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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
November 2013
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Cover Image: 

Correction

Due to an editing error, the September 2013 article “Rightsizing the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal” misidentified the arms control treaty that expired in 2009. It was the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Russian Arms Dealer Loses Appeal

Jefferson Morley

A federal appeals court in late September upheld the conviction of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, a decision that the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned as “unjust and politicized.”

Bout was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 following a series of meetings with undercover agents posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He was extradited to the United States, where he was convicted in November 2011 of conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, kill U.S. nationals, kill U.S. officials, and provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. (See ACT, December 2011.) In April 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The legal proceedings against Bout set off to a bitter diplomatic dispute between Washington and Moscow, with Russia attempting to have Bout, a former Soviet military officer, transferred to Russia to serve his sentence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York found “no merit” in Bout’s claim his extradition was illegal because it resulted from what he called “coercive political pressure” exerted by Washington on the Thai government.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Sept. 28 statement said that judges had “ignored the obvious facts of the illegal actions of the American special services” during Bout’s arrest.

The statement said the ministry and the Russian embassy in the Washington would continue to support Bout “to ensure his speedy return to the homeland.”

Bout is serving his sentence at a U.S. medium-security prison in Marion, Illinois

A federal appeals court in late September upheld the conviction of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, a decision that the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned as “unjust and politicized.”

Conference Produces Cyber Framework

Timothy Farnsworth

Delegates from 87 countries meeting in Seoul in mid-October agreed on a framework for developing international cyberspace norms.

The agreement calls for the United Nations to play a leading role in bringing countries together to develop common understandings of the use of information and communications technologies, promote confidence-building and transparency measures, and support building and improving information technology infrastructure in developing countries.

The Seoul Framework for and Commitment to Open and Secure Cyberspace acknowledges the recent finding of a UN group of governmental experts that current international law, specifically the law of armed conflict, applies to cyberspace. (See ACT, July/August 2013.) The document calls for further study of how current norms apply to state behavior in cyberspace and how additional norms could be developed.

The Oct. 17-18 meeting was the third international cyberspace conference in a series launched by UK Foreign Minister William Hague in 2011 in London. (See ACT, December 2011.) The Seoul framework is the first document to come out of the conferences that identifies specific elements for an open and secure cyberspace.

“The realization of the need for norms on cyberspace in London two years ago has taken concrete shape in the Seoul framework,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, the conference chairman, said in his closing remarks. The results of the Seoul conference “represent the best common political denominator” of the conference participants, he said.

Yun expressed hope that the work completed in Seoul “will pave the way for further progress in The Hague in 2015” when the next international conference on cyberspace is scheduled to take place.

The agreement by the delegates on the Seoul framework did not conceal differences among the countries attending.

The international community “must confront” a “divide” on cyberspace policy, Hague said during his opening remarks to the conference. One side insists that the Internet “must remain open and borderless and benefit from collective oversight between governments, international organizations, industry, and civil society,” Hague said. The other side is “calling for an international legal framework” for the Internet that would “enable governments to exercise exclusive control over…content and resources.”

Hague placed himself firmly in the first camp, saying that “countries who seek to hide behind firewalls and erect artificial barriers on the Internet will ultimately reduce their security, not enhance it. A fragmented cyberspace would reduce trust and cooperation, making malicious or subversive activity more likely and harder to detect.”

 

Delegates from 87 countries meeting in Seoul in mid-October agreed on a framework for developing international cyberspace norms.

U.S., Russia Sign New Hotline Pact

Timothy Farnsworth

At a time when relations between Russia and the United States have seemed to chill, the two sides have signed an agreement updating a 1987 accord establishing a communications hotline between the two countries in order to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear exchanges.

According to an Oct. 7 State Department press release, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed the agreement in Indonesia during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The agreement was originally prepared for the Russian-U.S. summit in Moscow that was scheduled for Sept. 4 but did not take place, Lavrov said during an Oct. 7 press conference after the signing.

