong was quoted as dismissing the minister as “the senseless and scum-like guy [who] dare mentioned the ‘preemptive strike’ at a nuclear weapons state, in his senseless bluster, which will never be beneficial to South Korea, either.”2 On the prospect of new sanctions targeting North Korea, she also lashed out, calling Yoon “a running wild dog gnawing on a bone given by the U.S. and his government idiots.”3

Not to be outdone in raising the regional temperature, the Yoon administration in 2022 “reinvigorated military planning for preemptive and retaliatory strikes against the North Korean leadership under the so-called Kill Chain and Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation…strategies, respectively.” Killing the North Korean leader is a priority.4

Although eliminating an enemy leader may be a traditional component of military strategy, in this case, South Korea’s personalization of its intent has not been lost on the North Koreans. Yet, rather than intimidating the North Korean leadership, the publicly announced assassination plan, which was conceived years earlier and revived during the Yoon administration, has boomeranged.

The North Koreans reacted by enacting a law that calls for “automatic” nuclear launches if the country’s leadership or command and control systems are threatened, underscoring leader Kim Jong Un’s concern for a so-called decapitation strike. As North Korea enshrined the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect itself, Kim warned that the law makes the country’s nuclear status “irreversible” and bars denuclearization talks.5

If the North Korean leader were eliminated or Pyongyang concluded that enemy actions directly threatening its leadership were in play, institutional buttons automatically will be pushed. There will be no need or opportunity for a North-South hotline conversation to cool tensions. Missiles will be launched, and among other offensive military actions, full-force cyberattacks will be unleashed by North Korean cyber warriors operating from home, China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and perhaps elsewhere.6

Meanwhile, emboldened by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, angered by the failed Hanoi summit, and determined to strengthen his country’s defenses, Kim is rapidly advancing his missile and other military capabilities and putting them on full display. Gone is the day when Russian President Vladimir Putin would warn Kim that making threats of “preventive nuclear strikes” could create a legal basis for military action against North Korea.7 Now, Putin is more apt to buy North Korean weapons than act as a check on Kim’s excesses. As North Korea closes in on achieving the capability of hitting a U.S. city with a missile, Kim’s lingering angst over the summit may be defused. It is possible that he will conclude that he will restore the reputational “face” that he felt he lost at the summit only when he has the power to strike the U.S. homeland and can look eye to eye with U.S. President Joe Biden or Biden’s successor as the leader of a nuclear-armed state. As one U.S. analyst noted, in Hanoi, the North Korean leader appeared particularly upset because the results seemed different from what he had been led to believe would occur.

If this is the analysis in Pyongyang, the North Korean leader is being ill-advised by his inner circle. The U.S. president is undoubtedly briefed on the status of North Korea’s progress toward developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking New York or anywhere else in the United States. As the North Koreans get closer to achieving this goal, some Biden administration officials or their successors almost certainly will press for preemptive strikes on Pyongyang to protect the U.S. population.

A giant floating crane lifts a South Korean warship to place it on a barge in April 2010. The 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan was split in two by an external explosion on March 26 near a disputed Yellow Sea border, with the loss of 46 lives. Seoul blames Pyongyang. (Photo by Hong Jin-Hwan/AFP via Getty Images)There is another possible destructive outcome as the North Korean leader seeks to achieve his fullest satisfaction and reclaim his self-esteem after the summit debacle. Kim may be compelled to extract a pound of flesh such as happened in 2010 when the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan sank and nearly 50 sailors died after an attack that Seoul blamed on Pyongyang. The North Korean leader may be planning another surgical strike, mistakenly believing that any South Korean or U.S. response would be limited and manageable.

Even as Kim has been energized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his symbiosis with Putin, Yoon too has been emboldened by his meetings with Biden and their joint emphasis on a policy of deterrence that is intended to tame North Korea. The Yoon administration has demonstrated a robust response to North Korean actions, including intensifying military drills, pulling a larger U.S. military presence into the region, and touting the plans to kill the North Korean leader. In December, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won Sik reminded North Korea that “[t]raining for decapitation strikes to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remains an option for South Korea’s military.”8 It is unclear if Seoul is conducting assessments to determine whether specific U.S.-South Korean deterrent actions could trigger further provocations by Pyongyang or even trip the wire of war.

Meanwhile, citing the Russian war on Ukraine, many South Koreans are questioning the credibility of the United States as an ally and advocating Seoul’s development or acquisition of its own nuclear weapons arsenal. If that occurs, North Koreans would protest publicly; privately, there would be smiles and toasts among the military elites in Pyongyang. Their analysis would include the premise that South Korea’s nuclearization would reduce significantly any pressure on North Korea to eliminate its own nuclear program, which is estimated to have produced sufficient fissile material for 50 or more nuclear bombs, according to nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker.

Ignoring Risk Reduction

Despite the tensions and hardening attitudes, risk reduction does not appear to be a priority of either side. A casual negligence in addressing this brewing storm is palpable in Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and other capitals where officials should understand how catastrophic another war on the Korean peninsula could be.

One example of this indifferent attitude is the fact that many South Koreans ignored an air defense drill held in August and did not bother to take shelter.9 Perhaps international leaders, discouraged by the tight Putin-Kim embrace, have sidelined thoughts about how to engage North Korea. The North Korean leader, however, astutely leverages his timing and interventions with peers in the international community. Why is there no obvious urgency or determination to develop creative exit-ramp options that might be considered by both Koreas and defuse the gathering crisis?

Given the Ukraine war, the October attack on Israel by Hamas, Israel’s far-reaching response, and the myriad of other global hotspots, the U.S. international to-do list is overloaded. For members of Congress who usually are eager to underscore any sign of North Korean aggression, recent moves by Pyongyang showcasing its advancing missile, submarine, and drone capabilities may simply prompt a resigned sigh. For lawmakers who steadfastly support the U.S.-South Korean alliance, worries about the situation on the Korean peninsula getting out of hand are tempered by the confidence that the Yoon government can be relied on to deal with North Korea as need be. Many in Congress may be unaware of the extent to which South Korean leaders are stoking the embers that could become flames of war.

