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Kelsey Davenport

U.S., South Korea Agree to Strengthen Nuclear Coordination

May 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States and South Korea announced steps to give Seoul more input into U.S. nuclear planning amid growing support in South Korea for a domestic nuclear weapons program to counter the threat from North Korea.

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shake hands during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House on April 26. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)U.S. President Joseph Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol agreed to create the U.S-South Korean Nuclear Consultative Group during Yoon’s visit to Washington on April 26. According to a declaration issued by the two leaders, the group will “discuss nuclear and strategic planning” and manage the North Korean nuclear threat.

The declaration states that the United States “commits to make every effort to consult with [South Korea] on any possible nuclear weapons employment on the Korean peninsula,” consistent with U.S. nuclear policy, and will “maintain a robust communication infrastructure” for consultations. The two countries also will plan for South Korean “conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations in a contingency.”

Yoon has long sought greater South Korea’s involvement in the U.S. nuclear planning process. He suggested in January that Seoul may pursue its own nuclear weapons in the absence of stronger U.S. extended deterrence commitments and has called for the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2023.)

The Biden administration has made clear it will not redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea but the declaration says the United States will “enhance the regular visibility of strategic assets.”

Yoon reaffirmed South Korea’s commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the joint declaration, but it remains unclear if his country’s new role in U.S. extended deterrence planning will quell growing support among the South Korean public for a domestic nuclear weapons program.

Prior to the Biden-Yoon summit, North Korea demonstrated its advancing nuclear weapons capabilities by testing its first solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in April and displaying at least ten tactical nuclear warheads. The developments came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during an April 10 meeting of North Korea’s Central Military Commission, called for a more “practical and offensive” nuclear deterrent to respond to South Korean-U.S. military exercises “simulating an all-out war against” his country.

The new solid-fueled, three-stage ICBM, which North Korea calls the Hwasong-18, was tested from a mobile launcher near Pyongyang on April 13. North Korea launched the missile on a lofted trajectory, and it flew about 1,000 kilometers before splashing down between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Kim oversaw the missile test, which was intended to “confirm the performance of the high-thrust solid-fuel engines for multi-stage missiles,” according to an April 14 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA reported that Kim expressed “great satisfaction” with the launch and that the Hwasong-18 will “extensively reform the strategic deterrence components.”

A solid-fueled ICBM capability offers several advantages over the liquid-fueled ICBMs that North Korea tested in the past. Solid-fueled systems are more mobile and easier to conceal and can be launched more quickly than liquid-fueled systems. Liquid-fueled ICBMs are generally fueled shortly before launch, providing more time for an adversary to detect and respond to the launch. North Korea has tested solid-fueled systems in the past, but the Hwasong-18 is the first ICBM.

According to KCNA, Kim said that the Hwasong-18 will “radically promote the effectiveness of [North Korea’s] nuclear counterattack posture” and make the country’s “offensive military strategy” more practical.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the Hwasong-18 test “needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing” the region. Watson called on North Korea to “immediately cease its destabilizing actions and instead choose diplomatic engagement.”

Japan, South Korea and the United States responded to the test with military drills and a trilateral pledge to strengthen defense cooperation and information sharing.

South Korea and the United States conducted aerial training involving B-52 strategic bombers the day after the Hwasong-18 test. The exercise demonstrated the alliance’s “combined defense capability” and “extended deterrence in the defense of the Korean peninsula,” according to an April 14 statement from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Japan and the United States also held a bilateral air exercise on April 14.

Three days later, Japan, South Korea and the United States conducted a missile defense drill focused on tracking and sharing information about North Korean missile launches. The South Korean navy described the drill as “an opportunity to strengthen security cooperation…against North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threats.”

North Korean official Ri Pyong Chol criticized the military exercises in an April 17 statement and accused the United States of raising tensions and simulating a “pre-emptive nuclear strike and an all-out war.” Ri, vice-president of North Korea’s Central Military Commission, described the Hwasong-18 test as self-defensive and said the use of B-52 strategic bombers in the region is nuclear blackmail. He warned Washington against further actions that “endanger the security environment of the Korean peninsula.”

