“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022

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.

Underlying Challenges and Near-Term Opportunities for Engaging China

January/February 2024
By Tong Zhao

In the lead-up to the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco in November, China and the United States engaged in a consultation on arms control and nonproliferation, the first such effort in recent years and one that occurred amid a severe downturn in their bilateral relationship.

U.S. President Joe Biden (L) greets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral summit Nov. 15 on the sidelines of the  Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting near San Francisco. It was the first Biden-Xi encounter in a year and marked an effort to ease growing tensions between the two countries. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Although a positive step, the consultation’s long-term impact will be contingent on the arrangement of subsequent meetings in an institutionalized setting. For these meetings to transcend symbolism and address substantive issues of concern, it will be essential to include representatives of the Chinese defense policy establishment and, ideally, military officials alongside the usual foreign
policy diplomats.

Beijing has attributed the intensifying rivalry to what it perceives as increased strategic hostility from Washington. This perception has led China to believe that expanding its nuclear capabilities is crucial to stabilizing bilateral relations and that it should avoid being lured into self-imposed restrictions. Unless this viewpoint shifts, bilateral nuclear competition probably will continue escalating. Meanwhile, diplomatic engagement stands as one of the limited but crucial means to establish a safety net and reduce the risk of conflict.

As China increasingly seeks to win the hearts and minds of the international community, the United States and other countries have an opportunity to focus on engaging Beijing in endorsing broad guiding principles for collaborative management of international security challenges rather than presenting specific arms control proposals. For example, China has taken a more active role in global discussions on artificial intelligence (AI) governance, signaling its intent to be a responsible leader in addressing the implications of such emerging technologies. Some Chinese media reports suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden would jointly declare their support for maintaining human oversight in nuclear weapons decision-making processes during their November summit.1 Although the joint announcement did not happen as reported, the concept has garnered considerable backing within Chinese policy circles.

In an era when China is resistant to specific limitations on its military growth, its endorsement of overarching principles regarding certain military conduct and emerging military technologies remains beneficial. This stance allows the United States and the international community to advocate for further operationalization of these broad principles through official and expert-level dialogues. Once China’s leadership publicly supports such overarching principles, it paves the way for more detailed engagement by Chinese officials at the working level and policy experts in crafting specific rules of behavior.

An example is China’s endorsement of the principle of human involvement in nuclear decision-making, which could lead to in-depth discussions on defining adequate human oversight in nuclear decisions at a practical level. Future dialogues could focus on shared understandings concerning safety protocols, fail-safe mechanisms, and realistic simulations to acquaint decision-makers with the capabilities and potential pitfalls of AI in supporting decisions. These conversations are crucial for adding guardrails to an intensifying Chinese-U.S. nuclear rivalry.

Policy Incoherence in China

With China experiencing significant internal transformations under Xi, the shift toward a more centralized and personalistic decision-making model has markedly heightened internal incoherence in strategic decisions, including the expansion of nuclear capabilities. The apparent sidelining of nuclear policy experts in policy discussions, the growing tendency of bureaucrats to align with and reinforce the paramount leader’s views on power politics, the reduction in the scope for internal debate, and the erosion of checks and balances have made achieving policy coherence increasingly challenging.

China is deviating notably from its long-standing nuclear policy in several aspects. These changes include a shift toward simultaneous quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement of capabilities and the development of a nuclear triad with a massive investment in silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Other changes include a transition from a relaxed posture to a “rapid response” stance with the potential adoption of a launch-under-attack doctrine and new official narratives directing Chinese nuclear forces toward achieving “strategic decisive victories.”

Along with their delegations, Chinese President Xi Jinping (L, Center) and U.S. President Joe Biden (R, Center) discuss issues of security, economics and curbing fentanyl production during a summit at Filoli Estate, near San Francisco, on November 15.  (Photo by Rao Aimin/Xinhua via Getty Images) Many Chinese nuclear policy experts find themselves perplexed by the logic and rationale behind this unprecedented nuclear expansion. This confusion raises concerns that the shift in China’s nuclear policy may be more reflective of the top leader’s political instincts rather than a carefully considered strategy aligned with a clearly defined consensus goal within the policy community. In a system of open and free debate, Chinese leaders might have recognized that China’s buildup could trigger U.S. responses, potentially deteriorating China’s security environment. Yet, basic scrutiny of strategic decisions is becoming increasingly challenging.

In the United States, there is a notable underestimation of the disorganized nature of China’s nuclear expansion and the growing issue of policy incoherence within it. Consequently, U.S. strategists often presume that China’s nuclear buildup is underpinned by well-thought-out rationality, clear objectives, and strategic long-term planning. This perception gives rise to prevalent concerns that Beijing’s nuclear growth signals a shift to an offensive nuclear posture, aiming not merely for parity with Washington but possibly for nuclear superiority. Nonetheless, remarks by top Chinese officials indicate a continued preference for asymmetric deterrence, at least for the time being.

Rather than succumbing to worst-case scenario assumptions regarding Chinese nuclear ambitions, the United States would benefit from understanding better the implications of China’s growing policy incoherence for U.S. policy options. The lack of clarity and consistency in Chinese nuclear policy thinking should prompt Washington and the international community to reassess and adjust their objectives and strategies in their interactions with Beijing.

For instance, instead of focusing on arms control measures that Beijing is unlikely to adopt in the foreseeable future, Washington and the international community might be better served by shifting their focus to a new goal: stimulating and encouraging internal policy discussions and debates within China. Fostering a more vibrant internal policy dialogue can act as a safeguard against questionable policy directions and is essential for ensuring democratic, accountable decision-making. Enhancing the quality of internal policymaking has become critical for preventing destabilizing nuclear policies, benefiting China and the global community.

In this context, the United States and the international community can play a constructive role, particularly in empowering Chinese experts. By supporting extensive expert-level dialogues and exchanges, the United States and other countries can assist Chinese experts in gaining a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of policy thoughts and practices in the United States and other nations. Such insights and expertise could bolster the influence of these experts in China’s internal policy deliberation, enabling them to more effectively challenge and refine prevailing perspectives.

U.S. research institutes and civil society organizations should place greater emphasis on bringing U.S. domestic debates into the Chinese policy arena. A prominent discussion in Washington now revolves around the U.S. response to China’s nuclear expansion. The debate centers on whether U.S. efforts to enhance its nuclear capabilities in response to the Chinese buildup will more effectively deter Chinese aggression and encourage arms control negotiations or if it will result in greater Chinese nuclear expansion.

Exposing Chinese nuclear officials and experts to these internal U.S. debates, including the diverse perspectives of U.S. strategists and how their views are shaped by historical and contemporary evidence, could help Chinese policymakers understand the serious concerns in Washington regarding China’s nuclear path and the intense pressure that the United States faces in reacting to Chinese nuclear advancements. U.S. officials and experts, particularly those advocating a tougher stance on Chinese nuclear policy, should make an active, persistent effort to engage in Chinese-U.S. Track 2 and 1.5 dialogues, which can help convey these complex dynamics and foster a deeper understanding of the strategic considerations at play in an unofficial, less formal environment.

Exposing Chinese experts more widely to this U.S. debate would help draw Chinese attention to the fact that the U.S. response to the Chinese buildup will hinge on whether the United States perceives the buildup as primarily a defensive measure to ensure deterrence or an aggressive move aimed at coercion. Greater awareness of this debate within China could motivate Beijing to offer reassurances to Washington and to elucidate the rationale behind its nuclear expansion, potentially leading to greater nuclear transparency from China.

The U.S. Differential Nuclear Policy

Given China’s strategic competition with the United States and its historical skepticism toward arms control, China is likely to play hardball even if it is somehow compelled to join arms control talks. China’s approach may be more constructive, however, on issues that align more closely with its core interests, such as the no-first-use policy and mutual nuclear vulnerability between China and the United States.

In recent months, Beijing has intensified its emphasis on no first use of nuclear weapons. Its insistence on the United States adopting such a policy toward China is in line with its overarching aim of ensuring a U.S. acceptance of a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China. To Beijing, Washington’s acceptance of either a no-first-use or a mutual nuclear vulnerability stance would indicate a U.S. commitment not to use its nuclear capabilities for coercing China, which is regarded as a key precondition for upholding bilateral nuclear stability and preventing a nuclear arms race.

The United States has an unclear policy on whether to continue persuading Beijing that its development of homeland missile defense capabilities is limited, expert Tong Zhao writes. Here, an upgraded U.S. ground-based interceptor is shown during a test launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on December 1. (Photo by Ryan Keith/U.S. Defense Department)The United States finds it challenging, however, to accept the concept of mutual vulnerability, such as through a mutual renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons, even if such an agreement could be reliably verified. Washington harbors concerns that Beijing might exploit such an agreement to carry out strategic non-nuclear attacks that could threaten core U.S. interests. Consequently, Washington believes that it has a legitimate reason to preserve the option of nuclear first use as a deterrent and potential response to such attacks.

Conversely, Washington views the potential first use of nuclear weapons by Beijing, most likely in a conflict over Taiwan, as being driven by a revisionist agenda aimed at coercively altering the territorial status quo and thus unjustifiable. This leads to differing U.S. perspectives on the legitimacy of the potential first use of nuclear weapons by China and the United States. From China’s viewpoint, such a differential U.S. approach is discriminatory in nature and is what motivates Washington to seek nuclear superiority rather than nuclear stability with China.

In the United States, the responsibility of extending a nuclear umbrella to its allies plays a role in justifying its stance on retaining the option of first use of nuclear weapons. Even if the United States did not have this additional responsibility and needed only to ensure its own security, however, there is evidence to suggest that it would still regard its own option of first use as more justifiable than the pursuit of the same option by China, North Korea, or Russia. These countries often interpret this distinction as indicative of U.S. hegemony, whereas many U.S. experts seem to believe that the real reasons for this position are more intricate than mere double standards, stemming from the different behaviors of democratic and authoritarian systems.

The U.S. perspective holds that authoritarian countries are more inclined to initiate unjust wars and pursue revisionist objectives, more impulsive in their threats of nuclear first use, less reliable in adhering to international norms and ethical standards, and more unpredictable in their strategic decision-making. Consequently, the United States sees valid grounds for adopting a different nuclear policy standard toward authoritarian adversaries, underpinned by these perceived distinctions in governance and international behavior.

With regard to Taiwan, a critical flashpoint in Chinese-U.S. military tensions, China admittedly has shown an increasing sense of urgency to alter the territorial status quo, by coercive means if necessary. During the November summit, Xi reportedly told his U.S. counterpart that, on the issue of Taiwan, “peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move toward resolution more generally.”2 In this context, Washington perceives Beijing’s efforts to deter U.S. nuclear first use in a large-scale conventional invasion as supporting an unjust cause and believes the United States has justifiable reasons to maintain the option of nuclear first use in such a scenario. Such perceptions contribute to the U.S. reluctance to acknowledge a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China.

Besides the matter of nuclear first use, some other aspects of U.S. nuclear policy are formulated in a manner that Washington deems justifiable for itself but not for its adversaries. These include the U.S. pursuit of damage limitation through the development of counterforce strike capabilities.

This differential policy approach is becoming increasingly untenable. As China’s power expands, it is more assertively seeking equal status with the United States and has the resources to develop nuclear strategies and capabilities akin to those of the United States. As Beijing perceives the U.S. differential nuclear policy as a manifestation of U.S. hegemony, it becomes more willing to pressure Washington into recognizing a more equitable nuclear relationship through unilateral buildup. As the two sides continue down the current path, the future of their nuclear relationship becomes increasingly unpredictable.

Theoretically, the United States has three potential responses to address the consequences of its differential policy on nuclear competition with China. The first option involves Washington making a concerted effort to define more precisely the scope of two types of capabilities that it is developing: counterforce damage limitation capability and limited homeland missile defense capability. If Washington can demonstrate successfully to Beijing that its pursuit of counterforce damage limitation and homeland missile defense is genuinely limited in nature and distinctly less extensive than full-fledged capabilities that could undermine the Chinese nuclear deterrent, then China would be more inclined to accept some level of permanent capability asymmetry with the United States.

The second approach involves Washington considering revisions to its nuclear doctrine by relinquishing nuclear employment strategies that it would find problematic if adopted by its peer competitors. This could include restricting the option of nuclear first use and reducing the role of nuclear weapons as a hedge against potential threats from future non-nuclear military technologies.

If Washington is unable to eliminate the differential elements in its nuclear strategy, the third option would be to provide a clear explanation for its stance. When China perceives the U.S. differential policy as rooted in U.S. hegemonic culture, it often responds by sidelining diplomatic and arms control efforts, instead focusing on a unilateral military buildup as a countermeasure. Conversely, if Washington’s rationale is grounded in concerns about its rivals’ lack of credibility or accountability or their specific revisionist policy objectives, this should be more openly and clearly communicated.

A more tailored communications strategy could help draw Beijing’s attention to the need to acknowledge and address these underlying challenges in the bilateral relationship. By recognizing U.S. differential policy while pointing out opportunities for policy changes at the same time, Washington could incentivize Beijing to increase transparency, respond to specific U.S. concerns, and adopt a less coercive approach on regional security issues, including on the issue of Taiwan.