Although the U.S. president has the lead in managing foreign policy, Congress also has a major role to play, and its response to international crises over many years offers important lessons for this situation. Should a nuclear weapons exchange occur on the Korean peninsula, for instance, multiple House and Senate committees would convene oversight hearings with officials from a range of government departments and agencies called to testify publicly and explain what happened. Classified hearings and briefings also would be held. Depending on legislative rules, testimony might be sought from officials of South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, and from representatives of emergency relief organizations. Some individual lawmakers would reach out to the Chinese embassy in Washington, inquiring as to why that government allowed developments on the peninsula to evolve into war.

Besides public and classified congressional hearings, members would demand copies of cables and other communications by officials throughout the U.S. executive branch in Washington and those stationed throughout Northeast Asia. The second-guessing would be fast and furious. What questions would be asked by Congress? That depends in part on whether Seoul and Pyongyang continued to exist or were leveled to the ground. There will be much for which to answer. The impact of nuclear strikes on the Korean peninsula would have global implications.

As U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) stated in a February 2006 address to the UN Security Council, “Does anyone believe that proposals for advancing standards of living, such as expansions in education for our children, stronger protections for the environment, or broader health care coverage, would be unaffected by the nuclear obliteration of a major city somewhere in the world? They would not. The immediate death toll would be horrendous, but the worldwide financial and psychological costs might be even more damaging to humanity in the long run.”10

Here is a sampling of possible hearing questions that foreshadow the devastation and instability that such a war would unleash. It would be better to consider such questions now as a motivator for governments to search for a solution that could prevent a debacle.

Questions for U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency officials. What action or combination of events tripped the wire that started the conflict? Do the South Korean and North Korean governments still function and, if so, in what way? Are any of the leaders still alive? Although we know that a few million people are dead in South Korea, what are your estimates of North Korean casualties? As emergency health care workers in Seoul and Pyongyang and other impacted areas were largely eliminated in the catastrophe, who will provide health care services to survivors in both countries? Are discussions underway with the Chinese and the United Nations on developing a strategic plan for how China, the United States, and the UN might provide emergency assistance on the peninsula without getting in each other’s way? Have there been any communications between Washington and Moscow following the nuclear attack on Seoul and Pyongyang, between Pyongyang and Seoul, between Pyongyang and Washington?

In addition, how many U.S. Defense Department ships are available to provide offshore medical services? What other countries are qualified to assist in addressing the challenges associated with this catastrophe? Given Japan’s experience with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will the Japanese government be consulted on recovery operations? Have reports been confirmed that Russian ships are headed toward the peninsula? Were mutual defense treaties in place between Moscow and Pyongyang and Beijing and Pyongyang? Even though Pyongyang and Seoul are destroyed, do you anticipate an attack by Russia or China on U.S. interests in Northeast Asia or elsewhere? Did U.S. and South Korean officials actively attempt to work with North Korea on exit-ramp options to reduce tensions? Did the Chinese make any effort to assist? Did South Korea and the United States put in place any fail-safe mechanism to prevent the unthinkable that has now occurred?

Questions for UN officials, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations involved in humanitarian assistance. Are the deaths concentrated in Seoul and Pyongyang or spread throughout both countries? Given the large number of U.S. citizens, including military personnel and civilian, living in South Korea, it appears that U.S. casualties may be in the tens of thousands. What medical assistance is available to U.S. military and embassy personnel in addition to those U.S. civilians who survived? Do the human remains examined so far reveal whether weapons of mass destruction in addition to nuclear weapons were utilized? What food and medical supplies are available? Were blood supplies protected during the attacks? Given the radioactive fallout, how many years need to pass before the citizens of Seoul and Pyongyang could return?

The Legacy of Conflict

It is unclear whether most citizens of Seoul or Pyongyang realize that war could be imminent. If it happens, people in both capitals would die after an attack as they walk or shop, take kids to school, or sleep. Older members of the North Korean leadership circle certainly remember the U.S. carpet bombing of their country during the Korean War, including blanketing the civilian population with napalm as skin fell from the bodies of children and adults. As U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off…20 percent of the population.” Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.11

An elderly woman and her grandchild wander among the debris of their wrecked home in the aftermath of an air raid by U.S. planes over Pyongyang during the 1951-1953 Korean War. The conflict is part of a legacy of grievance and heartbreak that continues to shape relations between North and South Korea. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)Despite this gruesome history, some North Korean elders, especially those who survived the Korean War, may welcome a conflict now even knowing that their deaths would be sealed by a U.S. response to a North Korean nuclear first strike. The revenge of spilled U.S. blood would usher in their long-sought personal peace. For this reason, the conventional wisdom among some national security experts in the United States and South Korea that North Korea is unlikely to launch a preemptive attack on South Korea or on U.S interests in the region is farcical.

Both sides have a national memory bank overflowing with deposits of death and destruction caused by the other. Beyond the pain of the Korean War, the older generation of South Koreans will recall, for example, how North Korean agents bombed the South Korean presidential delegation that visited Rangoon, Burma, in 1983. South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan survived, but 21 people perished, including four cabinet-level officials. Even before this, North Korean agents made numerous, unsuccessful efforts to kill South Korean President Park Chung-hee. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer assassinated South Korean First Lady Yuk Young-soo.

If an attack occurs on either or both capitals in the months ahead, victims could die rapidly or linger for days or years, depending on whether the weapons used are chemical, biological, incendiary, or nuclear. Both North Korea and South Korea have been holding defense drills. In the South’s case, it was the first time in six years.12

The attitude of too many experts and veteran Korea watchers that “we’ve been here before and the situation will cool down” is less than convincing. It sends a deceptive message to all who live on the Korean peninsula, masking an urgent situation. Without more awareness and a new determination among leaders to find a new equilibrium, this time the boiling water may not be turned off before the frog dies.



1. “Fail Safe,” Turner Classic Movies, n.d., https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/4556/fail-safe#synopsis (accessed February 4, 2024).

2. Mitch Shin, “What to Make of Kim Yo Jong’s Verbal Attack of South Korea’s Defense Minister,” The Diplomat, April 4, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/04/what-to-make-of-kim-yo-jongs-verbal-attack-of-south-koreas-defense-minister/.