China also blamed the United States for driving regional tensions. In an April 13 press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the U.S. “deployment of strategic weapons” and “massive military drills near the peninsula” have a “negative impact.” The United States needs to “act as soon as possible to address the legitimate concerns” of North Korea and “create conditions” to alleviate tensions and resume dialogue, he said.

The United States called out China and Russia for failing to condemn North Korea’s ballistic missile launches, which violate UN Security Council resolutions.

During a Security Council meeting April 17 on the Hwasong-18 launch, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the council’s failure to take action against North Korea “undermines the credibility of this council and the entire international nonproliferation regime.” Thomas-Greenfield did not specifically reference China and Russia, but said that two council members continue to “draw false equivalences between [North Korea’s] unlawful ballistic missile launches and lawful, defensive, pre-announced” South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises.

In that meeting, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said that Moscow opposes Security Council meetings “for the purpose of propaganda and exerting pressure.” He said that the situation on the Korean peninsula is “tense indeed” but that the United States is "directly involved in the stepping-up of the escalation.”


The allies announced steps to give Seoul more input into U.S. nuclear planning as support grows in South Korea for a domestic nuclear weapons program to counter North Korea. 

IAEA Begins to Reinstall Cameras in Iran

May 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began reinstalling cameras at certain nuclear facilities in Iran under an agreement the agency reached with Tehran in March.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in an April 1 interview with PBS NewsHour that the agency is “starting with the installment of cameras” and the “reconnection of some online monitoring systems.” He said the process will take a few weeks and will increase the agency’s visibility into Iran’s nuclear program. He described the reinstallation of the surveillance equipment as a “deescalation” of the tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

A 2015 view of Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Much of it is built underground and protected by a thick concrete wall.  (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images via Getty Images.)After Iran in June 2022 removed surveillance cameras from certain facilities and the monitor that tracked uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant in real time, Grossi has raised concerns about the gap in IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. He warned that the reduction in transparency would pose challenges for establishing baseline inventories in certain areas of the program, such as centrifuge component production. (See ACT, March 2023; July/August 2022.)

Iran suspended IAEA access to certain facilities in February 2021 as part of its campaign to push the United States to lift sanctions, but agreed to allow cameras to continue surveilling those locations. (See ACT, March 2021.) Tehran said it would turn over the data collected from the cameras to the IAEA if the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was restored. Since Tehran switched off the cameras in June, there has been no monitoring of these facilities.

Iran agreed to reinstall certain surveillance equipment during Grossi’s last visit to Tehran, on March 4. In the agreement, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) committed on a “voluntary basis” to allow the IAEA to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.”

But after the agreement was announced, the AEOI and IAEA offered different interpretations about what would be included under the agreement, raising questions about whether it would be implemented. (See ACT, April 2023.)

Despite Grossi’s confirmation that implementation is progressing, it is unclear how much the IAEA will benefit from the increased monitoring. Grossi did not say if Iran will permit the agency to install an online enrichment monitor at the Fordow enrichment facility. This was where the agency in January detected uranium enriched to a level of 84 percent uranium-235, well above the 60 percent U-235 level that previously was declared. (See ACT, March 2023.)

Under the JCPOA, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium at the Fordow facility for 15 years, so the IAEA did not install an online enrichment monitor there as it did for Natanz, where Tehran is permitted to enrich under the deal.

Grossi also did not comment on whether the IAEA will have access to the recordings from the cameras or whether Tehran will turn over the data only if the JCPOA is restored or a new agreement is negotiated.

The prospects for any diplomatic agreement between the United States and Iran appear bleak. Officials from Iran and the European countries that are partners in the JCPOA (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) met in Norway in March, but the discussions on Iran’s nuclear program and the JCPOA do not appear to have led to any breakthrough.

In an April 17 interview with Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, reiterated the Biden administration’s preference for resolving the nuclear crisis diplomatically, but said that the JCPOA is on life support.