Near-Term Engagement Opportunities

China’s core demand for U.S. acceptance of a nuclear no-first-use or mutual nuclear vulnerability policy faces significant hurdles, intricately tied to the escalating ideological tensions between the two countries and Beijing’s pursuit of coercive security strategies. Given China’s insistence on addressing these issues as a prerequisite for broader nuclear-related security discussions, however, it remains necessary for the United States to engage China on these matters. Fortunately, there are immediate steps both sides can take to engage constructively in ways that are mutually beneficial.

A practical starting point could be to initiate a broad, generic discussion that does not focus exclusively on China and the United States or require either party to modify their existing policies immediately. On the no-first-use issue, the two sides could explore general criteria to assess the credibility of an unspecified nation’s no-first-use policy, including indicators related to its deployed capabilities, operational doctrines, and employment postures. Given the climate of mistrust, neither Beijing nor Washington is likely to be fully reassured by the other’s mere declaration on no first use unless accompanied by additional concrete measures to lend credibility to the declaration. Thus, an essential preliminary step would be to determine if both countries can concur on a set of universal standards for a credible no-first-use policy applicable to any nuclear-armed state.

Examples of potential indicators of credibility might include not deploying low-survivability weapons on rapid-delivery systems near conflict zones; maintaining clear, transparent nuclear doctrines explicitly defining and renouncing nuclear first-use actions; and providing transparency regarding the presence of domestic procedures to check the conformity of political leaders’ nuclear authorization decisions with their declared no-first-use policy. Even if reaching consensus on universal standards proves unfeasible, this exercise could enhance China’s understanding of the difficulties Washington faces in trusting a rival’s no-first-use declaration.

Similarly, on the issue of mutual nuclear vulnerability, Washington could propose to Beijing a broad, generic discussion about the meaning of mutual vulnerability and the elements that define a credible commitment to such a relationship. Comparing China’s main nuclear rivals, China is in a weaker position in the nuclear dynamic with the United States, but is the stronger party in its nuclear relationship with India. In a generic discussion that does not specify countries, China would be encouraged to reflect on the conditions of mutual vulnerability by considering perspectives from both sides of the table, which could help build a more constructive dialogue.

Beyond addressing strategic challenges in their nuclear relationship, China and the United States should strive to clear up specific technical misunderstandings. For instance, the 2023 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on China’s military power notes a possible Chinese interest in developing conventional ICBMs. If accurate, such development could further destabilize the Chinese-U.S. nuclear dynamic. It might prompt Washington to expand its homeland missile defense systems to counter Chinese conventional ICBMs, which are perceived as a more immediate threat to the U.S. homeland than Chinese nuclear ICBMs. Yet, the enhancement of U.S. homeland missile defenses could heighten Chinese concerns about the reliability of its nuclear second-strike capability, complicating efforts to maintain bilateral nuclear stability.

What appears to be insufficiently understood in Washington is that, since at least 2020, Chinese experts have been under the impression that the United States was arming some of its ICBMs with conventional warheads.3 This misunderstanding of U.S. policy could be a driving factor behind the reported Chinese interest in developing their own conventional ICBM capabilities.

Similarly, Chinese experts have shown misunderstandings over other specific policy issues. For instance, based on misinterpretation of statements by senior U.S. officials, they believe Washington has been “nuclearizing” hypersonic missiles. In reality, the United States has limited its hypersonic missile development to conventional warheads. Another often-heard claim by Chinese experts is that the United States has been developing space-based land-attack weapons. That is a misunderstanding that likely also has influenced China’s own thinking on the need for similar capabilities and on its overall counterspace strategy.

These misunderstandings could have considerable implications for China’s military and arms control policies. Unlike divergent perceptions about each other’s strategic intentions, however, these specific technical-level misconceptions should be more straightforward to rectify. This can be achieved through a concerted effort to utilize open-source information to clarify details and provide evidence during official and expert-level exchanges. Addressing such seemingly minor issues can go a long way in reducing the intensity of the bilateral arms competition.



1. Igor Patrick, Mark Magnier, and Amber Wang, “Biden, Xi Set to Pledge Ban on AI in Autonomous Weapons Like Drones, Nuclear Warhead Control: Sources,” South China Morning Post, November 11, 2023.

2. “Biden and Xi Talk Taiwan, Agree to Resume Military Communication,” NHK News, November 16, 2023.

3. Tong Zhao, “Managing the Impact of Missile Defense on U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” in Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship Among the United States, Russia, and China (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2023), p. 9.

Tong Zhao is a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, working for the Nuclear Policy Program and Carnegie China.

If China continues expanding its nuclear arsenal and eschewing arms control with the United States, diplomatic engagement stands as one of the limited but crucial means to establish a safety net and reduce the risk of conflict.

The Future of Arms Control Lies in the Nuclear Ban Treaty

January/February 2024
By Melissa Parke

Nuclear weapons and the decades-long effort to restrain and ultimately eliminate them have reached an alarming inflection point.

The risk that these weapons could be used in conflict has increased to its highest level since the Cold War, largely due to Russia’s nuclear threats during the early days of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and to an expansion of the dangerous practice of nuclear sharing. Meanwhile, bilateral arms control agreements put in place to ensure stability have been atrophying.

Participants in the second meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, including states-parties and representatives of international and nongovernmental organizations, met at the United Nations November 27 to December 1. (Photo by ICAN/Darren Ornitz)Looking back, it is clear that nuclear arms control reached an apogee in the 1990s with the first and second strategic arms reduction treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia and with multilateral agreements such as the Open Skies Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The rot started to set in at the turn of the century when the United States abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. More recently, the dismantling of further bilateral agreements between the United States and Russia accelerated with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 and Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe last year.

Also in 2023, Russia “suspended” its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by refusing to allow U.S. inspections of its nuclear facilities. The agreement remains on the books, and Russia says it will abide by the prescribed warhead limits, but the treaty is due to expire in two years with no prospect of a successor agreement given the current hostility between the two countries.

Although the cornerstone of multilateral nuclear disarmament architecture, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), remains in force, it has stalled with no agreement since 2010 on ways to move the treaty forward. One example of the dysfunction was the 2015 NPT Review Conference, which could not agree on a final outcome document. The main reasons were differences over demands for a conference on creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and the refusal of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to agree on a timetable for implementing their commitment to disarm under Article 6 of the treaty.1

The 2022 review conference, which was delayed from 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, failed because Russia refused to agree to references in the final document about Ukraine, which it had invaded a few months earlier. Even if the meeting were held before Moscow launched its full-scale war, many experts believe the prospects for agreement were slim because the non-nuclear-weapon states were frustrated at the lack of movement on disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.2

Although signed by nearly all states, the CTBT has never entered into force because several key countries that are required to ratify it, including nuclear-armed China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States, have not done so. The treaty was dealt a further blow last year when Russia revoked its ratification, part of its strategy to ratchet up pressure on NATO and the United States over Ukraine.

A New Push for Disarmament

Despite the gloomy picture painted by these developments, there is reason for optimism that multilateral arms control has a brighter future. That is because a new, progressive, multilateral push for nuclear disarmament has been gathering momentum with the negotiation, adoption, and entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which took place between 2017 and 2021.

The TPNW complements the NPT and provides an internationally agreed framework to realize the aim of that treaty, which is not just to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons but ultimately to achieve nuclear disarmament. It does that by filling a gap in the NPT that has allowed the five nuclear-armed states to retain their weapons while banning other states from acquiring them. In exchange, the nuclear-armed states promised to disarm and to support the non-nuclear-weapon states with nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The TPNW builds on this NPT bargain by banning countries from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using, and threatening to use nuclear weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging, and inducing anyone to engage in these activities.3

A country that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, but must agree to destroy its arsenal in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan that includes all necessary verification mechanisms. Similarly, a country that hosts another country’s nuclear weapons on its territory may join the treaty if it agrees to remove the weapons by a specified time.

The roots of the TPNW are in the international initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons started at a conference in Oslo in 2013 attended by 128 states, UN agencies, other international organizations, and civil society.4 This was followed by meetings in Nayarit, Mexico, and Vienna the following year. Out of these meetings came the idea of a new international treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons because they are the most destructive, inhumane, and indiscriminate weapons ever created, both in the scale of the devastation they cause and in their uniquely persistent, spreading, genetically damaging radioactive fallout. They are unlike any other weapons, including chemical and biological weapons, which were already subject to bans under multilateral treaties.

At the heart of the TPNW lies a focus on the lasting harm caused by nuclear weapons that was inspired by treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions. It took time to gather the signatures and ratifications for these earlier accords, adopted in 1997 and 2008, respectively, and it was always anticipated that the TPNW would take time to garner support in the same way.

Several major states whose armed forces used landmines and cluster munitions joined those treaties because their alleged military value and reputational cost is outweighed by the benefits of giving them up, namely increased diplomatic influence and soft power. Among their number are nuclear-armed France and the UK, as well as other NATO countries that endorse the use of nuclear weapons in their national defense policies. The implication is that these countries accept the principle that a category of weapons that cause lasting harm and are morally repugnant can and should be prohibited. The expectation is that as more countries join the TPNW, the pressure will grow on the nuclear-armed states to follow suit. Already, some NATO countries, including Germany, which hosts U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory, have attended the meetings of TPNW states-parties as observers.5

The TPNW also is rooted in the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons that developed after knowledge spread, despite U.S. attempts at censorship, of what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when their cities were attacked with the first nuclear bombs. A strong international consensus accepts that this taboo has helped restrain leaders from using nuclear weapons again. The TPNW effectively codifies the nuclear taboo and takes it a step further by banning the weapons outright.6

So far, of 197 eligible states, 93 states have signed the TPNW, and 69 states have ratified or acceded to it. At the recent meeting in New York, Indonesia reported that its parliament has voted to ratify the treaty; several other delegations, including that of Brazil, said that their governments will be doing so very soon. This is the same number that had signed and ratified the NPT at this stage in the universalization process. Although the nine states that now possess nuclear weapons (the five recognized under the NPT along with India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) remain opposed to joining the TPNW, proponents expect that, through a process of stigmatization and delegitimization, the treaty can convince the nine and their allies that it is in all of their interests to join the treaty and eliminate nuclear weapons.7

The TPNW Gains Strength

Since coming into force in 2021, the TPNW has continued to grow in strength. It just completed a successful second meeting of its member states in New York and is about to pass the milestone of having more than half of the world’s countries on board either as TPNW signatories or fully ratified members.

The treaty’s success derives partly from its rejection of the misguided theory of nuclear deterrence. Also important is the TPNW’s fresh approach, marked by inclusiveness and transparency, to verification and to advancing an agenda for nuclear justice based on recognizing the harm that nuclear weapons have done to human health and the environment. In addition to the 215,000 people estimated to have been killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, between 1945 and 2017, Russia, the United States, and other nuclear-weapon states conducted more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests that contaminated extensive areas around the world that extend well beyond the test sites, making them uninhabitable and causing widespread intergenerational harm to people’s health.8

Melissa Parke, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a leading advocate for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), confers with the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second TPNW meeting in New York in late 2023. (Photo by ICAN/Darren Ornitz)The TPNW directly challenges deterrence with its prohibition on the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. This principle enabled treaty member states to issue a strong condemnation of nuclear threats at their first meeting in 2022, following Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling regarding Ukraine. The TPNW language has been echoed since by the Group of 20 countries and by individual leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.9 Nuclear experts assess that these condemnations persuaded Russia to stop making overt nuclear threats and thus demonstrated that the stigmatization of nuclear weapons-related actions does influence the behavior of nuclear-armed states.10

The political declaration from the 2023 states-parties meeting reiterated this condemnation of nuclear threats, criticized nuclear sharing among states, and, most notably, strongly denounced the doctrine of nuclear deterrence as a threat to human security and an obstacle to nuclear disarmament.11 This marked the first time that the members of a multilateral treaty have taken such a position on deterrence. Although fundamental to the nuclear doctrines of the nuclear-weapon states, deterrence is an unproven theory that endangers the future of humanity, based as it is on the implicit threat to use nuclear weapons. Thus, the TPNW is breaking new ground given that previous arms control and disarmament treaties did not in any way challenge the doctrine of deterrence.

The states-parties also commissioned a report from the TPNW’s scientific advisory group, working with member states, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the threat from nuclear weapons and the doctrine of deterrence. It is to be submitted to the next meeting of TPNW states-parties in 2025. In the words of the decision document,12 this report is “[t]o challenge the security paradigm based on nuclear deterrence by highlighting and promoting new scientific evidence about the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons and juxtaposing this with the risks and assumptions that are inherent in nuclear deterrence.”

The TPNW is the only treaty that provides a pathway to verified disarmament, through Article 4. The working group on this article,13 co-chaired by Mexico and New Zealand and supported by the scientific advisory group and civil society, is developing a verification mechanism for when a nuclear-armed state or a state that hosts nuclear weapons joins the treaty.