3. Hyung-jin Kim, “Kim’s Sister Makes Insulting Threats to Seoul Over Sanctions,” Associated Press, November 24, 2022.

4. Ankit Panda, “South Korea’s ‘Decapitation’ Strategy Against North Korea Has More Risks Than Benefits,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 15, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/08/15/south-korea-s-decapitation-strategy-against-north-korea-has-more-risks-than-benefits-pub-87672.

5. Josh Smith, “Kim Jong Un’s ‘Decapitation’ Fears Shine Through in New North Korea Nuclear Law,” Reuters, September 9, 2022.

6. Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, “Three North Korean Military Hackers Indicted in Wide-Ranging Scheme to Commit Cyberattacks and Financial Crimes Across the Globe,” press release, February 17, 2021,

7. Sarah Malm, “Putin Warns Kim Jong Un That Making Threats of ‘Preventive Nuclear Strikes’ Could Create a Legal Basis for Military Action Against the Rogue State,” Daily Mail, March 9, 2016, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3483581/Putin-warns-Kim-Jong-making-threats-preventive-nuclear-strikes-create-legal-basis-military-action-against-rogue-state.html.

8. Jeongmin Kim, “Drills on Assassinating Kim Jong Un Remain an Option, ROK Defense Chief Says,” NK News, December 19, 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/12/drills-on-assassinating-kim-jong-un-remain-an-option-rok-defense-chief-says/.

9. Hyonhee Shin and Ju-min Park, “South Korea Holds Rare Air Raid Drill but Many Citizens Ignore It,” Reuters, August 23, 2023.

10. “Address to the UN Security Council,” February 6, 2006, https://2001-2009.state.gov/p/io/rls/rm/60473.htm (address of Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)).

11. Blaine Harden, “The U.S. War Crime North Korea Won’t Forget,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2015.

12. “South Korea Conducts First Civil Defence Drills in 6 Years,” The South China Morning Post, August 23, 2023.


Keith Luse, executive director of the U.S.-based National Committee on North Korea, was the senior professional staffer on East Asia issues for Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed are the author’s own.

By all indications, this rising threat has been lost on the international community with global leaders appearing numb to the festering crisis.

Can Biden’s New Arms Transfer Policy Be More Than an Empty Promise?

March 2024
By John Ramming Chappell

On February 8, four months into the U.S.-backed Israeli campaign in Gaza that had already killed more than 25,000 people, the Biden administration released a policy concerning U.S. arms sales, civilian harm, and international law.

National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM-20) will not provide much-needed relief for Palestinians in Gaza, nor will it stop the flow of U.S. weapons to the Israeli government in the short term.1 The policy requires assurances from recipients of U.S. arms on international law compliance and aims to push for the implementation of laws and policies already on the books, but it risks becoming yet another piece of paper ornamented with empty promises. The memorandum references the Biden administration’s conventional arms transfer policy, another document that makes strong commitments in text but has fallen short in practice. Whether such initiatives will help protect civilians and promote human rights in U.S. arms transfer decisions outside of the context of the war in Gaza depends on Congress.

What the Policy Does

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), at podium, and fellow Senate Democrats hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on February 9 to celebrate a new Biden administration policy that demands that recipients of U.S. foreign military aid adhere to international humanitarian law. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)NSM-20 grew out of an amendment to the supplemental funding package for Ukraine and Israel, introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in December that gained momentum as 18 Democratic senators joined as co-sponsors.2 Negotiating with the Biden administration, Van Hollen worked to turn his amendment into a national security memorandum, which is an executive branch policy issued by the president. Although any president could revoke the policy or ignore it, national security memorandums carry the authority of a directive from the president. Van Hollen has stated that he hopes to codify NSM-20 in law.

NSM-20 is premised on a superficial form of conditionality. In order to be eligible to receive taxpayer-funded weapons systems from the United States, countries must provide certain “credible and reliable written assurances.”3

The assurances fall into two principal categories. First, the partner government must commit expressly to use weapons funded with U.S. appropriated funds in accordance with international law. No such commitments exist in the standard terms of U.S. arms sales agreements, under which purchasers simply acknowledge international law obligations.4 Although the executive branch is required to report substantial violations of those agreements to Congress, this reporting is a rare occurrence.

Second, the partner government must commit that, in conflict zones where the country uses U.S.-funded weapons systems, it “will facilitate and not arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance and United States Government-supported international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.” The language draws from Section 620I, a little-known provision of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The requirement of assurances is a positive step, but monitoring and accountability will be key to implementation. For countries engaged in armed conflict, assurances are due 45 days after the memorandum’s release. All other countries have 180 days.

In a rare measure for a policy document, the memorandum commits the president to report to Congress on the required assurances and whether a foreign government has abided by them. Within 90 days of the memorandum’s release and annually thereafter, the executive branch will provide a report that includes reported violations of international law, use of weapons in compliance with civilian harm mitigation best practices, and adherence to the assurances regarding facilitation of humanitarian access. Other reporting is required when the “credibility or reliability of assurances” is called into question.

A Policy of Lip Service

NSM-20 references and follows the long-awaited release in February 2023 of President Joe Biden’s conventional arms transfer policy,5 which drew praise for its emphasis on human rights and atrocity prevention.6 In particular, the conventional arms transfer policy established that the United States will not export a weapon when it is “more likely than not” that it will be used to commit, facilitate, or aggravate the risk of a serious violation of international human rights or humanitarian law. The standard is stricter than the policies of the Obama and Trump administrations and provides the only firm commitment in the policy to refrain from arms transfers under certain circumstances.

155mm artillery shells, such as these produced at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., are among the weapons systems that the United States provides to other countries, including Ukraine and Israel. (Photo by Hannah Beier/Getty Images)Regardless, the war in Gaza has ushered in serious doubts about whether the commitments outlined in Biden’s conventional arms transfer policy actually matter. Human rights organizations have documented numerous instances of possible war crimes in Gaza. Josh Paul, who formerly directed congressional affairs at the Department of State bureau responsible for arms sales, has repeatedly asserted that the Biden administration is not adhering to the standard.7 Legislators and nongovernmental organizations also have called attention to the “more likely than not” standard.8

In a risk assessment for a proposed sale of bombs, precision guidance kits, and bomb fuses to Israel, the State Department concluded that the sale raised no human rights concerns.9 Yet, Amnesty International has documented that the Israeli government has used bombs and precision guidance kits in attacks that killed dozens of civilians and likely violated international law.