In an April 18 ministerial statement, the Group of Seven industrialized countries (G-7) also expressed support for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and referred to the JCPOA as “a useful reference.” They urged Iran to meet its nonproliferation obligations and voiced concern about the country’s nuclear advances, which have “no credible civilian justification and bring it dangerously close to actual weapon-related activities.”

The challenges are exacerbated by the political pressure on the United States and the Europeans not to engage with Iran due to its brutal crackdown on domestic protesters and support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Although the United States and the Europeans have warned Iran against continued military support for Russia, Politico reported on April 12 that Tehran is looking to obtain the chemical compounds needed for missile rocket fuel from Moscow and Beijing. The transfer of such chemicals would violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA and prohibits Iran from importing or exporting missiles and related components without Security Council approval.

The G-7 called on Iran to “stop supporting the Russian military in its war of aggression” and to “cease transferring armed [unmanned aerial vehicles], which have been used in Ukraine.”

Regional tensions also may complicate a return to diplomacy. In an unusual move, the U.S. Navy publicly confirmed the deployment to the Middle East of a submarine capable of carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Navy Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins said on April 6 that the deployment was intended to “help ensure regional maritime security and stability.” It follows a U.S. airstrike on Iranian-backed forces responsible for killing a U.S. contractor in Syria.

Israel continues to pressure the United States not to return to the JCPOA and is now pushing China to restrain Iran’s nuclear advances.

Beijing helped mediate an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March and hosted the two countries’ foreign ministers on April 6, but has shown no signs of using its influence to reduce nuclear tensions. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he urged Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to “exert his influence on Iran to stop the progress on the nuclear program” during an April 17 phone call.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began reinstalling cameras at certain nuclear facilities in Iran under an agreement the agency reached with Tehran in March.

IAEA Shifts Priorities for Zaporizhzhia

May 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

After months of negotiations with Russia and Ukraine to establish a protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said he is now focused on reaching a narrower agreement to protect certain areas of the facility that pose a greater risk.

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine on March 29, and later said he is  focused on reaching a narrower agreement with Russia to protect the embattled facility. (Photo by Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced the shift in the agency’s priorities after visiting Zaporizhzhia on March 29 and observing the buildup of military forces in the area. In a March 30 statement, the IAEA said Grossi’s proposal evolved from creating a territorial zone around the plant to reaching an agreement on “what should be avoided” at the facility to ensure protection of the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia plant during conflict. Prior to the visit, Grossi told Associated Press in a March 28 interview that negotiations on establishing the zone were being “affected by the ongoing military options.”

Russia has illegally occupied the Zaporizhzhia plant since February 2022, but the facility is still operated by Ukrainian personnel. (See ACT, April 2022.) Moscow and Kyiv professed support for Grossi’s initial plan to establish a protection zone, but officials on both sides expressed doubt about the feasibility of establishing it. (See ACT, March 2023.)

Grossi emphasized in the March 28 interview that his approach is focused on “a series of principle[s] or commitments [that] everybody would be able to support.” He said that if Russia and Ukraine make a political commitment to protect Zaporizhzhia, it will be an agreement with the IAEA and they “are not agreeing with each other.” He characterized the nature of the agreement as “a very important element” that Russia and Ukraine should take into consideration.

In the March 30 statement, Grossi emphasized the urgency of reaching an agreement. He said it is “obvious that military activity is increasing” in the Zaporizhzhia region and that the “area is facing perhaps a more dangerous phase in terms of the ongoing conflict.” He said it is “very, very important that we agree on the fundamental principle that a nuclear plant should not be attacked.”

Prior to visiting the Zaporizhzhia plant, Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and said on March 27 that they had a “rich exchange” regarding the protection of the facility and its staff. Grossi said his trip was also focused on ensuring that IAEA personnel stationed at the facility since September can rotate in on a regular basis after a delay in February prevented a new agency team from entering the facility for nearly a month.

A Russian military truck is seen on the grounds of the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine on March 29. (Photo by Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)Following his visit, Grossi met on April 5 in Kaliningrad with Russian officials, including Alexey Likhachev, director-general of the Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom. Although Ukrainian staff still run the Zaporizhzhia plant, Rosatom has stationed some of its personnel at the facility.