There are lessons on verification to be learned from past and existing bilateral arm control treaties, but the TPNW is innovating and taking a whole-of-society approach derived from the treaty’s commitment to irreversible, verifiable, and transparent disarmament. That differs from bilateral arms control verification measures in treaties that aim to limit the size and categories of nuclear stockpiles, rather than eliminate them altogether. These other treaties were based on assumptions of distrust and secrecy designed to preserve the integrity of nuclear weapons systems and deterrence.14

TPNW Innovations

The TPNW’s break with the traditional secrecy surrounding nuclear weapons is a welcome one. It should set an example for other nuclear arms agreements, which need to acknowledge that democratic practice is not something that ends when a government is elected or appointed. Rather, when it comes to matters of life and death affecting the whole of society, transparency is essential politically and morally.

Another innovative TPNW approach to disarmament is its plan to advance nuclear justice by mandating member states, under Articles 6 and 7, to provide assistance to communities harmed by the use, testing, and development of nuclear weapons and to clean up the radioactive contamination that remains in many regions. Given that nuclear testing has disproportionately affected Indigenous and colonized peoples, the treaty seeks to right the wrongs of the past.

Survivors and affected communities are actively engaged in the work of the treaty and participate in its proceedings. This underscores the treaty’s commitment to set itself apart from other nuclear agreements that are dominated by governments and military bureaucracies. The TPNW recognizes that given that nuclear weapons threaten all of society, all of society should have a role in decisions about how to manage, control, and eliminate the arsenals.

The recent meeting of TPNW member states heard testimony from affected communities, which delivered an unprecedented joint statement.15 The meeting produced a decision that Kazakhstan and Kiribati, two states affected by Soviet, UK, and U.S. nuclear testing, will continue to lead the working group on Articles 6 and 7. It also produced an agreement that discussion on establishing an international trust fund for victim assistance and environmental remediation will continue, with a recommendation to be made at the next TPNW meeting in March 2025.

The Hope of Multilateral Arms Negotiations

Washington and Moscow still control 90 percent of the global nuclear stockpile and traditionally have sought to make arms control decisions between themselves, but the prospects of Russian-U.S. cooperation on a treaty to succeed New START are dim. At the same time, although the United States made a proposal in June 2023 for arms control talks with China, this too seems a nonstarter, given that both countries seem intent on modernizing their arsenals and China on increasing its stockpile. To avoid a new nuclear arms race and eliminate the threat posed by the existence of nuclear weapons, the way forward will depend on multilateral arms negotiations that go further than limiting stockpiles and delivery systems.

As the TPNW continues to gain more members, the nuclear-armed states and their allies that endorse the use of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines will face increasing political and diplomatic pressure to engage with the treaty. Much of their opposition to the TPNW, before its negotiation and afterward, has been based explicitly and correctly on concerns that the treaty would have the effect of delegitimizing nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.

This is why when pursuing their national aims, even nuclear-armed states make serious efforts to justify their actions under international law and portray them as normal, accepted practice that follows established precedents. For example, all NPT nuclear-weapon states claim to be complying fully with NPT disarmament obligations and international humanitarian law.

In the past few decades, nearly all nuclear-armed states have joined the biological and chemical weapons conventions, which demonstrates that they see weapons of mass destruction as unnecessary and morally unacceptable. Therefore, they already have accepted the argument that weapons that cause indiscriminate, lasting harm can and should be eliminated.

In the best of circumstances, it will take time before the nuclear-weapon states fully embrace the TPNW. Although this outlook could be discouraging, it is worth remembering that China and France ultimately joined the NPT, even if it took more than 20 years. There are compelling reasons to be optimistic about the TPNW’s future. Increasingly, it is apparent that, in this treaty, the nuclear-armed states have a viable route, established in international law, through which to achieve disarmament fairly and verifiably and to finally eliminate what they all know is the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose to the whole world.



1. Daryl G. Kimball and Kingston Reif, “NPT Conference Fails to Reach Consensus,” Arms Control Today, June 2015, pp. 22-23.

2. Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “10th NPT Review Conference: Why It Was Doomed and How It Almost Succeeded,” Arms Control Today, October 2022, pp. 20-24.

3. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), July 7, 2017, 729 U.N.T.S. 161.

4. See Government of Norway, “Conference: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” March 11, 2013, https://www.regjeringen.no/en/historical-archive/Stoltenbergs-2nd-Government/Ministry-of-Foreign-Affairs/humimpact_2013/id708603/.

5. Belgium, Germany, and Norway attended the second meeting of states-parties as observers.

6. Nina Tannenwald, “The Great Unraveling: The Future of the Nuclear Normative Order,” in Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018), pp. 6-31, https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/New-Nuclear-Age_Emerging-Risks.pdf.

7. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “How the Treaty Works,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/how_the_tpnw_works (accessed December 15, 2023).

8. Robert A. Jacobs, Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022).

9. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration,” n.d., https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/CPV/G20-New-Delhi-Leaders-Declaration.pdf (meeting held September 9-10, 2023); Stuart Lau, “China’s Xi Warns Putin Not to Use Nuclear Arms in Ukraine,” Politico, November 4, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/china-xi-jinping-warns-vladimir-putin-not-to-use-nuclear-arms-in-ukraine-olaf-scholz-germany-peace-talks/; Madeline Chambers, “Germany’s Scholz: Trying to Prevent Escalation in Russia-Ukraine War,” Reuters, September 21, 2022; “Opening Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a Meeting of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament,” NATO, September 28, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_207645.htm.

10. Pavel Podvig, “Why a Russian Nuclear Expert Thinks the Doomsday Clock Should Move Away From Midnight,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 8, 2023, https://thebulletin.org/2023/11/why-a-russian-nuclear-expert-thinks-the-doomsday-clock-should-move-away-from-midnight/.

11. Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Revised Draft Declaration of the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Our Commitment to Upholding the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and Averting Their Catastrophic Consequences,’” TPNW/MSP/2023/CRP.4/Rev.1, December 1, 2023.

12. Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Decisions to Be Taken by the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” TPNW/MSP/2023/CRP.3/Rev.1, November 30, 2023.

13. ICAN, “TPNW Informal Working Group: Article 4 - Nuclear Disarmament Verification,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/tpnw_intersessional_work_article_4_nuclear_disarmament_verification (accessed December 15, 2023).

14. Pavel Podvig, ed., “Verifying Disarmament in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2022, https://unidir.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/UNIDIR_Verifying_Disarmament_TPNW.pdf.

15. “Affected Communities Statement to the Second Meeting of States Parties to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2023,” n.d., https://icanw.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Affected-Communities-Statement-poster-final.pdf (poster).


Melissa Parke, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), is a former lawyer for the United Nations and a former Australian minister for international development.

Despite some gloomy developments, there is reason for optimism that multilateral arms control has a brighter future.

Redressing the Toxic Legacy of Nuclear Testing

January/February 2024
By Ekaterina Lapanovich, Laura Lepsy, and Alain Ponce Blancas

On a summer morning in 1953, soldiers evacuated all but a few farmers from a village in the Kazakh steppe without explaining the move.

After the group departed, the farmers left behind were surprised by a huge explosion and went outside to observe the spectacle better. Later, the soldiers returned, wearing protective suits, to conduct measurements on the witnesses.

A Kazakh woman on the steppe in Znamenka, a village on the edge of the former Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan in 2016. (Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images)This is the way a survivor described in the book Atomic Steppe how the inhabitants of Karaul, located around 95 kilometers from the former Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan, experienced the day of the first Soviet thermonuclear test.1 The volume is a testament to the fact that the global history of atomic testing is one of ignorance and deception, with innocent civilians deprived of full knowledge about the dangerous aftereffects of the nuclear testing that they unwittingly experienced.

In Kazakhstan, around seven years into nuclear testing, Soviet authorities kept secret information on the health effects of consuming contaminated food and water rather than share it with civilian health institutions that could have used the data to help affected individuals.2 Similarly, populations exposed to U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands were not given access to their own medical records for many years.3

From the farmers in Kazakhstan to indigenous communities in Nevada to the islanders of the Indo-Pacific region, millions of people were harmed, and countless acres were contaminated by fallout from more than 2,000 nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet Union, the United States, and other nuclear-weapon states since 1945. It is a dark legacy of injustice for which the nuclear-weapon states still have not fully atoned.

The Imperative of Justice

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in 2021, has made achieving epistemic justice for nuclear testing-affected populations—the remedying of unfair treatment in knowledge-related practices, such as deprivation of access to historical and scientific data—one of its major tenets. The second meeting of TPNW states-parties, held in November in New York, laid the groundwork for taking action.

Regardless of what TPNW states-parties do, however, the effect will remain limited because no nuclear-weapon state will join the treaty soon or engage in related deliberations. To address this problem, the epistemic justice issue should be moved to a broader arena. An expert-level global conference on the legacy of nuclear testing would be a good start.

The TPNW evolved from a series of conferences that dealt with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, in Oslo in 2013; Nayarit, Mexico, in 2014; and Vienna in 2014.4 The first meeting of states-parties, in 2022 in Vienna, established a working group, co-chaired by Kazakhstan and Kiribati, on victim assistance, environmental remediation, international cooperation and assistance, which presented its recommendations to the second TPNW meeting.

The working group focused on measures to fulfill the “positive obligations” that are anchored in the treaty’s Article 6, on victim assistance and environmental remediation, and Article 7, on international assistance and cooperation. Those measures included the establishment of a voluntary reporting process by which states-parties would share relevant information with each other and the wider public. This reporting process seeks to regularize the exchange of valuable information required to assist victims and remediate the environment. It could also facilitate broader international cooperation and assistance by allowing potential donor states to identify the needs of affected states-parties.5

Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu of Kazakhstan speaks during the second meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at UN Headquarters on November 27. His country co-chaired a working group with Kiribati on assistance for victims of nuclear weapons testing, environmental remediation and international cooperation. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)The format encourages states-parties to provide specific data based on the same criteria so that the data can be processed and analyzed systematically. Reporting questions also address epistemic standards related to measuring the effects of nuclear tests, such as the methodology of assessment and criteria used to define victimhood. The format therefore confronts two major barriers to effective victim assistance and environmental remediation: the scarcity of systematic data and the absence of universal standards for defining victimhood.

Although this reporting format may ameliorate past harms, the structural reasons for epistemic injustice can be remedied in most cases only by the states that conducted the tests. For instance, affected states and communities often are unable to access the testing records that may help them identify and develop appropriate policy measures for mitigating the consequences of nuclear testing because such records may be classified, privileged, or simply not readily accessible.6 Only states with nuclear weapons could decide to share this information, but none of them will become parties to the TPNW in the near future and provide a report according to the new standard format.

Kazakhstan and Kiribati are aware of this problem. In their report as working group co-chairs, they noted that one of the major problems in assessing the impact of nuclear testing is the lack of access to relevant information that “may not be held by affected states-parties.” They included a section in the new reporting format that asks states-parties to report about “efforts to engage and exchange information with states not party that have used or tested nuclear weapons regarding their assistance to affected parties.”

The co-chairs took the extra step of putting the legacy of nuclear testing on the agenda of multilateral forums where nuclear-weapon states participate. The revised final draft document of the 2022 review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) contained an appeal to “all governments…with expertise in the field of clean-up and disposal of radioactive contaminants, to consider giving appropriate assistance…in affected areas,”7 thereby effectively bringing TPNW Article 7 into the NPT orbit. In a working paper for the 2023 preparatory committee for the next NPT review conference, scheduled for 2026, Kazakhstan and Kiribati argue that nuclear-weapon states should engage in scientific and technical “information exchanges with [NPT] states-parties whose territories served as test sites [including on] the potential effects of nuclear contamination and types of responses.”8

Most recently, last October, the co-chairs co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution on the legacy of nuclear weapons,9 which asked the secretary-general to report on the views and proposals of states regarding efforts and ongoing needs related to victim assistance and environmental remediation, the same questions that the TPNW reporting format aims to answer. Many states-parties at the TPNW meeting in November referred to the October resolution as a mechanism for “universalizing” the TPNW’s assistance and cooperation requirements.

Although 171 states voted in favor of the resolution, all nine states that possess nuclear weapons abstained or voted against it. This result clarifies two major points. On one hand, the agenda of positive obligations in dealing with the nuclear testing legacy enjoys wide support, including from NATO states such as Germany10 and Norway,11 who are not TPNW state-parties but attended the TPNW meeting as observer states and emphasized their interest in working on the humanitarian perspective on the legacy of testing. On the other hand, the fact that all nuclear-weapon states voted against or abstained from the vote on the resolution reflects their reluctance to engage in multilateral forums that address the consequences of nuclear testing. It does not mean, however, that nuclear-weapon states have not taken national action to deal with the consequences of nuclear testing.

The Remediation Record

Most nuclear-weapon states have some form of commemoration or compensation instrument for victims of nuclear testing, even though their depth and scope vary widely from covering only veterans, as China and the United Kingdom do, to also covering civilians as France, Russia, and the United States do, to covering foreign territory, as in the U.S. agreement with the Marshall Islands. Eligibility for compensation may be determined by a number of factors, including an estimated minimum radiation dose to which an individual was exposed as a result of testing, as is the case of China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States.