“The Cold War is now long over, but thousands of nuclear weapons remain, and we both recognize a responsibility to do everything possible to keep each other [informed] of important developments in order to avoid misunderstanding and potentially catastrophic consequences,” Kerry said at the press conference.

The new agreement mostly upgrades the technology that the two Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers, located at the State Department and the Russian Defense Ministry, use to communicate with each other. The new agreement replaces old encrypted fax lines with new encrypted digital lines, allows the centers to use “commercial communications channels,” and removes language associated with references to floppy disks.

Although the centers originally were established to prevent accidental nuclear war, they are also used as a means of transmitting and receiving data to ensure compliance with more than a dozen arms control treaties and agreements, including the exchange of more than 5,000 notifications under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty since its entry into force in 2011.

The centers are also used to increase transparency on a range of arms control issues involving conventional, nuclear, and chemical weapons. As a result of a June 17 agreement between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the centers will also be used to mitigate misperceptions that could take place in cyberspace

At a time when relations between Russia and the United States have seemed to chill, the two sides have signed an agreement updating a 1987 accord establishing a communications hotline between the two countries in order to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear exchanges.

Disarmament Consensus Eludes UN

Tom Z. Collina

As they complete their annual debate on disarmament and international security, the member states of the United Nations continue to struggle to agree on where to focus their efforts. The next logical step for many, a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, has been effectively blocked by Pakistan.

Meanwhile, international support is growing to move directly to the elimination of nuclear weapons, which the declared nuclear powers oppose.

The “ongoing stalemate” of the UN’s disarmament work “remains deeply troubling,” EU representative Andras Kos said in an Oct. 22 statement at the UN. The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva has not negotiated a disarmament agreement for 16 years, leading CD Secretary-General Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan to say in 2012 that nothing could “mask the stagnation in what should serve the international community as its single standing multilateral disarmament negotiating forum.”

The five recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and their allies continue to support a step-by-step process to nuclear disarmament, with negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) next in line. Others, however, such as members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have lost confidence in the step-by-step approach and seek instead to jump-start negotiations on nuclear weapons elimination.

In an effort to break the CD gridlock, the UN General Assembly First Committee in 2012 approved a resolution by Canada to establish a group of governmental experts to discuss how to advance negotiations on an FMCT. The group is scheduled to meet for two-week sessions in 2014 and 2015. After that, the group is to submit to the General Assembly in the fall of 2015 a final report with a list of recommendations on how to advance FMCT negotiations and what technical aspects to include in the treaty. Pakistan, the only state to vote against the resolution, said that the experts group “adds no value to the substance of the envisaged treaty” and would “undermine the CD, the sole multilateral negotiating forum.” (See ACT, December 2012.)

The five nuclear-weapon states have met with other nuclear-armed states in so-called P5-plus talks to discuss how to break the stalemate in the CD, but they have consistently expressed their intent to negotiate an FMCT in the CD. (See ACT, October 2011.)

In 1995, Russia, the United States, and many Western states supported opening negotiations on an FMCT, but Pakistan and other NAM members objected. Pakistan expressed concern that a ban on future fissile material production for weapons would lock in an advantage for India, its strategic rival. Pakistan’s position was only hardened by the 2005 U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, which gave New Delhi, but not Islamabad, access to Western nuclear power technology. Neither India nor Pakistan is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on an FMCT, other states are seeking to build consensus around the elimination of nuclear weapons. As part of this effort, on Sept. 26 the General Assembly held a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament, intended to promote “collective efforts to move away from the nuclear abyss [that] have remained too modest in ambition and brought only limited success,” as Austrian President Heinz Fischer put it at the meeting. “Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned, and eliminated before they abolish us,” he said.

As a follow-up, on Oct. 14 the NAM member states proposed a resolution calling for negotiations in the CD to eliminate nuclear weapons, another high-level meeting by 2018, and designation of Sept. 26 as the “international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Austria led efforts last fall to create an open-ended working group in Geneva to discuss nuclear disarmament alongside the CD, but with more states involved and without the CD’s requirement for consensus. The group met this spring and summer, producing a report to the UN General Assembly. In response, the CD established its own alternative forum, known as the informal working group, in August. (See ACT, September 2013.)