In an April 5 statement, Likhachev said he told Grossi about steps that Rosatom has taken to “ensure the safe operation” of Zaporizhzhia, including stationing new diesel generators at the facility.

The Zaporizhzhia plant has relied on generators six times over the past 13 months when power to the facility was disrupted, including after a March attack that severed power lines. Reliable external power sources are necessary to continue cooling the shuttered nuclear reactor units at the site.

Likhachev also reiterated Russian willingness to work with the IAEA to protect the nuclear facility.

Grossi said in an April 5 statement that he will continue his efforts to protect the Zaporizhzhia plant and reiterated the “urgent need to achieve this vital objective.”

In addition to the risk posed by power disruptions, Ukrainian officials are now raising concerns that Russia’s decision to drain water from the Kakhovka reservoir could make it more difficult to cool the reactor units at Zaporizhzhia. The reactor requires external water sources for cooling to prevent a meltdown.

According to Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear energy company, the level of the reservoir is typically around 16 meters, but the drainage dropped the levels to 13.8 meters in February. A fall to 12.8 meters would qualify as an emergency, according to Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom.

Ihor Syrota, director general of the Ukrainian state-run hydropower company Ukrhydroenergo, told Reuters in a March 27 interview that there is no immediate risk and that thawing snow is helping raise the reservoir levels again.

But he warned of a water shortage later this summer if Russia continues to discharge water from the reservoir.


After months of negotiations with Russia and Ukraine to establish a protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the head of the IAEA is now focused on reaching a narrower agreement to protect certain areas of the facility that pose a greater risk.  

AUKUS Plans Announced

April 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced plans for Australia to purchase at least three nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and work with the UK on a new submarine design to meet Australian security needs.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) delivers remarks on the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defense partnership along with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego in March. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The March 13 announcement by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joseph Biden, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak comes 18 months after London and Washington revealed their intentions to provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines under the terms of the so-called AUKUS deal. (See ACT, October 2021.)

After meeting with Albanese and Sunak in San Diego, Biden said the “overriding objective” of the AUKUS initiative is to “enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics.” Albanese described the initiative as the “biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability” and said it will strengthen “national security and stability in our region.”

According to a fact sheet released by the three countries, Australia will purchase three U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines beginning in 2030s, with congressional approval, to meet its defense requirements while it works with the UK on a new submarine design and builds up its industrial base for domestic production. Prior to that, Australian naval personnel will train with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy. Beginning in 2027, both countries will forward-deploy nuclear submarines to Australian bases.

The new class of Australian-UK submarine, referenced as the SSN AUKUS, will incorporate U.S. components. Prior to this agreement, the United States had shared technology pertaining to nuclear submarine development only with the UK. The first of the SSN AUKUS submarines will be built in the UK and delivered to Australia in the late 2030s. Australia will aim to build up its capacity to produce SSN AUKUS submarines domestically by the 2040s. The submarines built in Australia will receive nuclear power reactor units that are welded shut, making it more difficult for the weapons-grade fuel to be removed, according to the fact sheet.

Although all three leaders reiterated their commitments to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, the decision to provide Australia with submarine reactors fueled by weapons-grade uranium and to jointly develop SSN AUKUS-class submarines raises concerns about proliferation and the precedent this deal will set.

Australia, as a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons. But Australia can possess weapons-grade materials. Under Article 14 of a country’s NPT-required comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a country can remove nuclear materials from a A version of the Virginia-class submarine that Australia plans to purchase in the 2030s from the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Congress, under the new AUKUS defense partnership. Meanwhile, Australia will work with the United Kingdom on a new submarine and build up its industrial base for domestic production. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)safeguarded, peaceful program for military purposes that do not involve the development of nuclear weapons, such as naval propulsion.

In a March 14 letter, Australia notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi of its intent to “commence negotiation” on an arrangement pursuant to Article 14. The letter said it was Australia’s intent to “include a robust package of safeguards and verification measures” that will enable the IAEA to confirm the “non-diversion of nuclear material, the non-misuse of nuclear facilities, and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.”