NSM-20 risks suffering the same fate as the conventional arms transfer policy and other commitments that look good on paper but result in no discernible changes when it matters most. When it comes to Israel, Biden administration officials have stated that the policy will have no immediate effect on security assistance, which sets an unfortunate precedent for its application elsewhere.10

Empty Words in Law

It is not just arms transfer policy that frequently has amounted to empty words. Generally applicable U.S. law restricting arms transfers and security assistance too often has shared the same fate.11

Since the 1970s, Congress has enacted human rights laws governing weapons transfers and security assistance. Those laws bind the executive branch, but for decades, the executive branch has evaded, ignored, and undermined those laws. Courts have declined to wade into disputes on the grounds that they pose “political questions” inappropriate for judicial intervention.

Implementation of legal restrictions on arms sales appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, the first provision of U.S. arms sales law to address human rights, prohibits security assistance to any country where the government engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights. Yet, successive administrations declined to implement the prohibition.

That failure resulted in Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) leading the fight to pass the Leahy law in 1997, a ban on assistance to any unit of foreign security forces for which the U.S. government has credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights. Leahy spent decades on the Senate Appropriations Committee closing loopholes, pushing for implementation, and conducting oversight, making the Leahy law the only human rights-related security assistance restriction in U.S. law with a robust vetting process to ensure implementation. Even so, no Israeli unit has ever been restricted from receiving U.S. assistance under the Leahy law despite credible allegations of gross violations of human rights and pressure from Leahy.12

In October 2023, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report concluding that the U.S. government has not implemented a provision of the Arms Export Control Act banning arms sales to countries “engaged in a consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment directed against individuals in the United States.” The report found that the law “has never been invoked since its enactment in 1981 and, with limited required reporting, it is unclear the extent to which it has been considered.”13

Section 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act

Section 620I has suffered from similar neglect. That provision, which NSM-20 references, prohibits security assistance to any country whose government “prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.”14 The law originated as the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act, a 1994 bill that responded to Turkey’s blockade on Armenia and blocked U.S. humanitarian assistance to the country. Congress enacted a precursor to Section 620I in 1995 as part of an annual appropriations act and then made the prohibition permanent in 1996. The following year, President Bill Clinton used the waiver authority in Section 620I to continue providing assistance to Turkey despite its restriction on the delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid.15

Since then, Section 620I only occasionally has reemerged in legislative discourse. In 2008, Congress required that the president report to Congress in case of a waiver of the provision.16 Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) pressed the Trump administration’s nominee for State Department legal adviser on the implementation of Section 620I in the context of the war in Yemen during her October 2017 confirmation hearing.17 The United States provided weapons to Saudi Arabia even as it committed war crimes in Yemen and imposed a blockade that restricted the delivery of humanitarian aid and deepened Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. In 2019, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced a resolution requesting a report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices, and the resolution referenced Section 620I’s prohibition.18

In recent months, though, Section 620I has garnered unprecedented attention on Capitol Hill. Before long, deaths in Gaza from preventable diseases and famine may outnumber the death toll from bombings. Human rights organizations and media outlets have documented apparent Israeli restrictions on humanitarian assistance. The Israeli government recently blocked the delivery of U.S.-funded food aid to Gaza.19 Section 620I featured prominently in Van Hollen’s supplemental amendment, congressional floor speeches, and letters from civil society organizations.

Law should be enough to force action. Policies to pressure the executive branch into compliance with statutes should not be necessary. In practice, however, congressional vigilance historically has been required to nudge the executive branch into compliance.

A Catalyst for Congress

The potential of NSM-20 lies in its reporting requirements. Reporting to Congress and the public creates opportunities for legislators, advocates, and constituents to pressure the executive branch to implement the law in good faith. Must-pass legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act and appropriations acts provides opportunities for legislators to force the executive branch to implement the law in conjunction with periodic reports. Such a process, over the course of many years, made the Leahy law into the cornerstone security assistance law that it is today.

The fact that civilians in Yemen and Gaza, where U.S.-provided bombs have exacerbated humanitarian crises, have suffered from restrictions on U.S. humanitarian aid imposed by U.S. allies and partners speaks to the urgency of implementing Section 620I. Whether NSM-20 will change outcomes depends on whether Congress uses the opportunity that reports present to pressure the administration to comply with the law.



1. See Sarah Harrison, “Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza,” Lawfare, February 14, 2024, https://www.lawfaremedia.org/article/biden-s-new-policy-on-security-assistance-nsm-20-will-not-save-gaza; Brian Finucane, “Not Reassuring: NSM-20 and the Limits of Law-of-War Assurances in the Transfer of U.S. Arms,” Just Security, February 13, 2024, https://www.justsecurity.org/92214/not-reassuring-nsm-20-and-the-limits-of-law-of-war-assurances-in-the-transfer-of-u-s-arms/; Seth Binder and John Ramming Chappell, “Can Biden’s New Arms Policy Lead to Real Accountability for Israel?” Defense News, February 16, 2024, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/2024/02/16/can-bidens-new-arms-policy-lead-to-real-accountability-for-israel/.

2. “Van Hollen, Durbin, Kaine, Schatz and Colleagues Announce Amendment Requiring That Use of U.S. Supplemental Aid Comply With U.S., International Law,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, December 7, 2023, https://www.vanhollen.senate.gov/news/press-releases/van-hollen-durbin-kaine-schatz-and-colleagues-announce-amendment-requiring-that-use-of-us-supplemental-aid-comply-with-us-international-law.

3. The White House, “National Security Memorandum on Safeguards and Accountability With Respect to Transferred Defense Articles and Defense Services,” February 8, 2024, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2024/02/08/national-security-memorandum-on-safeguards-and-accountability-with-respect-to-transferred-defense-articles-and-defense-services/.

4. “‘With Great Power’: Modifying U.S. Arms Sales to Reduce Civilian Harm,” Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Stimson Center, n.d., p. 28, https://civiliansinconflict.org/publications/research/with-great-power/.