In addition, outside the UN process there will be a second international meeting on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use in February in Nayarit, Mexico. The first such conference was in Oslo in March. The nuclear-weapon states did not attend the first session and issued a Sept. 26 joint statement regretting that “energy is being directed toward” initiatives such as the high-level meeting and humanitarian consequences campaign instead of the FMCT.

As the step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament loses steam, support is building at the United Nations to move directly to the elimination of nuclear weapons, but finding consensus remains difficult.

Chemical Watchdog Wins Nobel Prize

Jefferson Morely

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 11 for its efforts in eliminating the scourge of chemical warfare.

The honor boosted the Hague-based organization just 10 days after its personnel arrived in Syria on the most challenging mission of its 16-year history: dismantling the chemical arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad’s besieged government.

In an Oct. 11 statement to the press, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, a former Turkish diplomat, said the OPCW operates “away from the glare of international publicity” while taking on the “onerous but noble task” of implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in 1997.

In an interview with Nobelprize.org, Üzümcü said the prize “will give a new impetus and encouragement, I should say, great incentive to our staff who are working in the secretariat, and who are deployed also in Syria.”

With civil war raging in Syria, Üzümcü noted the challenge facing the OPCW team working in the country. Its mission was authorized by a UN Security Council resolution that was based on a U.S.-Russian plan and unanimously approved by the Security Council in response to the Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb.

“Never in the history of our organization have we been called on to verify a destruction program within such short timeframes—and in an ongoing conflict,” Üzümcü said.

UN Security Council Resolution 2118 demands the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing and filling equipment by Nov. 1 and complete disarmament and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria by the first half of 2014. The OPCW said in late October that the Syrian government was cooperating with its mission team.

Reaction Divided

The Syrian government welcomed the announcement of the prize while spokesmen for the rebels called the honor premature.

Fayez Sayigh, a member of the Syrian ruling party, told the Associated Press that Syria was setting an example for other countries that have chemical and nuclear weapons. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, one of the factions fighting Assad’s government, said, “Our problem is not just chemical weapons,” citing the estimated 100,000 people killed by conventional weapons. The Nobel committee, the spokesman said, “forgot about our blood.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the award and praised the work of the OPCW. “The Nobel committee has rightly recognized their bravery and resolve to carry out this vital mission amid an ongoing war in Syria,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also applauded the decision, calling the OPCW “one of the most effective international bodies in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation.”

In its announcement of the prize, the Nobel committee noted that the United States and Russia failed to meet an April 2012 deadline for destroying their own stockpiles of chemical weapons. Russia, which has destroyed 76 percent of its arsenal according to the OPCW, has said it will complete the job by 2015, citing a lack of funds. The United States, which has destroyed more than 90 percent of its chemical stockpile, says it will complete the job by 2023.

In the interview, Üzümcü said the U.S. and Russian chemical destruction totals were “quite significant achievements” and that he expected the two countries “to fulfill their obligations in the coming years.”

Effect of the Prize

As Üzümcü noted, the OPCW largely worked in obscurity until September when the UN Security Council approved the chemical disarmament plan.

The Nobel prize will help the OPCW when it comes time actually to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, according to Raymond Zilinskas of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The OPCW’s “heightened prestige” will put it in a better position to ask its member states “to provide the expert assistance, equipment such as mobile destruction plants, and funding to pay for it all,” Zilinskas, who served as a UN chemical and biological weapons inspector in Iraq in 1994, said in an Oct. 22 e-mail. “I mean, what country is going to turn down a request made by a Nobel Peace Prize winner?”

Several countries have made financial commitments to the OPCW to carry out its work in Syria. That effort is not covered by the organization’s 2013 budget of 69.8 million euros ($96 million).

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize as the group stepped up its disarmament mission in Syria.

Obama Eases Rules on Arms Exports

Jefferson Morley

In a little-noticed move Oct. 15, the U.S. government began to revamp its long-standing system for regulating the export of U.S.-made weapons ranging from submachine guns and night vision goggles to killer drones and fighter jets.