Biden and Albanese also reiterated their commitments to maintaining nonproliferation standards. Biden said the deal sets the “highest standards” for verification and transparency with the IAEA.

But there is no precedent for a state utilizing Article 14 for naval propulsion and how a state must “make it clear” that the material removed from safeguards will not be used for weapons purposes.

In a March 14 statement, Grossi said he would “ensure a transparent process” and that the agency must “ensure that no proliferation risks emanate from this project.” He said the Article 14 agreement will be submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors “for appropriate action.”

Other states, most notably China, have objected to the AUKUS deal on nonproliferation grounds. Although there are legitimate proliferation concerns, Beijing’s mixed record on supporting nonproliferation objectives raises questions about the sincerity of its opposition.

In a March 14 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the decision will “exacerbate” the arms race, “undermine the international nuclear nonproliferation regime,” and destabilize the region. He said the three AUKUS countries are motivated by “geopolitical interests” and are going down the “wrong and dangerous path.”

He said this arrangement “violates the purpose and object of the NPT” and the safeguards implications affect all IAEA members. He said the AUKUS deal should not proceed until IAEA member states reach consensus regarding the safeguards issues.

The next day, Wang said there is no way to effectively safeguard the nuclear material and ensure it will not be diverted to build nuclear weapons. He also said there are differences over how to interpret Article 14 of a safeguards agreement. It remains unclear whether the Biden administration has the support in Congress to push through the AUKUS deal, which has bipartisan critics.

In a December letter to Biden, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) raised concerns about the capacity of the United States to sell submarines to Australia and still meet U.S. security needs. They warned about “stressing the U.S. submarine industrial base to the breaking point.” They urged Biden to ensure that “sovereign U.S. national security capabilities will not be diminished” because of the AUKUS deal.

But Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), founder of the bipartisan AUKUS Congressional Working Group, described the March 13 announcement as a “seminal moment” and said it “lays out a clear path” to enhance the Australian Navy and achieve U.S. national security goals in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia also faces domestic criticism that could challenge the AUKUS project. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating who, like Albanese is in the Labor party, described it as the “worst deal in all history” and argued that Australia was overreacting to the threat posed by China.

Former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull from the opposition Liberal Party welcomed the announcement of U.S. and UK submarines rotating through the country, but said Australia would have been better off to continue working with France to buy cheaper nuclear submarines that use low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used for weapons. Paris was taken by surprise with the AUKUS announcement in September 2021.

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States agreed that Australia would purchase at least three U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. 

Iran Agrees to Increase Nuclear Transparency

April 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement to increase agency monitoring over the country’s nuclear program, but the deal is unlikely to be sufficient to quell concerns about Tehran’s sensitive activities.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and other IAEA officials address journalists in Vienna after meeting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and, Mohammad Eslami, Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), during a two day visit to Tehran. (Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi traveled to Tehran on March 3–4 to discuss agency concerns about safeguarding Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 4 statement, the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that Tehran would “on a voluntary basis” allow the agency to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on March 6 that Iran must cooperate and take the agreed steps “without delay.”

Although Grossi has raised concerns for months about the implications of Iran’s decisions in 2021 and 2022 to reduce inspector access and transparency, recent events highlighted the risk posed by monitoring limitations. In January, IAEA inspectors at the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility determined that Iran was operating its two cascades of more efficient IR-6 centrifuges in a design that was significantly different from what was declared to the agency. The IAEA concluded in a Feb. 1 report that the reconfiguration of centrifuges should have been declared to that agency as required by the country’s safeguards agreement.

Inspectors took samples from the Fordow site the day after they noticed the centrifuge reconfiguration, which revealed the presence of uranium enriched to 84 percent uranium-235, significantly above the declared levels of 60 percent U-235 for that area of the facility.

These undeclared activities are particularly concerning given the advanced nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s Feb. 28 report revealed that Tehran doubled its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 since the prior report was issued in November. Tehran now has enough material enriched to that level to produce weapons-grade uranium, or 90 percent U-235, for two bombs.