5. The White House, “Memorandum on United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” February 23, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2023/02/23/memorandum-on-united-states-conventional-arms-transfer-policy/.

6. John Chappell and Ari Tolany, “Unpacking Biden’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Lawfare, March 1, 2023, https://www.lawfaremedia.org/article/unpacking-bidens-conventional-arms-transfer-policy.

7. See, e.g., Mathias Hammer, “Josh Paul on Why He Resigned From the State Department Over Arms to Israel,” Time, October 19, 2023, https://time.com/6325957/josh-paul-state-department-israel-arms/; Laura Flanders, “Why I Resigned From the State Department: An Interview With Josh Paul,” The Nation, October 30, 2023, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/josh-paul-resignation-interview/.

8. “Tlaib Requests Biden Administration and GAO Assessments of Israel’s Human Rights Compliance Under Leahy Laws and Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Representative Rashida Tlaib, January 24, 2024, https://tlaib.house.gov/posts/tlaib-requests-biden-administration-and-gao-assessments-of-israels-human-rights-compliance-under-leahy-laws-and-conventional-arms-transfer-policy; “Warren, McGovern Lead Bicameral Coalition Pressing Biden Administration for Bypassing Congress to Approve Arms Transfers to Israel,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, January 29, 2024, https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/warren-mcgovern-lead-bicameral-coalition-pressing-biden-administration-for-bypassing-congress-to-approve-arms-transfers-to-israel; Letter from Center for Civilians in Conflict and other civil society organizations to Secretary Lloyd Austin, December 20, 2023, https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/NGO-Letter-to-Secretary-Austin-on-Civilian-Harm-in-Gaza.pdf.

9. Jared Malsin and Nancy A. Youssef, “U.S. Plans to Send Weapons to Israel Amid Biden Push for Cease-Fire Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2024.

10. Bryant Harris, “Biden Doesn’t Plan to Stop Israel Aid After Human Rights Order,” Defense News, February 9, 2024, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2024/02/09/biden-doesnt-plan-to-stop-israel-aid-after-human-rights-order/.

11. John Ramming Chappell et al., “Law and Policy Guide to U.S. Arms Transfers to Israel,” Just Security, November 8, 2023, https://www.justsecurity.org/90010/a-law-and-policy-guide-to-us-arms-transfers-to-israel/.

12. Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “‘Different Rules’: Special Policies Keep U.S. Supplying Weapons to Israel Despite Alleged Abuses,” The Guardian, January 18, 2024, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/18/us-supply-weapons-israel-alleged-abuses-human-rights.

13. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Human Rights: Agency Actions Needed to Address Harassment of Dissidents and Other Tactics of Transnational Repression in the U.S.,” GAO-24-106183, October 2023, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-24-106183.pdf.

14. 22 U.S.C. § 2378-1.

15. “Waiver of Statutory Restrictions to Permit Assistance to Turkey,” 62 Fed. Reg. 30737, June 4, 1997.

16. Comm. on Appropriations, Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2008, S. Rep. No. 110-128 (2007).

17. Nomination Hearings of the 115th Congress—First Session, Hearings Before the Comm. on Foreign Relations, 115th Cong. (2018).

18. S. Res. 169, 116th Cong. (2019).

19. Julia Frankel, “Israel Is Holding Up Food for 1.1 Million Palestinians in Gaza, the Main UN Aid Agency There Says,” Associated Press, February 9, 2024; Barak Ravid, “Despite U.S. Requests, Israel Reduces Aid Allowed Into Gaza After Ceasefire Collapses,” Axios, December 1, 2023, https://www.axios.com/2023/12/01/gaza-aid-hamas-israel-limit-ceasefire-collapse; Jacob Magid, “Israel Agrees to Finally Release American Flour Shipment for Gaza, Says U.S. Official,” The Times of Israel, February 23, 2024, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-agrees-to-finally-release-american-flour-shipment-for-gaza-says-us-official/; Amnesty International, “Israel Defying ICJ Ruling to Prevent Genocide by Failing to Allow Adequate Humanitarian Aid to Reach Gaza,” February 26, 2024, https://www.amnestyusa.org/press-releases/israel-defying-icj-ruling-to-prevent-genocide-by-failing-to-allow-adequate-humanitarian-aid-to-reach-gaza/; Human Rights Watch, “Israel Not Complying With World Court Order in Genocide Case,” February 26, 2024, https://www.hrw.org/news/2024/02/26/israel-not-complying-world-court-order-genocide-case.


John Ramming Chappell is the advocacy and legal fellow in the U.S. Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.


Whether such initiatives will help protect civilians and promote human rights in U.S. arms transfer decisions depends on Congress.

Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War

March 2024

The Power of Movies, Then and Now

Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War
By David Craig
Applause Books

Reviewed by Vincent Intondi

“It was a movie like no other movie.” “Most of you who watched are probably still feeling just a little numb right now.” The film “leaves you wondering about life, about the world, about what you would do if in fact nuclear missiles were on their way here.”

These are not descriptions of Christopher Nolan’s 2023 blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer.” Forty years before Nolan’s masterpiece, another film made millions think about the nuclear issue and the future of the world; that is the focus of David Craig’s new book, Apocalypse Television: How ‘The Day After’ Helped End the Cold War.

In his book, Craig takes the reader on a journey from the inception of “The Day After” to the U.S. reaction following its release in 1983. From the politics of the television industry to the world stage, the author leaves no stone unturned in examining how the movie made it on to millions of television screens around the nation and its influence on ending the nuclear arms race.

From examining “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Brian’s Song” to describe the state of television to reflecting on the constant fear of nuclear war, the book is a trip down memory lane for anyone who lived through the 1980s. Craig begins the story introducing readers to all the players involved in making “The Day After” a reality. Brandon Stoddard, head of ABC’s movie division and Circle Films, who was perhaps best known for creating “Roots,” conceived “The Day After” after watching the 1979 fictional nuclear disaster film “The China Syndrome” and reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. One thing that Stoddard kept returning to was not creating a film that would simply scare the public and make them “catatonic.” He wanted to “make people decide for themselves what they were going to do about it.”