Establishing accurate estimates of radiation doses is generally difficult due to a scarcity of data, given the insufficient number of monitoring stations in operation at the time of testing.12 Yet, declassifying whatever data exist to process it in model-based analysis may improve the estimates of received dosage. A case in point is a 2022 study using recently declassified documents and atmospheric transport modeling of radioactive fallout to determine that certain local populations received considerably higher effective doses than had been concluded by the French Energy Commission in 2006.13

The willingness of nuclear-weapon states to declassify testing data varies. China has not declassified any data.14 The UK in 2018 even limited access to nuclear testing-related files that had previously been public and are now being reviewed anew for declassification.15 Although Russia declassified many documents on the history of the Soviet nuclear testing program,16 the picture is still fragmented and incomplete. In some cases, when Kazakh officials requested access to relevant Soviet data, they hit a wall of silence in Moscow.17

Recently, there has been some progress in France and the United States, where large-scale data declassification occurred. France in 2021 established a governmental commission to declassify documents relating to testing in French Polynesia.18 The United States declassified 14,000 records on testing in the Marshall Islands and made them publicly available.19 That said, there is considerable room for improvement. In both cases, civil society and expert communities have criticized declassification policies as “chaotic and disjointed.”20 The data made available are often scattered over different archives and, for logistical reasons, cannot be accessed by affected communities.21 In its 2022 feasibility study on declassifying the Marshall Islands testing data, the Public Interest Declassification Board, which was established by the U.S. Congress, emphasized the need not only to declassify data, but also to process and make accessible previously declassified or even unclassified data by means of strategic digitization and application of artificial intelligence technology to identify the relevant records.22

A Modest Proposal

Switzerland, an observer state for the TPNW meeting, has encouraged the states-parties to frame the issues of victim assistance and environmental remediation in such a way that broad support for the treaty, including among nuclear-weapon states, becomes more possible.23 The fact that France, Russia, and the United States have a considerable record of data declassification shows that, in principle, they might be amenable to engage on the matter. Yet, their votes against the UN resolution on the legacy of nuclear weapons may reflect a reluctance to incur some form of universal accountability.

Runit Dome, on Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific, covers a pit used to bury 84,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil scraped from various contaminated islands in the region, where U.S. nuclear weapons tests took place between 1948 and 1958.  (Photo by U.S. Defense Special Weapons Agency via Wikimedia)If TPNW states want nuclear-weapon states to support the victim assistance and environmental remediation agenda, the TPNW framework or even the NPT might not be viable for the time being. Instead, an international conference on the legacy of nuclear testing with a technical expert-level focus might be a better mechanism to strike the balance between securing the nuclear-weapon states’ commitment and yielding benefits for testing-affected states.24

To initiate such a proposal, one pathway could be adoption of a UN resolution on convening a conference for sharing knowledge about the consequences of nuclear testing. To win support from nuclear-weapon states, this resolution should not include naming-and-shaming aspects. It could be co-sponsored by potential bridge-builders in the areas of victim assistance and environmental remediation, such as Germany, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as allies of nuclear-weapon states that suffered from testing, such as Australia and Kazakhstan.

The conference should enable experts to provide affected states with a better picture of which data and data processing methodology are needed to improve their national remediation programs. That could be done by sharing best practices and modeling techniques of the nuclear-weapon states on addressing a lack of data and on archival research on harvesting existing data. It could serve as an initial brokering point for launching formal and informal partnerships among technical experts, including those from nuclear-weapon states and from states that were affected by testing.

Nuclear-weapon states also could be encouraged to make widely available or share bilaterally with affected states such data as nuclear test site locations, test dates, and isotope composition, including formerly classified data.25 By developing synergies, the conference could be a starting point for a global data-based effort to deal with the humanitarian and environmental legacies of nuclear testing.

Almost 75 years after the first nuclear test in Kazakhstan, villagers around the former Semipalatinsk test site are still physically and economically endangered by how little they know about the contamination of their lands. Because toxic acreage is not demarcated from uncontaminated land, the villagers may face health risks by unknowingly accessing contaminated land or may leave safe farming land idle out of fear of contamination.26

To address this challenge, the Kazakh government plans to establish the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Safety Zone, which will demarcate officially and enclose the contaminated land.27 Improved technical and expert cooperation brokered through a conference on the legacy of nuclear testing could help Kazakhstan gain the support required for the effective implementation of its rehabilitation and remediation efforts in the Semipalatinsk region. This would be a step forward in the struggle for long-overdue epistemic justice for victims of nuclear testing and offer a constructive example of the solutions available to other affected countries and populations to atone for this deadly inheritance.



1. Togzhan Kassenova, Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), p. 38.

2. Ibid., pp. 54, 59.

3. See Declassification of Records Relating to Nuclear Weapons Testing and Cleanup Activities in the Marshall Islands: Feasibility Study,
August 2022, p. 18, https://www.archives.gov/files/pidb/recommendations/marshall-islands-feasibility-study-2022-.pdf.

4. For detailed information about the three conferences, see Reaching Critical Will, “Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” n.d., https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/hinw (accessed January 3, 2024).

5. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, “Reporting Guidelines for Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Precedent and Recommendations,” May 2023, https://humanrightsclinic.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/TPNW-reporting-report-5-15-23-FINAL.pdf.

6. See Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy: A Discussion of Ethics, Hierarchies and Barriers to Access in Nuclear Archives,” July 2023, https://nucleartruthproject.org/wp-content/uploads/Challenging-Nuclear-Secrecy-report-NTP-31-July-2023-low-res.pdf.

7. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2020/CRP.1/Rev.2, August 25, 2022, para. 93.

8. See Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Addressing the Past Use and Testing of Nuclear Weapons: Working Paper Submitted by Kazakhstan and Kiribati,” NPT/CONF.2026/PC.I/WP.27, July 28, 2023.

9. UN General Assembly, “Addressing the Legacy of Nuclear Weapons: Providing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation to Member States Affected by the Use or Testing of Nuclear Weapons,” A/C.1/78/L.52, October 12, 2023.

10. Susanne Riegraf, Statement of Germany to the second meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), n.d., pp. 3-4, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/2msp/statements/29Nov_Germany.pdf (meeting held November 27-December 1, 2023).

11. Tor Henrik Andersen, Statement of Norway to the second meeting of TPNW states-parties, n.d., p. 3, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/2msp/statements/29Nov_Norway.pdf (meeting held November 27-December 1, 2023).

12. Committee to Assess the Scientific Information for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program, “Assessment of the Scientific Information for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program,” National Research Council, 2005, p. 5, https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/11279/chapter/1; INTERPRT, Disclose, and Science and Global Security Program, Princeton University, “The Compensation Trap,” n.d., https://moruroa-files.org/en/investigation/battle-for-compensation (accessed December 3, 2023).

13. Sébastien Philippe, Sonya Schoenberger, and Nabil Ahmed, “Radiation Exposures and Compensation of Victims of French Atmospheric Nuclear Tests in Polynesia,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2022): 62-94.

14. Peter Suciu, “China’s Nuclear Tests Might Have Killed Hundreds of Thousands,” The National Interest, April 30, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/china’s-nuclear-tests-might-have-killed-hundreds-thousands-184134.

15. Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy,” p. 9.

16. See “Атомный проект СССР: документы и материалы” [USSR atomic project: Documents and materials], History of Rosatom, n.d., https://elib.biblioatom.ru/soviet-atomic-program/ (accessed January 3, 2024).

17. Kassenova, Atomic Steppe, p. 6.

18. Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy,” p. 7.

19. See U.S. Department of Energy, “Openness Information Resources,” n.d., https://www.osti.gov/opennet/press (accessed January 3, 2024).

20. Patrick Kaiku, “Nuclear Justice for the Marshall Islands in the Age of Geopolitical Rivalry in the Pacific,” Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, August 2023, p. 13, https://cms.apln.network/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/Patrick-Kaiku_August-2023.pdf.

21. Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy,” p. 11.

22. The Public Interest Declassification Board, “Declassification of Records Relating to Nuclear Weapons Testing and Cleanup Activities in the Marshall Islands: Feasibility Study,” August 2022, https://www.archives.gov/files/pidb/recommendations/marshall-islands-feasibility-study-2022-.pdf.

23. Statement of Switzerland to the second meeting of TPNW states-parties, November 30, 2023, p. 2, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/2msp/statements/30Nov_Switzerland_A6.pdf.

24. Chris Reus-Smit and Ayşe Zarakol, “The Crisis of International Order: Is It About Injustice?” Medium, January 17, 2023, https://medium.com/international-affairs-blog/the-crisis-of-international-order-is-it-about-injustice-8cbcada5aa33.

25. See Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Policy Recommendations on Trust Fund, International Cooperation, Articles 6 and 7, Preamble, and Article 1,” TPNW/MSP/2023/NGO/4, November 14, 2023, p. 3; Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy: Barriers to Access and Ethics of Nuclear Archives,” TPNW/MSP/2023/NGO/9, November 14, 2023.

26. National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “Draft Law About ‘Semipalatinsk Nuclear Safety Zone,’” June 2, 2022, https://www.nnc.kz/en/news/show/372.

27. Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “On the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Safety Zone,” December 28, 2023, https://adilet.zan.kz/eng/docs/Z2300000016.


Ekaterina Lapanovich is a senior lecturer at Ural Federal University. Laura Lepsy is a consultant on peace, security, and international cooperation issues. Alain Ponce Blancas is a research and communication officer at the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. All three contributors are alumni of the Arms Control Negotiation Academy at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

The authors make a proposal to move forward the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

SPECIAL REPORT: A Former Nuclear Test Site’s New Role

January/February 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

(Nye County, Nevada)—When I visited the primary location for U.S. nuclear weapons testing, the Nevada Test Site, in September 1994 for the first time, whether the era of U.S. nuclear testing had come to a permanent end and whether a worldwide testing halt was possible were still open questions.

Teams from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and the Nevada National Security Site host nongovernmental experts on a visit to the site's P-Tunnel, where a nonproliferation experiment was conducted in October 2023.  (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)Two years before that visit, bipartisan majorities in Congress, acting over the objections of the George H.W. Bush administration, approved legislation mandating a nine-month U.S. nuclear test moratorium in response to a Soviet testing moratorium declared in October 1991. In 1993, President Bill Clinton, following intensive interagency consultations, decided that further nuclear testing was not necessary. He would extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium, establish the Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain the arsenal without testing, and pursue multilateral negotiations for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (see box).

Thirty years later, however, on a return visit to the site on November 30 at the invitation of senior leaders of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), I saw ample signs that although the dangerous era of U.S. nuclear weapons testing has ended, the site and the NNSA still have critical roles to play to ensure that nuclear explosive testing is not resumed by the United States or other countries. The visit, which included 12 other nongovernmental experts on arms control and nonproliferation, marked an unusual effort by NNSA leaders to demonstrate transparency about current activities at the site, most of which are now focused on maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing. This new mission is underscored by the site’s new title, the Nevada National Security Site.

The visit’s aim was to provide firsthand information about how the former nuclear explosive test site “has been transformed into an experimental test bed and training ground for nonproliferation and national security missions,” according to the official invitation from Corey Hinderstein, the NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation. In addition to the Arms Control Association, participants represented the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Federation of American Scientists, Harvard Kennedy School, Middlebury Institute of International Studies, National Academy of Sciences, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Open Nuclear Network, and Ploughshares Fund and included a French physics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a German physicist affiliated with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.

The Nevada Test Site in 1994

Carved out of tribal land seized from the Shoshone Nation of Native Americans,1 the Nevada Test Site was the location for 928 of 1,054 U.S. nuclear tests, including 100 atmospheric nuclear test explosions between 1951 and 1962 and another 828 tests performed underground.2 The last underground nuclear test, code-named Divider, was conducted in September 1992.

At the time of my 1994 tour, the Nevada Test Site Control Point facility, which was used to oversee and conduct nuclear tests and was located on the southern side of the site, was quiet but still operational and receiving authorized visitors. The 152-foot-tall test tower that was scheduled to house the next nuclear test explosion, dubbed Icecap, was clearly visible from the paved, two-lane highway that traverses the 1,355-square-mile site from south to north. The tower was still surrounded by mobile trailers stuffed with diagnostic equipment to monitor an underground nuclear blast. Icecap, a joint Los Alamos National Laboratory project with the United Kingdom, also demonstrated how the U.S. test site facilitated UK nuclear weapons development under the terms of the 1958 UK-U.S. agreement on cooperation on the uses of atomic energy for mutual defense purposes.

The Test Ban and Test Site Tensions

Three years after Clinton extended the U.S. test moratorium, diplomats at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva concluded negotiations on the CTBT. To overcome an effort by India to block adoption of the text there, states supporting the treaty instead won approval from the UN General Assembly to open the pact for signature on September 24, 1996. Clinton was the first leader to sign it.

ADaryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in front of the tower for the Icecap nuclear test at the Nevada National Security Site on Nov. 30. The Icecap test was planned for 1993 but not conducted.  (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)lthough not yet formally entered into force because the treaty requires that the United States and eight other specific states ratify it, the CTBT, which now has 187 signatories, has established a de facto halt to nuclear testing. It has become one of the most successful and valuable agreements in the long history of nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament. Today, no state is conducting nuclear test explosions. North Korea is the only country to have done so in this century. Without the option to conduct nuclear tests, it is more difficult, although not impossible, to develop, prove, and field new warhead designs.

Yet, as with other nuclear risk reduction agreements, the CTBT is under stress due to inattention and worsening relations between nuclear-armed adversaries, as evidenced by Russia’s recent decision to withdraw its CTBT ratification to “mirror” the U.S. posture vis-à-vis the treaty. As recently as October 10, 2023, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested that the United States might be carrying out preparations at its nuclear test site in Nevada.

Moreover, China, Russia, and the United States are racing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and continuing to engage in weapons-related research activities at their former test sites. As a result, some future subcritical nuclear experiment or chemical high-explosive detonation at one of these sites potentially could be mistaken or alleged to be a CTBT-prohibited supercritical nuclear explosion that produces a self-sustaining chain reaction.3 This might lead these or other countries to consider resuming full-blown nuclear explosive tests for the first time in decades.

Although the International Monitoring System established to verify CTBT compliance is fully operational and far more effective than originally envisioned, very low-yield nuclear test explosions still can be difficult to detect without on-site monitoring equipment or inspections, which will not be in place until the treaty formally enters into force.

During a speech in Vienna in June, NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby said her agency is “open to working with others to develop a regime that would allow reciprocal observation with radiation detection equipment at each other’s subcritical experiments to allow confirmation that the experiment was consistent with the CTBT.”4 Such a dialogue has not begun.

Hruby acknowledged that a primary reason why the NNSA has stepped up efforts to be more transparent about its activities at the Nevada site is to dispel allegations by Russian officials and others that the United States is preparing to resume nuclear explosive testing in violation of the CTBT, which bans all nuclear explosions at any yield.5

The Nevada Site Today

On my November visit to the former test site, little appeared to have changed on the surface. The serene, sagebrush-covered flatlands that stretch for miles are still pockmarked by hundreds of subsidence craters from past underground tests, which produced radioactive contamination that is embedded permanently under the desert floor.

Nongovernmental organization experts and teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Nevada National Security Site at the site’s Sedan Crater. (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)The massive Sedan Crater, the product of a misguided “peaceful nuclear explosions” program from 1961 to 1973, still stands out as a stunning reminder of the destructive power of nuclear weapons and the excesses of the Cold War-era nuclear weapons establishment. The program was intended to explore the use of nuclear bomb explosions to create canals and expand harbors and to stimulate natural gas production.6

The crater, which is 1,280 feet in diameter and 320 feet deep, was produced by a 104-kiloton thermonuclear device detonated 635 feet underground. The explosion displaced and contaminated about 12 million tons of earth and sent radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. For all intents and purposes, much of the site will remain a national nuclear sacrifice zone for many decades to come.

Yet in many other ways, the NNSA transparency tour revealed how the site’s functions and activities have shifted significantly from a once-active nuclear weapons testing zone to a laboratory for experiments designed to safely maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal without nuclear test explosions and for conducting nonproliferation research. As Marvin Adams, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, emphasized in a briefing preceding the visit, “[T]he United States has no technical need to conduct additional nuclear explosive tests and no plans to do so.”

The Icecap test tower, above a shaft drilled to a depth of 1,600 feet, still stands tall in Area 7 of Yucca Flats, but now serves mainly as a monument to the end of U.S. nuclear testing. Stripped of diagnostic cables for the test, it still houses a custom-made, cylindrical instrumentation rack, which would have weighed 350,000 pounds at the beginning of descent and 500,000 pounds by the time it was buried to contain the blast from the nuclear test explosion, which never took place.

Our delegation also explored one of the horizontal nuclear testing tunnels in Rainier Mesa that was excavated in the late 1970s and is known as the P-Tunnel. It was used for six separate nuclear weapons test explosions during the Cold War, but is now utilized for non-nuclear explosive experiments designed to improve capabilities for detecting potential foreign nuclear weapons test detonations. The P-Tunnel, in Area 12, was the site of an October 2023 nonproliferation experiment involving 16 metric tons of chemical high explosives and radiotracers to simulate the blast effects and the movement of gases that would be created by a prohibited nuclear explosion.

According to the NNSA, the experiment, which collected measurements using accelerometers, seismometers, infrasound sensors, electromagnetic sensors, chemical and radiotracer samplers, and meteorological sensors, helped “validate new predictive explosion models and detection algorithms.” Seismic data collected from these experiments are made available to researchers around the globe for analysis via the EarthScope Consortium website.

Although the October 18 verification experiment was designed to improve detection of low-yield nuclear test explosions, recent events suggest that it and similar non-nuclear experiments that produce explosions could create the potential for Russia or another nuclear-armed state to misconstrue or mischaracterize such activities as a CTBT-prohibited nuclear test explosions. In a coincidence of bad timing, the U.S. verification experiment took place the same day that the Russian parliament formalized the country’s decision to withdraw its ratification of the CTBT and as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia will only continue to refrain from nuclear testing if the United States does the same.

Two days after the NNSA experiment, the deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament called for an international assessment to determine whether the NNSA’s announced experiment was compliant with the CTBT. Ryabkov added that if the experiment was an underground explosion using chemical explosives and “if this information is true—it is presently being verified—this does not involve nuclear weapons testing, and this blast does not contradict either the U.S. moratorium on nuclear tests or the provisions” of the CTBT.

In keeping with the spirit of the treaty, the NNSA notified the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in advance about the verification experiment. The organization’s IMS seismic stations detected a very small-scale, human-made explosion at the Nevada site that day. Regardless, these off-site seismic monitors alone cannot distinguish with high confidence between non-nuclear and nuclear explosions at very low yields.

After arriving at the P-Tunnel entrance, our delegation was outfitted with safety gear and escorted into the P-Tunnel for a briefing on the recent nuclear test verification experiment and future NNSA plans for similar experiments. The walking tour deep into the tunnel provided further confirmation that the October 18 verification experiment involved chemical high explosives.

In another sign of the site’s changing mission, our entourage went through Area 3 of Yucca Flats, where the NNSA stores equipment for a presidentially directed program that requires the agency to be ready to resume a nuclear explosive test within 36 months. The large, fenced-in outdoor storage yard was strewn with weather-worn equipment and massive spools of cable and wire and showed no signs of recent or planned activity. The large cranes once used to lower heavy diagnostic nuclear test assemblies into vertical tunnels are no longer at the site. Several experts in the delegation speculated that although an underground demonstration test of the kind reportedly discussed by senior Trump administration officials in 20207 could be conducted in less than 36 months, a fully instrumented, large-scale nuclear test explosion of a new or existing warhead design would take at least three years to tee up and that preparations for such a test would be detected easily by foreign governments and open-source imagery.

The delegation also spent nearly two hours at another key facility, known as U1A and located some 960 feet underground. This site, which was originally intended to be used for nuclear explosive testing, is now called the principal underground lab for subcritical experiments (PULSE).

Since the mid-1990s, the NNSA has conducted 33 subcritical experiments in the underground tunnels at the U1A complex primarily to improve the U.S. understanding of the physics of the aging plutonium in the cores of the Cold War-era nuclear devices that still comprise the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In a briefing, Adams emphasized that subcritical experiments are not “needed” to maintain confidence in the reliability and performance of the warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal but provide “important additional data on the plutonium in those warheads to support the continued certification of the reliability and performance well into the future without nuclear explosive testing.”

David Funk (L), vice president of enhanced capabilities for subcritical experiments, and Marvin Adams (R), National Nuclear Security Administration deputy administrator for defense programs, answer questions from nongovernmental experts about the operation of the Cygnus subcritical experiment machine in the “zero room” at the National Nuclear Security Site in November.  (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)Originally, subcritical experiments were conducted in single-use alcoves mined into the walls or in vertical boreholes in the floor of the U1A complex. Our group walked over several of the metal seals that today cover the boreholes from some of these experiments. In more recent years, the experiments have been conducted in a robust confinement vessel located in an isolated “zero room,” which prevents the release of radiological material and conserves space in the underground facility.

The delegation also was shown the main subcritical experiments machine now in use, called Cygnus, a pulsed X-ray radiography system designed to take at least two, time-separated radiographs of an explosive-driven experiment involving a small quantity of weapons-grade plutonium under dynamic shock. Each subcritical experiment takes approximately five years to conduct, from the initial planning to execution. Two more subcritical experiments are planned before mid-2024.

Tunnels under construction will house the more powerful Advanced Sources and Detectors Scorpius machine and the Neutron Diagnosed Subcritical experiments machine, dubbed ZEUS (Z-Pinched Experimental Underground System). These new machines, projected to cost more than $2 billion, will enable subcritical experiments that image the weapons-grade nuclear material with higher fidelity during multiple stages of the experiment. They are due to go online by 2030.

Hinderstein and Adams said that the NNSA continues to examine different technical approaches for potential confidence-building measures that could be applied to PULSE experiments and potentially subcritical experiments at other former test sites to provide independent confirmation that the experiments remain subcritical without revealing any classified information. Because subcritical experiments by design do not allow a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, or criticality, to occur, Adams suggested that the most reliable strategy for independent verification of the absence of a nuclear explosion would involve measuring for the absence of a self-sustained chain reaction. That would be indicated by a very rapid drop-off in the production of neutrons and gamma rays from the experiment.

Some independent experts, including two members of the delegation, said that because the yields of supercritical explosions are typically orders of magnitude larger than those of subcritical experiments, other technical methods also could be used to determine the amount of fission energy released by a contained, very low-yield nuclear experiment months or years later. This could be achieved, they suggested, by measuring the gamma rays from the radioactive decay of fission products and from transmutation products produced by the irradiation by fission neutrons.8

At this juncture, it is not clear whether the United States and the CTBT states-parties can find new ways to address concerns about potential very low-yield nuclear explosions at the former test sites in Russia, China, and the United States before the long-awaited entry into force of the CTBT. What is apparent is that the current NNSA leadership and the Biden administration are determined to show that the 1993 decision to extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium “was not,” as Hruby said in September 2022, “a mere pause in our nuclear testing efforts but rather the bookend to the nuclear testing age.”9


Decisions Leading to the End of U.S. Nuclear Testing

President Bill Clinton’s July 3, 1993, decision to extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium and seek to negotiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) halted plans for the next nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site and put a permanent ban on nuclear testing within reach. Although the CTBT had been on the international nonproliferation agenda for decades, Clinton’s decision was precipitated by a crucial chain of events that forced a shift in policymakers' attitudes about nuclear testing.

In the Soviet Union, popular sentiment against nuclear testing grew stronger following a 1989 Soviet nuclear test in Kazakhstan that vented radioactivity into the atmosphere. A popular Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement emerged to oppose further nuclear testing in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Meetings and demonstrations were organized in many Kazakhstani and Soviet cities, including Moscow. The Soviets were forced to cancel 11 of 18 scheduled tests in 1989, and the Kremlin officially closed the main Soviet test site near Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan on August 29, 1991. Three months later, on October 5, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced a unilateral, one-year testing halt and invited the United States to reciprocate.

In response, a bicameral, bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Representative Mike Kopetski (D-Ore.), Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), introduced legislation calling for a one-year U.S. moratorium. Backed by a strong citizen lobbying campaign, the legislation gained co-sponsors and momentum, especially after France joined Russia in declaring a nuclear test moratorium in April 1992 and the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, reiterated support
for the testing moratorium.

Another key development was the role of Senator Jim Exon (D-Neb.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who toured the Nevada Test Site earlier that year. By the summer, he proposed a compromise bill to establish a nine-month U.S. test moratorium; an end date for all U.S. nuclear tests of September 30, 1996; limits on the purpose and the number of any further tests to no more than 15; and a requirement for a plan to secure a global test ban treaty.

By September, the revised test moratorium legislation was approved by solid majorities in the House and Senate as part of a larger appropriations measurea over vigorous objections from President George H.W. Bush, who reluctantly signed it on October 3 and vowed to rescind it the following year. Bush lost the 1992 election to Clinton, who said during the campaign that he would pursue a global test ban treaty.

Once inaugurated, Clinton had just a few weeks to decide whether to extend the test moratorium. Initially, the White House considered a plan that would have allowed the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing by late 1993 and nuclear test explosions with yields of less than one kiloton as part of a global test ban regime. When The Washington Post broke the story about the draft plan in April 1993, test ban advocates and congressional leaders were furious.b They argued that congressional intent was to bring about a comprehensive test ban treaty, not one that would allow low-yield test explosions.