The Export Control Reform Initiative, launched by the Obama administration in August 2009, will affect U.S. oversight of U.S. firms supplying the $83 billion global arms market. In an Oct. 15 statement, the White House said the initiative will end “the disproportionate focus on the least sensitive items such as nuts, bolts and screws instead of the most sensitive items”; encourage closer logistical collaboration with U.S. military allies and partners; and boost the U.S. defense industrial base.

In the first of a series of scheduled changes, the State Department turned over responsibility for reviewing the export of military equipment and aviation components to the Commerce Department. In the coming year, jurisdiction over tens of thousands of additional items formerly appearing on the U.S. Munitions List, a compendium of weapons-related technologies monitored by the State Department, will be transferred to the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Commerce Department.

The shift will change how the U.S. government monitors most international arms sales. Until now, the State Department reviewed the export of military equipment under a variety of specific criteria to ensure that U.S.-made weapons did not wind up in the hands of repressive governments, terrorists, human rights abusers, or countries subject to UN arms embargoes.

The Commerce Department now will oversee arms exports with a simplified applications process designed to promote its mission of creating new markets for U.S. manufacturers. In general, only the export of items deemed critical to U.S. military and intelligence efforts will remain on the U.S. Munitions List.

“These changes are being made to address the increasing challenges posed by an outmoded export control system created during the Cold War,” the White House said in the Oct. 15 statement. The idea is to make it easier to export more nonsensitive equipment while freeing up the State Department to increase scrutiny of the most significant military items. The public interest news site ProPublica called the changes “a big win” for the defense industry.

The changes will spare manufacturers the cost of registration fees, which can be as much as $2,250, required by the State Department, according to Lauren Airey, director of trade facilitation policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

“Companies could also save time and money if they face fewer regulatory hurdles in licensing, by taking advantage of license exceptions that are available to exports licensed by the Commerce Department,” Airey said in Oct. 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

Critics say the government’s efforts to control unwanted arms transfers will suffer. In April 2012, the General Accountability Office (GAO) said the State and Commerce departments “have not fully assessed the potential impact that control list reforms may pose for the resource needs of their compliance activities.” The GAO estimates the Commerce Department will receive 16,000 to 30,000 additional license applications “but has not assessed the impact this added responsibility would have on its end-use check resource needs.” The Commerce Department told the GAO that it has established a Munitions Control Division with a staff of 25 people to monitor the end users of the most sensitive military items.

The changes will hinder U.S. and international law enforcement efforts, predicts Steven Pelak, former national coordinator of export control enforcement at the Justice Department. Pelak, now a lawyer in private practice, says license exceptions for U.S. exporters will make it easier for Iranian and Chinese front companies to purchase equipment barred by U.S. arms embargoes without being vetted by the U.S. government. “[The Department of] Homeland Security, the National Criminal Investigative Service, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms will all have a more difficult job,” Pelak said.

The next category of export items to come under the Commerce Department’s jurisdiction will be military vehicles, vessels, and submersibles, scheduled to be put on the department’s control list Jan. 6. So far, the Commerce Department has approved new export regulations for six of 19 categories of trade items. No rules have been issued for the export of semi-automatic weapons, a chief concern of human rights groups. Such weapons remain on the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List for the time being.

As the administration reforms the oversight process for foreign weapons sales, critics see risks for human rights and law enforcement.

No Date Set for Middle East Zone Meeting

Kelsey Davenport

Middle Eastern countries gathered last month to discuss the agenda for a conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, but made no announcement that they had made progress toward setting a date to convene the conference. The countries continue to disagree over the agenda, an official familiar with the process told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 29 e-mail.

Iran, Israel, and all the Arab League countries attended the meeting, which was held Oct. 21-22 in Glion, Switzerland.

Progress on the agenda has been held up over disagreements as to what weapons the zone’s ban should cover because some countries favor expanding the ban to include limits on certain types of conventional weapons, the official said.

The countries might meet again this month, the official added, but it is unclear if all will attend given the “frustration” over the lack of progress.