During this time, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 was still fresh in people’s minds. Coupled with more than 130 books focused on nuclear disarmament that were published between 1979 and 1983, President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about a winnable nuclear war, and the emergence of MTV, which featured nuclear weapons imagery on the hour, the nuclear issue seemed to be everywhere. Indeed, a year before “The Day After” premiered, one million people flooded the streets of New York City demanding an end to the arms race, and Randy Forsberg’s nuclear freeze initiative was sweeping the nation. Much of this history has been examined in other works.1 Craig provides a valuable service by adding to this scholarship with an entire book dedicated to a television film that became a nationwide event and indeed played a role in ending the Cold War.

One benefit is that Craig takes the reader behind the curtain of network television. From producing to funding, distribution, and promotion, he puts the reader in the room when decisions were made, disagreements occurred, and consensus was reached. Why did those involved choose Lawrence, Kansas, as the location for the film? Why did they not use well-known actors? Would and should race play a role in casting decisions? How would they actually make the nuclear explosion for television? Craig examines the careful consideration that went into answering these questions and the meaning behind each decision.

Throughout the book, the author returns repeatedly to the politics of the nuclear issue. Was the film meant to be political in any way? Was it pro-Russia, anti-Reagan? Those involved with the film’s production offered differing opinions on these questions. It also raises the age-old question, “Is not all art political?”

Although anti-nuclear organizations sought to capitalize on the film, “pro-nuclear” advocates and the religious right vehemently opposed the movie, arguing that it would weaken the West and lead to compromises with the Soviet Union. As did the nuclear freeze initiative and the June 12, 1982, rally that was the largest anti-nuclear weapons demonstration in history, the Reagan administration attempted to co-opt the film to push the president’s agenda and make it look as if he was on the right side of the issue. Yet, as Craig notes, Reagan wrote in his diary that he was “deeply affected” after watching the film.

In many ways, what viewers watched after the film was even more important in terms of educating the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Immediately following “The Day After,” ABC aired “Viewpoint,” a panel discussion led by Ted Koppel. Koppel’s job was to moderate a “civil debate with some of the most notable public intellectuals of the time” discussing nuclear war and what viewers could do about it. This obviously was a difficult task for Koppel, and one wonders if it could be repeated in today’s world of punditry, divisiveness, and social media.

An image of a scene from “The Day After” when the movie was released on  November 20, 1983. (Photo by Adrian Greer Michael Short/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)Was “The Day After” a success? That depends on the definition of success. When millions of people are watching the same television movie about nuclear war and it is still being discussed 40 years later, would that not constitute success? Combined with the June 1982 rally and the nuclear freeze movement, Reagan clearly was aware of and affected by these developments, which in part motivated him to change course, sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, and argue that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Moreover, there are no clearer examples of the success and legacy of “The Day After” than the fact that we are all alive right now and that the second meeting of the states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons recently concluded.

Even so, the nuclear threat remains; there is a new nuclear arms race; and the world is closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Similar to the 1980s, there also has been an increase in films about nuclear war and the end of the world, from “Oppenheimer” to “Don’t Look Up.” With the release of these films, it is reasonable to ask if the pro-disarmament community has missed opportunities to educate and organize the public around these films in the way that it was done in the 1980s.

If “The Day After” was released today, would we have panel discussions, organize 1-800 hotlines about the issue, and have celebrity public service announcements as they did in 1983? Would we clamor to write think-pieces criticizing the film in any way possible, all in an effort to simply gain followers and clicks? Examining the reaction to “Oppenheimer,” the answer is undoubtedly the latter. Perhaps this was on Craig’s mind when writing the book. “Swap out Reagan with [U.S.] presidents before or after, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin with any Soviet leader. Swap out TV with YouTube and many of the basic contours of the stories in today’s world are the same,” he concludes.

It seems that things have come full circle. Nick Meyer, director of “The Day After,” first learned about nuclear weapons as a child when he found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Meyer made clear his disgust of Reagan’s initial claims that nuclear war is winnable, and he hoped the film would help unseat Reagan. Recently, Academy Award-nominated actress Kristen Stewart voiced alarm over the threat of nuclear war. “We’ve grown so accustomed to the looming threat of nuclear annihilation that it barely registers in our daily lives. … But when some new crisis or close call startles us out of our slumber for just a brief moment, we truly grasp the insanity of living on a hair trigger to what could be a real-life Armageddon,” she said.2 Stewart’s fiancé is Dylan Meyer, Nick’s daughter.

Whether readers are curious about media or nuclear studies, popular culture or Cold War history, this book belongs on every shelf. It offers an education about an important time in history, sheds light on a film that continues to inspire audiences today, and is a reminder of the power that art has in changing the world.



1. Vincent J. Intondi, Saving the World From Nuclear War: The June 12, 1982, Disarmament Rally and Beyond (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023); Henry Richard Maar III, Freeze! The Grassroots Movement to Halt the Arms Race and End the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022); William M. Knoblauch, Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018).

2. Etan Vlessing, “Kristen Stewart Warns the World Is ‘Dangerously Close’ to Nuclear Catastrophe,” The Hollywood Reporter, December 15, 2023, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/kristen-stewart-nuclear-catastrophe-warning-1235758067/.

Vincent Intondi, a professor and historian, is the author of African Americans Against the Bomb and Saving the World From Nuclear War.


From the politics of the television industry to the world stage, David Craig leaves no stone unturned in examining how the movie made it onto millions of television screens and its influence on ending the nuclear arms race.

U.S. Warns of New Russian ASAT Program

March 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russia is pursuing a new and more advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system that would violate the Outer Space Treaty, according to Biden administration officials.

U.S. intelligence reports that Russia is pursuing a new and more advanced anti-satellite weapons system have raised new concerns about an arms race in space. But Russian satellites, such as the one pictured, also would be vulnerable. (Photo by NASA)National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan briefed select members of Congress on new U.S. intelligence about the system on Feb. 15, and later that day, White House spokesperson John Kirby confirmed to reporters that the system is “related to an anti-satellite weapon that Russia is developing.”

Although it is not an “active capability that has been deployed,” Kirby said that the new system “would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed up to, including Russia.”