In the report, the agency said Iran described the spike in enrichment as an “unintended fluctuation” that occurred when it began enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235 or when it changed the feed cylinder.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the agency’s Board of Governors on March 8 that Iran’s activities at Fordow, whether intentional or inadvertent, “intensify tension and push unprecedented boundaries.” She said Iran must clarify the origins of the 84 percent U-235 material immediately.

In a March 4 press conference, Grossi said that it is not the IAEA’s job to determine Iran’s intentions, but said the agency must understand what occurred for safeguards purposes. He said discussions regarding the particles are ongoing.

Grossi also said that Tehran agreed in February to a 50 percent increase in inspections at the Fordow facility. AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi confirmed the additional inspections, but other comments seemed to contradict Grossi’s description of the additional measures covered by the March 4 agreement.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), director-general of International Atomic Energy Agency, is welcomed by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, at the airport in Tehran as Grossi began a two-day visit in March focused on the Iranian nuclear program. (Photo by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran /Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)At the press conference, Grossi suggested that Iran agreed to reinstall surveillance equipment, including cameras and a monitor that tracked Iranian uranium enrichment in real time, that Tehran disconnected in June 2022. But Kamalvandi suggested that Iran will not install any new cameras or take steps contrary to a December 2020 nuclear law that required the AEOI to halt more intrusive access for inspectors and certain transparency measures specific to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

After the December 2020 law came into effect, the AEOI did allow monitoring equipment to surveil certain facilities to which Iran suspended IAEA access in February 2021. Iran said it would turn the data over to the agency if the JCPOA were restored. Kamalvandi’s comments cast doubt on whether the IAEA will be able to install any equipment at new sites or facilities that have been modified. It is also not clear if the March 4 agreement will allow the agency to access that data or if the IAEA will have regular access to any future recordings.

In a March 7 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urged Iran to install all the equipment that the agency deems necessary.

Grossi has warned since June that the monitoring gap will make it difficult for the agency to maintain its continuity of knowledge over Iran’s nuclear program. For the first time, in the Feb. 28 report, the agency concluded that it is no longer possible to restore continuity of knowledge and that reestablishing baselines in areas such as inventories of centrifuge components and uranium ore concentrate stocks will have a significant degree of uncertainty. This will make verifying limits under a restored JCPOA more challenging, the report noted.

The March 7 statement also covered a years-long IAEA investigation into the presence of processed uranium at three locations that were not declared to the agency under Iran’s safeguards agreement. For more than two years, the agency has sought technically credible explanations from Iran for the uranium, which was processed prior to 2003.

The March 4 agreement states that Iran “expressed its readiness” to provide the agency with “further information and access” to resolve the probe. Grossi said that day that Iran agreed to allow inspectors access to sites, locations, and individuals.

But Kamalvandi said there was no discussion of access to individuals and that Tehran would have turned down any such request. He also said there is no need for the IAEA to return to the three sites under investigation.

When pressed about Kamalvandi’s comments, Grossi on March 6 defended the progress made, saying that he reached a new understanding with Iranian officials regarding the investigation.

The Board of Governors censured Iran for failing to cooperate with the IAEA investigation while meeting in November. Although the states did not pursue a censure during the March 6–10 board meeting, France, Germany, and the UK warned about future action if Iran does not cooperate.

They said in a March 8 statement that the IAEA has “heard enough promises” from Iran and that the board will “have to be prepared to take further action” if Tehran does not cooperate. This could include referring Iran to the UN Security Council.

While in Tehran, Grossi said that any attack on a nuclear facility is illegal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the statement as “unworthy” during a March 5 cabinet meeting and said that “nothing will prevent us from protecting our country.”

In the past, Israel has taken credit for attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency reached a deal to increase monitoring over the country’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to quell concerns. 

North Korea Tests Missiles in Response to Military Exercises

April 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea responded to U.S.-South Korean military exercises in March by conducting several missile launches, including of a new sea-launched cruise missile.