At the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general were designated as the organizers of a conference on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. The conference was originally scheduled for December 2012 in Helsinki, with Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava as conference facilitator. But the conveners announced the month before that the conference would be postponed. The United States attributed the postponement to disagreement among states in the region on core issues, including the agenda for the conference. (See ACT, December 2012.)

The decision to hold the conference was critical to the NPT parties’ agreement on the 2010 review conference’s final document. (See ACT, June 2010.)

In an Oct. 8 statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee, Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, outlined his country’s initiative for moving forward. The statement provided detail on an initiative presented by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on Sept. 28 during the UN General Assembly debate.

The initiative includes two steps, according to the Oct. 8 statement. First, it calls on all countries in the region and the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to submit letters to the UN secretary-general stating their support for creating the zone. Second, the countries are to simultaneously commit to signing and ratifying the relevant international conventions on weapons of mass destruction by the end of 2013, if they have not yet done so.

The relevant conventions include the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the NPT. Israel is the only country in the region not party to the NPT. Egypt and Israel are not party to the CWC, although Israel signed the convention in 1993. Syria officially became a party on Oct. 14. Egypt, Israel, and Syria also have not ratified the BWC, although Cairo and Damascus are signatories.

Egypt’s Sept. 28 initiative also called for the conference to be held by the end of the year or by the spring of 2014 “at the latest” and called on the facilitator and the conveners to “redouble their efforts” to hold the conference within that time frame.

In an Oct. 16 statement to the First Committee, David Roet, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Israel supports the “annual endorsement of this visionary goal” of creating the WMD-free zone but has “substantive reservations regarding certain elements.” Roet said that if “no progress has been made to date,” it is not due to a lack of cooperation by the Israelis, but because “Arab partners” have not made an effort to “engage with Israel directly on this issue and seek a consensual approach.”

Gottemoeller Nomination Advances

Tom Z. Collina

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved President Barack Obama’s choice to be his top arms control official in late October, after a September committee hearing raised few red flags and the nominee won the support of a key Republican senator.

Rose Gottemoeller, nominated in May to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security to replace Ellen Tauscher, has been serving as acting undersecretary and as assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance. She was the main U.S. negotiator for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which the Senate approved in December 2010. (See ACT, January/February 2011.)

There had been speculation that Senate Republicans would use Gottemoeller’s confirmation hearing as an opportunity to widely criticize Obama’s arms control agenda, including New START and plans announced in June to pursue another round of nuclear arms reductions with Russia. Instead, senators focused their questions at the Sept. 26 hearing on whether the administration would reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal unilaterally. On Oct. 31, they approved Gottemoeller’s nomination without objection by a voice vote, along with the nominations of Adam Scheinman, senior adviser to the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, to be special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, and Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy, to replace Gottemoeller as assistant secretary.

A vote by the full Senate on the nomination had not been scheduled as of press time.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the committee, said at the September hearing that he had recently received a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry stating, as Corker described it, that the United States “would not agree to additional reductions with Russia without going through the treaty process.” Corker then asked if that commitment would prevent the administration from “making unilateral reductions in our own arsenal if a treaty with Russia is not achievable.”

Gottemoeller replied that the administration has already begun to pursue a treaty with Russia, a process she described as “a difficult slog” and that “unilateral reductions are not on the table,” but did not rule them out in the future. Corker asked the question again, and Gottemoeller gave the same reply.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) then said it was his understanding, based on Gottemoeller’s testimony, that “you stated definitively here today that if Russia doesn’t agree to make further limitations on strategic nuclear weapons, the administration will not make unilateral reductions.”

After Gottemoeller repeated four times that unilateral reductions were not on the table, but refused to rule them out, Rubio said that he does not support unilateral reductions and that “apparently it’s not the policy of the administration to rule them out in the future.”

In an Oct. 22 statement to Arms Control Today, Corker said that “we’ve been concerned about the administration pursuing further nuclear arms reductions with Russia outside of the treaty process and without following through on full modernization of the existing U.S. arsenal.” He said the State Department has “affirmed the Senate’s role in any future negotiations with Russia” and that he had received additional assurances on modernization that “were more promising than in the past.”