Article IV of the treaty expressly prohibits countries from deploying “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ing] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

Kirby said that “our general knowledge of Russian pursuit of this kind of capability goes back many, many months, if not a few years. But only in recent weeks has the intelligence community been able to assess with a higher sense of confidence exactly how Russia continues to pursue it.”

“We found out there was a capacity to launch a system into space that could theoretically do something that was damaging,” President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Feb. 16. “Hasn’t happened yet, and my hope is it will not.”

According to a CNN report that same day, officials familiar with the intelligence assessment confirmed that the Russian ASAT system under development involves a nuclear explosive device that would produce not only a massive nuclear-driven blast wave and a surge of radiation, but also a powerful electromagnetic pulse that could destroy, blind, or disable other satellites in orbit over a wide zone.

Such a weapon could pose a threat to U.S. and allied military communications, early-warning, and intelligence-gathering satellites if it were to become operational. It also would pose a threat to thousands of other space-based assets in orbit operated by dozens of other countries and commercial entities.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States experimented with various types of ASAT weapons systems concepts, including the use of nuclear explosions to destroy objects in space and the production of beams of directed energy to destroy or disable enemy satellites.

Between 1958 and 1962, the United States carried out a handful of very high-altitude nuclear detonations, including the massive 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime test that occurred 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean and demonstrated the potential of nuclear detonations as ASAT weapons. The Soviets conducted a series of high-altitude nuclear test explosions over Kazakhstan between 1961 and 1962.

These test explosions produced a surge of free electrons that created X-rays capable of severely damaging electronic components and computer systems on the ground and in low earth orbit, an electromagnetic pulse that can disable unprotected electrical components on satellites, and a nuclear flash that can blind optical sensors on reconnaissance satellites. The Starfish Prime nuclear test explosion also produced radiation belts that lingered for months, disabling eight of the 24 satellites that were in orbit at that time, according to a 2022 report by the American Physical Society.

In 1963, U.S. and Soviet negotiators concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, and in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty.

As Jaganath Sankaran wrote in Arms Control Today in 2022, Russia has been pursuing a range of ASAT system capabilities for more than a decade, including co-orbital ASAT weapons capabilities in the geostationary orbit where most military command-and-control satellites operate, as well as ground-based lasers and a range of satellite jamming systems to deny and degrade the capacity of weapons that rely on satellite-enabled information.

In 2021, Russia conducted an ASAT weapons test on one of its own satellites, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of debris, which can pose a serious threat to other objects in orbit. China, India, and the United States also have demonstrated ASAT missile capabilities.

But none of these systems involved nuclear explosive devices. Today, there are approximately 9,500 active satellites in orbit and two crewed, orbiting space stations. One or more nuclear weapons explosions in orbit would create far more indiscriminate damage than the 1962 Starfish Prime nuclear test, and the loss of satellite services would affect significant commercial, military, communications, and navigations systems on Earth.

On Feb. 15, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the claim that Russia was pursuing a nuclear-armed ASAT weapons capability as a “malicious fabrication," but on Feb. 16 he told RIA Novosti that Russia is ready to discuss the issue “if there are such initiatives from the American side.”

On Feb. 15, Kirby said, “We are in the process with engaging with Russia about this.” He said that Biden “has directed a series of initial actions, including additional briefings to congressional leaders, direct diplomatic engagement with Russia, with our allies and our partners as well, and with other countries around the world who have interests at stake.”

On Feb. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the topic of nuclear weapons in space during a working meeting in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“Our position is clear and transparent: we have always been categorically against, and are now against, the placement of nuclear weapons in space,” Putin said, according to Kommersant. “On the contrary, we call for compliance with all agreements that exist in this area and proposed to strengthen this joint work many times over.”

The anti-satellite weapons system would violate the Outer Space Treaty.

China, U.S. Restore Military Communications

March 2024
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

China and the United States resumed military-to-military contacts with a series of recent meetings, delivering on a decision by their leaders at a November 2023 summit.

Michael S. Chase (C, L), U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, hosts Chinese delegation led by Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao (C, R), deputy director of the Chinese Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation for meetings at the Pentagon on Jan. 9. (U.S. Department of Defense photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza)Two days of meetings, called the China-U.S. defense policy coordination talks, took place Jan. 8-9 at the Pentagon. It was the first formal in-person encounter between the two militaries since January 2020.

The meetings were co-chaired by Michael Chase, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao, Chinese deputy director of the Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation.

The two sides discussed Chinese-U.S. defense relations and regional and global security issues, including Ukraine, North Korea, and the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Defense Department, which added that it “will continue to engage in active discussions with [Chinese] counterparts about future engagements between defense and military officials at multiple levels.”

In a Jan. 10 news release, the Chinese Defense Ministry said that its delegation expressed a willingness at the meeting “to develop a sound and stable military-to-military relationship with the U.S. side on the basis of equality and respect and work together.”

Meanwhile, on Dec. 21, two weeks before the Pentagon meeting, China and the United States conducted a video teleconference involving teams led by U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chinese Gen. Liu Zhenli, the chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Joint Staff Department.

The two sides discussed a number of global regional security issues, the U.S. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said afterward. It also reported that the U.S. delegation reiterated “the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication” and “the importance of the [PLA] engaging in substantive dialogue to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.”

The Chinese delegation also shared a similar viewpoint, that “the two sides exchanged candid and in-depth views on implementing the important military-related consensus reached between the two heads of state in San Francisco and on other issues of common interest,” Senior Col. Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry, told a press conference on Dec. 28.

“The video call yielded positive and constructive outcomes,” Wu said. “Going forward, we expect the U.S. side to work with us in the same direction and take concrete actions on the basis of equality and respect to promote the sound and steady development of [the] China-U.S. military-to-military relationship.”

Bilateral military-to-military contacts broke down after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. Many analysts increasingly have been concerned that Beijing’s and Washington’s inability to communicate directly courts danger if a crisis erupts over Taiwan or some other major flashpoint.

But even after the recent meetings, tensions and differences between China and the United States remain evident. For example, Wu complained that the United States “has been intensifying its military deployment in the Asia-Pacific, which is full of Cold War mentality.”