In the following weeks, as pressure from congressional leaders, newspaper editorial boards, and test ban campaigners to extend the U.S. test moratorium grew, the views within the Clinton administration shifted. Over the objections of the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clinton was persuaded by his new energy secretary, Hazel O’Leary; his science adviser, John Gibbons; and the Arms Control Disarmament Agency that further nuclear explosive testing was not necessary to maintain the safety and reliability of the nuclear arsenal and that he could and should extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium and seek a comprehensive test ban treaty.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

a. Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 1993, 50 U.S.C. § 2530 (2003).

b. R. Jeffrey Smith, “White House Studies Nuclear Test Limits,” The Washington Post, April 30, 1993.


1. Princeton University, “Western Shoshone,” n.d., https://nuclearprinceton.princeton.edu/western-shoshone (accessed December 30, 2023).

2. National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Field Office, “United States Nuclear Tests, July 1945 Through September 1992,” DOE/NV--209-REV 16, September 2015, https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1351809.

3. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “Scope of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/212166.htm (accessed December 30, 2023).

4. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “Remarks by NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby at the CTBT: Science and Technology Conference 2023,” June 19, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/remarks-nnsa-administrator-jill-hruby-ctbt-science-and-technology-conference-2023.

5. “Managing an Arsenal Without Nuclear Testing: An Interview With Jill Hruby of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration,” Arms Control Today, December 2023.

6. Nevada National Security Site, “Sedan Crater,” NNSS-SEDN-U-0047-Rev01, May 2022, https://nnss.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/NNSS-SEDN-U-0047-Rev01-1.pdf.

7. John Hudson and Paul Sonne, “Trump Administration Discussed Conducting First U.S. Nuclear Test in Decades,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2020.

8. Julien de Troullioud de Lanversin, Christopher Fichtlscherer, and Frank N. von Hippel, “Reducing Tensions Over Nuclear Testing at Very Low Yield,” Arms Control Today, November 2023.

9. See NNSA, “NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby Commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the Divider Nuclear Explosive Test,” September 23, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-administrator-jill-hruby-commemorates-30th-anniversary-divider-nuclear-explosive.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The National Nuclear Security Administration hosted experts on a visit to show how the Nevada site has transitioned from nuclear explosive testing to experiments aimed at ensuring the era of nuclear testing is over.

Nuclear Mirage: U.S. Nuclear Cooperation With Saudi Arabia

December 2023
By Sharon Squassoni

Before the violent attack by Hamas on Israel in the early morning hours of October 7, Israel and Saudi Arabia had been inching toward a bilateral agreement on normalizing relations, reportedly brokered by the United States.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (2nd from R) marks the issuance in 1955 of an “Atoms for Peace” commemorative stamp at the White House with, from left, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Chairman of the atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss, Senator Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.), Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and Wilhelm Munthe de Morgenstierne, Norwegian ambassador to the United States. (Photo by Bettmann Archives via Getty Images)For the Middle East, this could have had huge implications for peace, security, and cooperation akin to those of the 1978 Camp David Accords. The rumors began circulating in August that the United States was not just brokering the agreement but would provide security guarantees, access to military technology, and civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia to sweeten the deal.1 By September, Saudi officials announced a long-awaited step to upgrade implementation of their comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This step, fully implementing comprehensive inspections, would be the bare minimum requirement for any significant nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The details of this deal are still murky, but press reports suggest that the United States was considering supplying the kingdom with a uranium-enrichment facility that the United States would control.2 It is not clear whether the Saudis or the United States would own the facility or whether there was a plan to establish multilateral control over the plant.

The need for control in addition to monitoring the plant’s operation and output is essential because uranium-enrichment plants are inherently dual use: they can prepare uranium to fuel nuclear research and power reactors or to be used as the fissile material in an atomic bomb. In the case of Iran, its secret construction of uranium-enrichment facilities led the international community first to sanction the country, then to negotiate limits on its use of that technology. Saudi Arabia repeatedly has declared since 2011 that it would match Iran’s capabilities.

Nuclear cooperation often has been promised by the United States to allies for far fewer returns but never with such obviously high proliferation risks.3 First, the United States is offering nuclear latency to a country that basically has said “all bets are off” if a regional competitor, Iran, proliferates. Second, the United States is no closer to reining in Iran’s nuclear program, which increases the risk of a proliferation cascade. Third, a decision by the United States to build a uranium-enrichment plant in Saudi Arabia would undermine two important U.S. nonproliferation policies: a global policy not to spread uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing technology to any additional countries and a regional policy to maintain equal terms and conditions for nuclear cooperation with partners in the Middle East.

The war in Gaza has forced a postponement of the broader normalization agreement and, hopefully, the scheme of supplying Saudi Arabia with its own uranium-enrichment capabilities. It raises questions, however, about what exactly the United States is trying to achieve through its nuclear cooperation policies.

A Short History of Nuclear Cooperation

Even as radioactive fallout was settling over Nagasaki, U.S. President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would seek the means “to control the bomb so as to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from the danger of total destruction.” In his radio address on August 9, 1945, he told Americans that he would instruct Congress “to cooperate to the end that [nuclear weapons] production and use would be controlled, and that its power be made an overwhelming influence towards world peace.”4

International control of nuclear weapons would never materialize, and neither would international control of peaceful nuclear energy. The 1946 Baruch Plan, proposed by the United States, allowed for the destruction of U.S. nuclear weapons only after strict control of all nuclear assets under an international Atomic Development Authority ensured there would be no other proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union and Poland, fearing a U.S. nuclear monopoly, abstained from voting on the plan in the UN Security Council, where it failed. As diplomacy faltered, nuclear weapons development continued. In just a few years, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom tested nuclear weapons.

Against this backdrop, the December 8, 1953, speech by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to the UN General Assembly that launched the “Atoms for Peace” program seems odd. Whether a Cold War propaganda effort or a genuine attempt to allay human fears by suggesting that peaceful uses of the atom could balance military destruction by the atom, the speech heralded a sea change in the U.S. approach. Shifting from strictly guarding all things nuclear, the United States began encouraging access to information, material, and nuclear technology for peaceful uses. Over the next four years, the United States overhauled its laws to allow nuclear cooperation, promoted a 1955 international conference in Geneva showcasing nuclear technology, and helped create the IAEA in 1957, more than 10 years before countries banded together to negotiate and sign the landmark nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that was designed to halt the nuclear arms race and the spread of nuclear weapons.5

For nuclear cooperation, the 1954 revision of the Atomic Energy Act was pivotal. It called for “a program of international cooperation to promote the common defense and security and to make available to cooperating nations the benefits of peaceful applications of atomic energy as widely as expanding technology and considerations of the common defense and security will permit.”6 The amended law allowed for both military nuclear cooperation and peaceful nuclear cooperation. On the peaceful side, the scope of activities included civilian reactor development, production of special nuclear material, and non-electricity industrial applications, as well as research and development. Within a little more than a decade, the United States signed 34 bilateral agreements, two-thirds of which were strictly for research.7

The United States sought to achieve specific foreign policy aims through nuclear cooperation. A 1955 National Security Council report declared that

U.S. determination to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy, with calculated emphasis on a peaceful atomic power program abroad as well as at home, can generate free world respect and support for the constructive purposes of U.S. foreign policy. Such a program will strengthen American world leadership and disprove the communists’ propaganda charges that the U.S. is concerned solely with the destructive uses of the atom. Atomic energy, which has become the foremost symbol of man’s inventive capacities, can also become the symbol of a strong but peaceful and purposeful America.8

The report gave a nod to preventing the diversion of nonpeaceful uses of any fissile material provided to other countries, but required just two conditions: reprocessing in U.S. facilities or under international arrangements and “the adequate provision of production accounting, inspection, and other techniques” largely not yet devised.

The program promoting nuclear cooperation boldly envisioned a range of technical and financial assistance to foreign countries for research and power reactors, including the design of small reactors specifically for export, continued declassification of reactor technology, and transfer of material. In particular, it urged that cooperation agreements should “seek opportunities for maximum U.S. cooperation in those power reactor projects abroad which offer political and psychological advantages.”

It is fair to say that the United States overreached with the Atoms for Peace program. After sending more than 25 tons of highly enriched uranium overseas as fuel for research reactors, the United States spent millions of dollars and decades trying to get the material back because it belatedly realized that the material posed nuclear security risks. A few early projects, such as those in the Philippines and Brazil, were failures.9 The United States ceased to fund nuclear energy projects with foreign assistance funds by 1960, and although research reactors spread widely, nuclear power did not spread quickly.

For some states, however, assistance for research capabilities helped provide the initial basis of clandestine nuclear weapons programs. By the mid-1970s, it was apparent that nuclear trade needed to be restrained because several countries, including Brazil, Pakistan, and South Korea, were intent on acquiring sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle facilities from foreign suppliers. The United States and other key countries advocated for greater restraint in nuclear trade, establishing the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and tightening national export controls.

In 1974 the Ford administration adopted the first restraint policy in the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and facilities, prohibiting export of reprocessing and other nuclear technologies, firmly opposing reprocessing in South Korea and Taiwan, and negotiating agreements for cooperation with Egypt and Israel that contained “the strictest reprocessing provisions.”10 In his 1976 statement on nuclear policy, President Gerald Ford called on all nations to join the United States “in exercising maximum restraint in the transfer of reprocessing and enrichment technology and facilities by avoiding such sensitive exports or commitments for a period of at least three years.”11

Almost 30 years later, President George W. Bush called for a similar moratorium in reaction to revelations about the black market transfers to North Korea, Iran, and Libya by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. A U.S. policy of restraint has endured despite the fact that the Atomic Energy Act itself does not prohibit sharing of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

Nuclear Energy in the Middle East

Nuclear power has been slow to establish a firm footing in the Middle East. Early nuclear cooperation agreements signed by the United States with Israel, Iran, and Lebanon from 1955 to 1964 focused on nuclear research rather than nuclear power. In 1980 and 1981, the United States signed agreements with Morocco and Egypt, respectively.

Undoubtedly, Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel opened the door to other normalization steps by Egypt, including ratification of the NPT and adoption of a full-scope safeguards agreement as the treaty requires. These developments were especially timely because the passage of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act in 1978 moved the goalposts for Egypt by requiring these steps before nuclear cooperation with the United States was permissible.12 Today, after many delays, Egypt is just beginning construction of two Russian nuclear power reactors.

The history of countries in the Middle East with clandestine nuclear activities (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Syria) is well known, and regional rivalries amplify concerns. In 2007 the Gulf Cooperation Council states explored the possibility of a regional nuclear power effort, but by 2009, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia each decided to develop nuclear energy on their own. At the time, Iran’s nuclear activities were a significant concern. Whereas the UAE, in launching its nuclear energy program, understood the need to allay international concerns about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia seems impervious. In contrast to the UAE’s public renunciation of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, Saudi Arabia has declared explicitly that it would match Iran’s capabilities, including nuclear weapons.

The Saudis have been relative latecomers to nuclear energy or at least slow to implement their plans, compared especially to the UAE. After establishing the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy in Riyadh in 2010, Saudi officials announced their intention to construct 16 nuclear reactors to generate 20 percent of the kingdom’s electricity by 2032. In 2017, the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project declared that its civil nuclear program would feature large nuclear power plants, small modular reactors, and fuel cycle activities. Initially, Saudi fuel-cycle activities were limited to assessing uranium and thorium reserves and yellowcake production with Jordan.13

Saudi Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al-Saud speaks at a conference in Riyadh in June, six months after he declared that the kingdom “wants the entire [nuclear] fuel cycle.” (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)In January 2023, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told a local mining conference that Riyadh wants “the entire nuclear fuel cycle, which involves the production of yellowcake, low-enriched uranium, and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and of course for export.”14 At the same time, the Saudis are only slowly moving ahead with small modular reactor projects and now estimate they will procure just two large nuclear power reactors. Their interest in fuel cycle capabilities seems disproportionate to a scaled-back nuclear energy program.

Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States in 2008 as a prelude to a nuclear cooperation agreement. The text stated the Saudi “intent to rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel services as an alternative to the pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing.”15 Since then, official negotiations with the United States have been sporadic. In 2020, U.S. officials revealed that the United States had asked specifically for Saudi Arabia to sign an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which allows for more intrusive IAEA inspections of nuclear facilities, and for restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing.

In testimony last spring, U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Jill Hruby told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States has asked the Saudis “to be consistent with nonproliferation standards that we have for every other country that we work with.”16 Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2016 the Saudis signed arrangements with France, South Korea, Argentina, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. Some of these projects have already begun training programs for Saudi nuclear workers.

Providing a U.S.-owned and likely U.S.-operated enrichment plant on Saudi soil might be politically more palatable than a national Saudi plant, especially since the size of the Saudi nuclear program does not justify domestic enrichment. NSG guidelines state that suppliers “should encourage recipients to accept, as an alternative to national plants, supplier involvement and/or other appropriate multinational participation in resulting facilities.”17 For actual transfers, NSG guidelines require the recipient to bring into force a comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement and an additional protocol, which the United States requires as a matter of policy.

A fallback option for Saudi Arabia would be to purchase equity in a foreign enrichment company such as Orano, but this may be unattractive because of Iran’s historically negative experience investing in Eurodif. The Saudis likely would not want to risk a similar fate.