A South Korean K1A1 tank fires during a live fire drill at a military training field in Pocheon on March 22, as part of the 10-day-long Freedom Shield joint military exercises with the United States, the allies’ largest in five years. North Korea responded to the exercises with repeated missile launches. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)The 11-day U.S.-South Korean exercise, known as Freedom Shield, began on March 13. One objective of the exercise is to ensure readiness to respond to the threat posed by North Korean nuclear and missile programs.

The day before the exercise started, North Korea launched two cruise missiles from a submarine for the first time. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described the missiles as “strategic” systems and said they demonstrate how the “nuclear war deterrent” operates in “diverse spaces.”

Nine days later, North Korea launched multiple cruise missiles as the United States and South Korea conducted large-scale, live-fire exercises as part of Freedom Shield. North Korea suggested that these weapons systems are designed to carry nuclear warheads and can deliver a payload up to about 2,000 kilometers. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the military detected and tracked the missile flights.

Unlike ballistic missiles, which fly on a standard trajectory, cruise missiles can be maneuvered in flight and fly at lower altitudes, making them more difficult to track and intercept.

North Korea also launched the Hwasong-17, the largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in its arsenal that it has tested, and several short-range ballistic missiles.

The ICBM was launched on March 16 and was intended to “strike fear” into North Korea’s enemies, according to a KCNA statement. The Hwasong-17 is capable of reaching the entire continental United States.

The ICBM launch preceded a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Tokyo where they discussed the North Korean threat to the region and strengthening security ties between their countries.

North Korea is prohibited from launching ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions, but recently has not faced any repercussions from the Security Council for violating those provisions. During a Security Council meeting on March 20, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield accused Russia and China of obstructing efforts at the Security Council to condemn North Korean missile activities. She said Russia’s and China’s actions were encouraging North Korea to “launch ballistic missiles with impunity.”

The head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, also criticized China for failing to do more to respond to the growing North Korean missile threat. He said during a March 16 speech in Singapore that it would be “helpful” for China to “dissuade” North Korea from further missile tests. He said Pyongyang’s tests are destabilizing, unpredictable, and “not slowing down.”

The same day the submarine-launched cruise missiles were tested, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addressed a meeting of top military leaders and said Pyongyang must respond “powerfully” to the joint exercises. According to the KCNA, the military leaders discussed “important practical steps for making more effective, powerful and offensive use of the war deterrent.”

On March 18–19, North Korea conducted exercises that included what the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper described as a “tactical drill” to improve the country’s “war deterrence and nuclear counterattack capability.” The drill was carried out under the “tense situation” created by the deployment of U.S. strategic assets in the region and U.S.-South Korean exercises, which the news release described as a sign that the two countries are readying to invade North Korea.

The release said the North Korean exercises included “a drill for launching [a] tactical ballistic missile tipped with a mock nuclear warhead” and demonstrated that North Korea’s nuclear systems are “fast, strict, highly reliable and safe.”

In recent speeches, Kim emphasized the importance of North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons and the importance of developing that capability in order to repel an invasion if deterrence fails.

The mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, addressed the threat posed by North Korea’s advancing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities in a March 13 interview with Reuters. He said North Korea “has nearly succeeded in miniaturizing and lightening tactical nuclear weapons.” Given these capabilities, South Korea “has come to a point where it is difficult to convince people with the logic that we should refrain from developing nuclear weapons and stick to the cause of denuclearization," he said.

Oh added that there “may be some initial resistance from the international community” at first but the idea of South Korea developing nuclear weapons “will gain more support eventually.”

South Korea has walked back comments from Yoon in January suggesting that South Korea may need to develop its own nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2023.)

North Korea responded to U.S.-South Korean military exercises by conducting several missile launches, including a new sea-launched cruise missile.  

Iran Agrees to Additional Transparency

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency agreed March 4 to increase monitoring of the country’s nuclear program. While any additional transparency is a positive step, it is difficult to determine how beneficial the new measures will be as the details of the agreement remain to be negotiated. According to the statement released by the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Tehran committed to allow the agency to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities” on a “voluntary basis.” The agreement was reached during IAEA Director General Rafael...


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