“We urge the [United States] to abandon the outdated security vision and zero-sum Cold War mentality, view China and China’s military development in an objective and rational light, instead of being obsessed with the pursuit for hegemony,” Wu said.

Similarly, a Chinese Defense Ministry news release on Jan. 10 urged the U.S. side “to take seriously China’s concerns and do more things that contribute to the growth of the mil-mil relationship.”

Both sides seem determined to maintain the restored lines of communication. On Jan. 25, Wu confirmed that, “[w]ith the concerted efforts of the two sides, mil-to-mil dialogues and consultations have been steadily resumed on the basis of equality and respect. Currently, the Chinese military and the U.S. military are maintaining communication and coordination on exchange programs.”

Following the November summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden and the two sets of military-to-military meetings in December and January, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Bangkok on Jan. 26-27.

Given that 2024 marks the 45th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations, China said that the two countries “should work together toward mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, finding the way for China and the United States to get along with each other,” according to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that, in his meeting with Wang, Sullivan “stressed that although the United States and China are in competition, both countries need to prevent it from veering into conflict or confrontation.”

Both sides also “recognized recent progress in resuming military-to-military communication…noted the importance of maintaining these channels...[and] discussed next steps on a range of areas of cooperation [including on] holding a U.S.-China dialogue on [artificial intelligence] in the spring,” the embassy said.

It added that the “two sides held candid, substantive and constructive discussions on global and regional issues, including those related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East, [North Korea], the South China Sea, and Burma” and that Sullivan “underscored the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Further, the U.S. embassy said that the two sides “committed to maintain this strategic channel of communication and to pursue additional high-level diplomacy and consultations in key areas.”

China and the United States also held long-awaited talks on nuclear arms control on Nov. 6 in Washington D.C., the first such meeting in nearly five years.

Speaking to the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group on Feb. 8, Mallory Stewart, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, deterrence, and stability who led the U.S. delegation to the arms control talks, admitted that “we didn’t see much substantive progress from this first engagement” with China’s representative Sun Xiaobo.

“But the idea that we would make the substantive conversation from the very first engagement that we have not had for many years on our arms control, strategic stability and risk reduction is not realistic,” she said. (See ACT, December 2023.)

“I think the key is to encourage them to appreciate why we need to share our questions and they need to share their questions, and we work together to get to a place where we address each other’s specific understandings,” added Stewart.

Meetings at the Pentagon were the first formal in-person talks since 2020.

Chinese Military Purge Said to Show Corruption, Weakness

March 2024
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

China has purged nine generals from its national legislative body in a sweeping move that analysts say exposes corruption in the senior army ranks and could slow President Xi Jinping’s campaign to modernize the military.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislative body, meets in Beijing on Feb. 26, two months after it dismissed nine senior military officials of the People’s Liberation Army. (Photo by Liu Weibing/Xinhua via Getty Images)The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislative body, announced on Dec. 29 the dismissal of nine senior military officials of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some of those affected were senior members of the PLA Rocket Force, which is responsible for overseeing the country’s conventional and nuclear land-based missiles.

Beijing did not explain the move, but on Jan. 6, Bloomberg attributed the purge to “widespread corruption [that] undermined [Xi’s] efforts to modernize the armed forces and raised questions about China’s ability to fight a war.”

Citing an unidentified U.S. intelligence source, Bloomberg reported that the corruption scandal involved nuclear missiles that were filled with water instead of fuel and lids for missile silos that do not function properly, thus undermining the effective launch of missiles.

“The corruption inside China’s Rocket Force and throughout the nation’s defense industrial base is so extensive that U.S. officials now believe [that] Xi is less likely to contemplate major military action in the coming years than would otherwise have been the case,” the source told Bloomberg.

On Jan. 15, in its first bulletin of 2024, the Standing Committee explained that the reason for the purge is due to “suspected serious violations of law and discipline,” a commonly used phrase to refer to corruption. Further, the bulletin reported that the ousting of four members, including the former chief of the Equipment Development Department and former commanders of the Rocket Forces, took place Sept. 26 and Dec. 5.

This purge is part of a trend under Xi’s regime. Not even two years after a big reshuffle of high-ranking officials in 2022, China has dismissed even more of them in 2023, including PLA Rocket Force head Li Yuchao in June, Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July, and Defense Minister Li Shangfu in September.

The most recent target is Li Guangchang, a former nuclear fuel director at China National Nuclear Corp., the country’s sole supplier of nuclear fuel. Li is under investigation due to “suspected serious violations of law and discipline,” The South China Morning Post reported on Feb. 4. It said that the Chinese “[C]ommunist Party’s top corruption watchdog says he is undergoing disciplinary inspection and supervision,” but no details have been provided.

In October, the U.S. Defense Department said in its annual China military power report that China had more than 500 operational nuclear warheads in May 2023, compared to 400 warheads in 2022. The department projected that China will possess in excess of 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 and will accelerate development of its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. (See ACT, November 2023.)

If there are flaws with Chinese nuclear missiles as described in the Bloomberg report, “these flaws would compromise missile operations, calling into question China’s nuclear force readiness and overall capabilities,” Jon Wolfsthal, director of global risk at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in an open letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Jan. 10. Wolfsthal asked if the department was aware of this allegation and whether it would affect the department’s projections.

The department report serves as a basis for U.S. nuclear policies. Because “[t]he growth and reported capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal are being used increasingly to justify current and potentially additional increases in U.S. nuclear capabilities and spending…the accuracy of [department] documents with regard to China’s nuclear capabilities are central to informing these debates in Congress as well as among security experts and the broader public, and thus, ensuring they are accurate and complete is essential,” Wolfsthal wrote.

But Heather Williams, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that “the recent news questioning the reliability of China’s missiles should not change anything about current U.S. policy.”

In an essay on Jan. 25, she wrote that “the intent of the silos was always unclear, and if anything, Xi has indicated a clear intent to move forward with making them operational and expanding China’s arsenal.”

At the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2022, Xi emphasized his determination to build a world-class military with strategic deterrence capability. But “it will take some time for China to clean up the mess and restore confidence in the Rocket Force’s competence and trustworthiness,” Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, told Reuters on Dec. 31.

Analysts also say the purge could slow Beijing’s military modernization drive.



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