In addition to political hurdles, the technical hurdles of building a new centrifuge plant in Saudi Arabia could be considerable. The case of URENCO’s plant in Eunice, New Mexico, may be instructive. URENCO, an international fuel-cycle service supplier, did not transfer its technology to the United States and required specific procedures to guard against technology transfer. That said, the status of the United States as a nuclear-weapon state made certain processes less difficult, such as hiring U.S. workers with requisite security clearances in the construction phase.

Nonetheless, it still took 10 years between the licensing at the outset of the project and the operation of the first cascades in New Mexico. If the United States were to build a plant for the Saudis, it likely would have to use U.S. centrifuge technology. Yet, Centrus, the U.S. supplier of nuclear fuel and services for the nuclear power industry, currently is operating only a demonstration cascade in Piketon, Ohio, under a U.S. government contract and has not scaled its new technology for the commercial market.18

A plan to build a multinational facility, perhaps with the cooperation of URENCO, might overcome some of the hesitance among NSG members, but the experience of multinational fuel-cycle facilities is not entirely promising. For example, Eurochemie, the multinational reprocessing plant in Belgium, made no effort to compartmentalize knowledge among its international workforce, and URENCO allowed each country involved in the project (Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) to develop its own technology before choosing one.

Saudi Arabia has been a relative latecomer to nuclear energy, at least compared to the United Arab Emirates, which built this Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in Abu Dhabi. (Photo via Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation)Finally, URENCO Netherlands was the source of much technology for the Khan nuclear black market network. Although there have been many proposals, including from governmental experts and the IAEA, to multilateralize fuel cycle facilities with the objective of diminishing national control of sensitive fuel-cycle capabilities, these usually assume that the benefits will outweigh the risks. The historical evidence, however, is mixed.

Possible Outcomes

The United States has been courting Saudi officials for 15 years on negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement, with little to show for it. Few nuclear deals have taken so much time to negotiate as this one, and it is still far from finished. Some agreements, such as the first civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and China, were relatively quick to negotiate but then languished before Congress because of proliferation concerns. Others, such as the U.S. agreement with South Korea, were extended provisionally to provide more time to negotiate delicate details where interests diverged.

To conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, the United States almost certainly will need Saudi Arabia to sign an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. The kingdom may chafe at this because Iran does not have an additional protocol in force. Other past requests of Riyadh by Washington, such as forswearing enrichment, may be particularly difficult to achieve in the current environment if press reports are accurate. It also carries a risk: If Saudi Arabia forswears enrichment in an agreement with the United States and then procures the capability from other states, the U.S. agreement likely would be terminated. Sanctions likely would follow.

A decision to allow Saudi Arabia to go forward with uranium enrichment, on the other hand, would overturn decades of U.S. policy. The United States has never sold uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing plants to any country and has led the campaign within the nuclear nonproliferation regime for almost 50 years to prevent such sales globally. Moreover, the United States rarely grants other countries its consent to enrich or reprocess U.S.-origin nuclear material even if they use their own capabilities.

The United States has been adamant about seeking assurances from partners, particularly in the Middle East, that they will not enrich or reprocess, notably in a 1981 nuclear cooperation agreement with Egypt and a 2009 agreement with the UAE. In return, Washington promised in those agreements that it would not grant more favorable terms to other partners in the region. If the United States provided such capabilities to Saudi Arabia, it would face pressure from the UAE and, in the future, Jordan and likely South Korea to provide the same.

Some may argue that if the United States does not supply Saudi Arabia with enrichment capabilities, China or Russia might be willing to supply them. This ignores the fact that NSG guidelines state a preference for avoiding the spread of national capabilities and that the NSG operates by consensus. Russia, which supplies Iran with nuclear fuel, may not desire to supply Saudi Arabia with enrichment capabilities.

Even without a uranium-enrichment plant on offer, approval of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia could be contentious in the United States, given the kingdom’s poor human rights record and its frequent statements regarding its intentions to pursue nuclear weapons. It will likely be tough for members of Congress to ignore the brutal dismemberment in 2018 of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA blamed on Riyadh. Although the bar is set rather high for Congress to disapprove a nuclear cooperation agreement that has been finalized by a U.S. president, there are still ways for determined lawmakers to delay, derail, and block implementation of the deal until policy goals are satisfied.

Nuclear cooperation agreements, like nuclear energy, carry inherent risks. As vehicles for transferring technology, material, and equipment that can serve peaceful and military uses, such agreements must balance the competing objectives of facilitating engagement without increasing proliferation risk. Their use in cementing strategic relationships often can come into conflict with their basic purpose of delineating the substance and methods of collaboration. The more important the relationship is in terms of commercial, political, and security needs, the greater the pressure there is to adjust the balance of obligations toward engagement. The U.S. government at times has used nuclear cooperation agreements to create strategic alliances, as with India, or to bolster existing alliances, as with Japan and South Korea. With Saudi Arabia, nuclear cooperation seems oriented toward fending off rising competition from China and Russia.

Risks tend to rise when special deals for special allies undermine principled stands. In the last 20 years, two major U.S. principles have been breached: a ban on nuclear trade with countries that had not signed the NPT and a refusal to share nuclear-fueled submarines beyond cooperation with the UK. The United States rationalized both of these exceptions—nuclear cooperation with India and the sale of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines to Australia—by arguing the need to compete strategically with China.

It may be that China’s role in brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the war in Yemen helped push Israel and the United States to concoct this trilateral peace-for-arms-and-nuclear-latency deal with Saudi Arabia. It is no secret that China already has provided nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia and Iran in uranium processing in the form of uranium conversion and uranium hexafluoride production, respectively. More recently, China has proposed building nuclear power reactors for Saudi Arabia.19 The United States was able to dissuade China in the 1990s from making such sales, but since then, China has made nuclear exports a foreign policy objective, much as Russia has done.

What stands out especially about the Saudi nuclear deal is the willful refusal of U.S. officials to acknowledge the kingdom’s overt proliferation intentions. Saudi officials have insisted since 2011 that they will acquire whatever capabilities Iran has. This should be a red flag for any country providing nuclear technology purely for peaceful purposes. No deal should move forward until Saudi Arabia commits to using nuclear technology solely for peaceful purposes regardless of what Iran does.

The Camp David Accords led the way to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The United States began negotiating with Egypt in 1979, but only after Egypt signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement in 1981 could the United States complete a nuclear cooperation agreement. Although Egypt had plans to reprocess spent fuel and had been courting Russia, it agreed to put those ambitions on hold and consented to language that specified it would not conduct reprocessing on its soil.

Egypt’s welcome into the nuclear fold took a few years and contained more restrictions than it perhaps desired. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the United States apparently was prepared to put the kingdom on the fast track toward a latent nuclear capability, matching or perhaps exceeding Iran’s enrichment capabilities. Even if the United States owned and operated the enrichment plant, there would be no guarantees against Saudi nationalization in a time of crisis.

Saudi Arabia faces no legal barriers to building a uranium-enrichment facility on its soil if it is prepared to accept full-scope safeguards, but it does face policy barriers. No matter what, the kingdom will have to adopt an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement if it would like to receive enrichment technology and equipment from a country that is an NSG member. Outside the NSG, North Korea and Pakistan are potential suppliers, but this scenario is unlikely. Clandestine help likely would be detected, and transparent help would place Pakistani and North Korean technology under monitoring, something that neither supplier would welcome.

It might be possible for Saudi Arabia to receive enrichment technology from other NSG suppliers, but Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, probably has judged that U.S. approval is helpful to allay proliferation concerns, effectively conferring a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval. The kingdom does not particularly desire U.S. nuclear reactor sales. In fact, because U.S. dominance in nuclear technology exports has been on the decline for a very long time, U.S. influence is now largely sought as a means of enlisting the cooperation of other states that can build nuclear power plants abroad quickly and cheaply, such as South Korea.

U.S. officials should keep in mind, however, that the United States still is a leader in promoting nonproliferation, nuclear safety, and nuclear security standards and that deviating from key principles, such as opposing the spread of sensitive fuel-cycle capabilities, will only reduce its influence.

More broadly, the United States should embrace the possibility that normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is possible without nuclearization and look to bestow other key benefits on the kingdom in exchange for a regional peace that would truly reflect democratic and sustainable development goals.



1. Dion Nissenbaum, “Saudis Agree With U.S. on Path to Normalize Kingdom’s Ties With Israel,” The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2023.

2. Dion Nissenbaum and Dov Lieber, “Israel Mulls Accepting Saudi Nuclear Enrichment,” The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2023.

3. It could be argued that the U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia, China, and India contain security risks, but because these are all states with nuclear weapons, they would not strictly constitute proliferation risks.

4. “August 9, 1945: Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference; Transcript,” Miller Center, n.d., https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/august-9-1945-radio-report-american-people-potsdam-conference (accessed November 21, 2023).

5. For an excellent description of the origins of the International Atomic Energy Agency, see Bertrand Goldschmidt, “The Origins of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” IAEA Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 4 (August 1977).

6. 42 U.S.C. § 2013(e).

7. Ellen C. Collier, “United States Foreign Policy on Nuclear Energy,” Library of Congress Legislative Reference Service, May 6, 1968, p. LRS-7.

8. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Regulation of Armaments; Atomic Energy, Volume XX, ed. David S. Patterson (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), doc. 14 (NSC report no. 5507/2, dated March 12, 1955, on peaceful uses of atomic energy).

9. Maria Drogan, “The Atoms for Peace Program and the Third World,” Cahiers du monde russe, Vol. 60, Nos. 2-3 (2019): 441-460.

10. Nuclear Proliferation Factbook, S. Prt. 103-111, December 1994, pp. 48-62 (containing President Gerald Ford’s statement on nuclear policy, dated October 28, 1976).

11. Ibid., p. 54.

12. Sharon Squassoni, “Looking Back: The 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act,” Arms Control Today, December 2008.

13. See Rashad Abuaish, “Saudi National Atomic Energy Project,” n.d., https://gnssn.iaea.org/NSNI/SMRP/Shared%20Documents/Workshop%2012-15%20December%202017/Saudi%20National%20Atomic%20Energy%20Project.pdf (presentation).

14. Simon Henderson and David Schenker, “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear ‘Asks’: What Do They Want, What Might They Get?” PolicyWatch,
No. 3771 (August 15, 2023), https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/saudi-arabias-nuclear-asks-what-do-they-want-what-might-they-get.

15. Christopher M. Blanchard and Paul K. Kerr, “Prospects for U.S.-Saudi Nuclear Energy Cooperation,” CRS In Focus, IF10799, September 28, 2023, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10799.

16. Ibid.

17. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Communication Received From the Permanent Mission of Kazakhstan to the International Atomic Energy Agency Regarding Certain Member States’ Guidelines for the Export of Nuclear Material, Equipment and Technology,” INFCIRC/254/Rev14/Part 1, October 18, 2019 (containing “Guidelines for Nuclear Transfers”).

18. Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, “HALEU Demonstration Project
Starts Enrichment Operations in Ohio,”
October 11, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/haleu-demonstration-project-starts-enrichment-operations-ohio.

19. Summer Said, “Saudi Arabia Eyes Chinese Bid for Nuclear Plant,” The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2023.

Sharon Squassoni is a research professor at The George Washington University who previously held positions at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department, and the Congressional Research Service.

The United States often has promised nuclear cooperation to allies for far fewer returns than it discussed with Saudi Arabia but never with such high proliferation risks.

Managing an Arsenal Without Nuclear Testing: An Interview With Jill Hruby of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration

December 2023

For decades, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its predecessor agencies at the Department of Energy have been at the center of the technical and political issues relating to nuclear weapons: warhead design and development, explosive testing, and non-explosive techniques to maintain the nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal.

Administrator Jill Hruby (L) of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration greets Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) before testifying last year to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces in Washington, D.C.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)The last U.S. nuclear test explosion was conducted in September 1992, and since then, the United States has observed a test moratorium and supported the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although the treaty has established a norm against nuclear explosive tests, it has not entered into force because eight specific states, including the United States, have not ratified it.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, and the United States are engaging in activities at their former test sites at Novaya Zemlya, Lop Nur, and the Nevada National Security Site, respectively, prompting accusations of CTBT noncompliance and concerns about the possible resumption of full-scale nuclear testing. Recently, Russia took the unusual step of withdrawing its CTBT ratification in order to “mirror” the U.S. status vis-à-vis the CTBT. Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia will maintain its nuclear test moratorium as long as the United States does.

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, and Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today, explored these issues in an interview with NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: Can you say why, in your technical judgment, the United States does not need to resume explosive testing to maintain the U.S. arsenal or to build new design warheads?

NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby: When the United States signed the CTBT and made the decision to stop doing full-scale nuclear explosive testing, we simultaneously put in place, during the Clinton administration, this process that we refer to as the annual assessment process, by which we evaluate how the stockpile is aging. The three NNSA lab directors do an evaluation every year on the technical health of our weapons, and a major part of the determination is to say whether there is a technical reason to resume nuclear explosive testing. That evaluation has been done for about 27 years and has resulted in a finding every year that there is no technical reason to conduct nuclear explosive testing.

The process is larger than just the three lab directors. The [U.S. Strategic Command] commander also determines whether he or she believes that the stockpile is effective. So, that’s a separate process. I can’t say as much about that because that’s not the process in the NNSA, but from a technical perspective, there has not been a reason to resume testing.

It’s a very considered judgment. It’s a process by which we spend a lot of time making sure we do enough examination of old weapons. There are flight tests, laboratory tests, smaller subcomponent tests, and component testing of elements of our stockpile. We’re confident that the stockpile has the performance, reliability, safety, and security that it needs.

ACT: What is your response to the Russian suggestion that the United States is making preparations for nuclear testing at the Nevada National Security Site?

Hruby: This is the primary reason why we really stepped up talking about what we were doing at the Nevada National Security Site. Everybody makes allegations about everybody else’s activity at test sites, and it makes sense. We have a treaty that says we’re not going to test, so of course, everybody watches everybody else.

The truth is, we have activity going on at our former test site, the Nevada site. We’ve been using it all along for three reasons. One is to do subcritical experiments for our science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program [SSP]. This is part of what we need to do to make sure that our stockpile is behaving and aging the way that we think it is so that we don’t have to do a full-scale test. Another thing that we’ve done consistently at [the Nevada site] is conduct experiments for the nonproliferation program that helps us improve our ability to detect testing. We do this, as many other countries do, to improve our capability to monitor. Those tests are chemically explosive tests. They use conventional explosives; they don’t use nuclear explosives. But they use enough chemical explosives that we can get the seismic activity that’s sort of equivalent to a low-yield test so we know whether or not we could monitor that.

On-site inspection experts visit P Tunnel at the Nevada National Security Site in 2016. Today, researchers working in the tunnel conduct seismic, acoustic, electromagnetic, and radionuclide experiments that improve U.S. arms control and nuclear nonproliferation verification and monitoring capabilities. (Photo courtesy of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization)The third thing is that the Nevada site people have done other national security missions not associated with the NNSA but associated with larger national security missions, in particular for the Department of Homeland Security. When the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was active, they wanted to test the monitors that they were putting at ports in the United States and around the world.

Honestly, we have in the last three or four years gotten sophisticated enough with this other set of experiments that we do now, concentrated on the NNSA subcritical experiments, that we are actually investing in significant new diagnostics. We call those projects “enhanced capability for subcritical experiments,” where we’re preparing to be able to do radiography, for example, which we haven’t been able to do before. To set those experiments up in the U1a tunnel [at the Nevada site], which is where we’ve done all our subcritical experiments, meant that we actually had to mine some new tunnels. These are fairly large pieces of diagnostic equipment, so we’ve had to do some new mining. The same thing is true with our nonproliferation-associated experiments. We’ve done some new mining to do some work that has better diagnostics associated with it.

Not to pick on the Russians, but if you’re the Russians or anybody else that is looking at the activity going on at the Nevada site, you’re going to see activity associated with mining. So, as soon as the Russians started saying these things, our sense was, oh well, we understand why they might interpret it that way. We need to be clearer about what we’re doing because we have nothing to hide and we’re not preparing for an underground [nuclear explosive] test. But it’s not a completely unreasonable thing, when you see mining at a former test site, to believe that something could be going on. That’s really why we wanted to just put everything out there and be very straightforward about what we are doing.

There’s one additional reason why we have actually been upgrading the infrastructure. Because of this increased amount of work associated with preparing for these new diagnostic capabilities, we have actually replaced some of the office buildings [at the site].

We’re very happy to be honest and straightforward and transparent about what we’re doing. Then we thought, well hey, if we’re going to be honest and straightforward, let’s just go the whole step and say maybe there’s more we can do in terms of transparency.

ACT: Let me ask one clarifying question about what a subcritical experiment is and what a supercritical experiment is. According to the Department of State, the United States and other governments participating in CTBT negotiations agreed that the treaty “prohibits all nuclear explosions that produce a self-sustaining supercritical fission chain reaction of any kind.” Can you provide any more clarification for the nontechnical expert about how your scientists distinguish between a subcritical and a supercritical experiment?

Hruby: We use a definition of subcritical that adheres to the strictest standard of zero yield and the international standard that we’ve proposed and hope is adopted by everybody that signed up to the CTBT. For the subcritical testing, we do not produce a sustained fission reaction. It’s hard to describe that in non-physics terms, but the difference is that there is not only not a large explosion, but there is also no sustained reaction.

ACT: You said that the United States wants to be as transparent as possible because it is not planning to or is not engaged in supercritical nuclear explosions. How are you seeking to do that? You proposed back in June at the CTBT: Science and Technology Conference that the NNSA is “open to working with others to develop a regime that would allow reciprocal observation with radiation detection equipment at each other’s subcritical experiments to allow confirmation that the experiment was consistent with the CTBT.” Could you describe what methods, technical or otherwise, you are pursuing to demonstrate that the U.S. activities are consistent with the CTBT and to address concerns about these subcritical experiments?

Hruby: We’ve been trying to be transparent. We announce, and we let the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) know, for example, when we do these chemical explosive tests; we let everybody with monitoring stations know. We publish all the results of the experiment. So, we’ve already been doing a lot of the nonreciprocal transparency. We didn’t agree to do reciprocal, but we’ve done lots of things to try to make the work that we do transparent. We also take people on tours of [the Nevada site]. We’ve invited members of the U.S. nongovernmental community to [the site] at the end of November.

What we’ve put on the table is, if other countries that formerly tested were interested in more transparency about the experiments they are conducting—because we know everybody’s doing some activities at their former test sites—we would be willing to do more intrusive things as opposed to just putting out the information. This includes ideas that would enable you to make sure that they didn’t produce a signature associated with a sustained nuclear chain reaction.

I know Arms Control Today just published an article about a verification approach that [Princeton University physicist] Frank von Hippel was involved in, and he had talked to me beforehand about his ideas. We had a team of people also looking at technical ideas and other ideas that would enhance confidence building. So, we could, for example, do video feeds that might build more confidence. Then we could do more intrusive things like radiation detection monitors within the chamber where other people, other countries, could probe. That would be a reciprocity thing that we could both do to allow people to in fact make sure that there wasn’t a supercritical reaction.

We have not provided all the details. Before I announced the potential for greater transparency, we did enough work on it to say, hey, we think this is technically feasible in a way that everybody should be willing to share, that isn’t going to reveal information about the design of their weapons or anything sensitive like that because these are not weapons that we’re working with, they’re just material samples. We think that this could be a great scientific interchange and good confidence-building measure. We’re trying to determine whether there’s enough interest to go further, to put more detailed approaches on the table.

As you know, all monitoring and verification of other people’s work requires both sides to be comfortable with the approach. So, before we go do a lot of work to put a detailed proposal on the technical approach on the table, we are trying to judge the interest. That’s the stage we’re at now. We believe there are multiple ways you could do this that we would be comfortable with. We’re trying to judge if there’s enough interest to put these ideas on the table and begin a dialogue with our counterparts in other countries and have reciprocity.

ACT: In terms of the dialogue, would the Biden administration be open to consulting with the CTBTO about some of these techniques because, ultimately, it is going to be responsible for verifying compliance with this treaty?

Hruby: Absolutely. [CTBTO Executive Secretary] Rob Floyd has been out to the Nevada site. I think he was our last international visitor. We’re willing to have other CTBTO ambassadors come visit. Again, we really have nothing to hide, but we also feel like the benefit of this is if we all do it, not just if one of us does it. That’s where we’d like to go. Rob’s been out, I’m sure we’ll have him out again. We bring the public to [the Nevada site]. We’ll do a special tour for people that are more interested in the subject, hopefully the ambassadors in Vienna. We’ll see if we can work up some momentum and some interest in transparency and reciprocity.

ACT: You say you’re trying to “judge the interest,” but what has been the interest so far?

Hruby: The interest so far is hard to judge. There are obviously people listening because there’s more chatter about it, including comments by the Russians. That being said, it doesn’t seem to be moving in exactly the direction that we had hoped, where people are saying this seems like a good idea and something that is relatively easy to do from a confidence-building measure or technical measures [perspective].

We know the arms control regime is not in a good place. We know that strategic stability isn’t where we need it to be. We would like to get back to real arms control discussions. We would like to get back to strategic stability discussions. That’s not in a good place, but let’s choose something easy, and we consider this quite easy. But so far, I would say we don’t have a positive vibe. What we have is a vibe of, well, okay, put more on the table. So, that’s going to have to be a whole-government decision whether we put more on the table. I can’t decide just to do that by myself, that would be presumptuous. Congress has a role to play in that, the White House has a role to play in that. It’s not just my decision alone. So, what we’ve gotten is,
it feels a bit more like a challenge than like a discussion.

ACT: Not only has Russia withdrawn its ratification of the CTBT, but there are reports that Russia is making improvements around Novaya Zemlya. Do you interpret these moves as political signaling, an indication that Russia is going to resume testing, or both?

Hruby: I’m not in the intelligence community. I’m not making assessments. My job is to be aware and prepared for actions that the Russians or anybody else may make. That’s why we’re doing the nonproliferation experiments, to get better at detecting seismic activities at former test sites or anywhere in the world. So, I don’t know. I don’t know whether it’s political signaling or they’re getting prepared to test. But I sure would like to have an agreement that we’re going to abide by the CTBT and that we’ll do this together in a cooperative way. I’m trying to nudge it in that direction because I think the CTBT has been a stabilizing treaty and I’d like to see us all continue to uphold that treaty. If there is anything that we can do to help with that, we would like to do that.

The crater-scarred landscape of the Nevada Test Site at the north end of Yucca Flat as it looked in 1995. From 1951 until 1958, the United States conducted 119 atmospheric tests in this valley and from 1962 until 1992, it conducted more than 1,000 underground tests. The United States has observed a moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)ACT: It’s been about a quarter century since the SSP was established and nuclear explosive testing in the United States was halted. Would you say, in your experience previously as a lab director and now as NNSA administrator, that the United States has a better or diminishing level of confidence in the reliability and performance of the warheads and the arsenal? Are we learning more from
the SSP as it has evolved than we did during the days of frequent full-scale explosive testing?

Hruby: I feel like we know more fundamentally about weapon performance today as a result of our SSP than we knew during the era of large-scale nuclear explosive tests.

ACT: One of your agency’s responsibilities is maintaining the safety and reliability of the warheads, and the NNSA has a very ambitious schedule and plan for modernizing and upgrading existing types of warheads. But questions come up from time to time about whether this refurbishment program is introducing new variables and new components that veer from previously tested designs and concepts. How are you trying to ensure that the warhead refurbishments now planned do not introduce those kinds of variables that raise questions about reliability that could in turn lead to calls for resuming nuclear explosive testing?

Hruby: We have a robust surveillance program, and that starts as we deploy weapons. We don’t wait for the systems to be in for 10 to 20 years and then surveil them. We begin surveillance immediately, and if we uncover any issues with any components, we address those immediately. There is this thing that we fondly refer to as the bathtub curve, where most problems happen very early from manufacturing defects, then things are pretty stable for a while, and then there’s an increase in issues over time as weapons age. So, we try to find all the problems. Again, we do flight tests. We do lab tests. We have a very active surveillance program. Can I guarantee there won’t be an issue that doesn’t require testing? No, that’s why we have the active surveillance program. But so far, when we find things, we can address them in a way that we don’t need testing. Our models and these experimental programs that we do, including the subcritical programs, help us make sure we don’t need to do nuclear explosive testing again.

ACT: The final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States recommends that your agency plan to increase its production capacity beyond the current program of record to meet the two-peer threat from Russia and China. Is that even practical, given that the NNSA is having trouble fulfilling its plan to produce at least 30 plutonium pits for nuclear warheads per year at Los Alamos and at least 50 per year at Savannah River?

Hruby: We’re going through the recommendations of the strategic posture commission report carefully. The administration will be reviewing, as we already do, our nuclear deterrence posture. At the NNSA, we are trying to design for flexibility as we build these new facilities, including the pit facilities that you referred to. The requirement for us was a minimum of 80 pits per year. We have tried to build these facilities so that there’s some room so that if we have to expand capability in the future that we would have the capacity to do that. We don’t want to overbuild, and we don’t want to underbuild, but we need to build flexibility into the way we think about the facilities that we’re constructing now.

We always talk about how we’re trying to build a resilient and flexible enterprise. Flexible means the ability to scale up as suggested in the strategic posture commission report or the ability to scale down without closing things the way we did at the end of the Cold War, which has now caused us to be in a position where we have to start from scratch on some things. Resilience means that we don’t want single-point failures. So, for example, that’s why we’re building a facility at Los Alamos and another one at Savannah River. If anything were to go wrong at either one of those, we would have resilience.

Hruby discusses what the United States is doing to ensure that its nuclear weapons are safe and reliable and how transparency can help prevent nuclear-weapon states from returning to testing.


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