“With those assurances, I plan to support” Gottemoeller’s nomination, Corker said. The letter has not been made public, and Corker did not provide further details on what the assurances were.

Rubio remains concerned about “the administration’s unwillingness to definitively pledge that militarily significant reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would only be carried out through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate,” a spokesman said in an Oct. 23 e-mail. The spokesman did not indicate Rubio’s position on the Gottemoeller nomination. Rubio was not present for the Oct. 31 committee vote.

Republican senators have been suggesting for months that any U.S.-Russian arms control treaty that Obama might submit for Senate approval would likely be rejected and that they oppose the idea of pursuing an informal process with Russia that would not be subject to Senate approval. Led by Rubio, 24 Republican senators sent a letter to Kerry in June, stating that “[i]t is our view that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”

A report last November by the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board raised the possibility of an informal approach to U.S.-Russian reductions. The report said that Russia and the United States could seek additional reductions on the basis of a mutual understanding rather than a formal treaty.

Republican senators pressed Obama’s top arms control nominee to rule out unilateral nuclear reductions. The Foreign Relations Committee later sent her nomination to the full Senate.

N. Korea Lays Out Conditions for Talks

Kelsey Davenport

North Korea indicated last month that it may be willing to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests if abandoned talks with a group of five countries over Pyongyang’s nuclear activities resume.

In an official commentary released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Oct. 9, Pyongyang suggested that it would make this commitment after the talks restart, “not as a precondition” to resume negotiations. Satellite launches would also be exempt, KCNA reported.

The so-called six-party talks, which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, began in 2003 and continued intermittently until 2008, when North Korea said it would no longer participate.

A South Korean official said in an Oct. 28 interview that North Korea made a similar offer at an informal meeting with former U.S. officials in Berlin in September, according to his briefing on the meeting. The South Korean government was not represented at the meeting, nor were any current U.S. officials present, he said. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho represented Pyongyang.

The official, however, expressed doubt about the sincerity of North Korea’s offer, saying that North Korea “often reneges” on verbal and written agreements.

In February 2012, North Korea and the United States reached a deal, known as the “Leap Day Agreement,” in which Pyongyang agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for food aid from Washington. The agreement broke down after Pyongyang attempted to launch a satellite in April of that year. The United States said that satellite launches were part of the moratorium on missile launches, but North Korea disagreed, and the agreement collapsed. (See ACT, May 2012.)

At a Sept. 26 press briefing, Cho Tai-young, deputy minister for public relations in the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said that it is “difficult to say” if the informal meeting, which brought together government officials from North Korea with former U.S. officials, “will immediately lead to the resumption” of the six-party talks, but that South Korea considers it an “occasion to exchange various opinions.”

When asked about the meeting and North Korea’s offer there, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said during an Oct. 10 briefing that “the onus” is on North Korea to “take meaningful steps” to live up to its commitments to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing programs.”

Harf said she would not “outline specifically what that might look like.”

North Korea committed to denuclearization in a 2005 joint statement with the other members of the six-party talks.

Reactor Restart Confirmed

The South Korean official also said that his country’s National Intelligence Service reported to the National Assembly on Oct. 8 that North Korea had restarted a reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear site.

Satellite imagery led independent U.S. analysts to conclude that North Korea was restarting the reactor in September, but neither Washington nor Seoul confirmed the initial reports. (See ACT, October 2013.)

The reactor produces plutonium, which, when separated, can be used for nuclear weapons. Experts estimate that it would be about 18 months before the first new plutonium produced by the reactor would be separated and available for weapons.

In April, North Korea announced its intention to restart the reactor. It had been shut down and disabled in 2007 as a part of Pyongyang’s negotiations over its nuclear weapons program with the other participants in the six-party talks. Prior to the shutdown, the reactor produced enough nuclear material for six to 12 warheads.

During an Oct. 9 press briefing, Harf declined to comment on reports of the reactor restarting, but reiterated that if Pyongyang has restarted the reactor, it would be in violation of UN Security Council resolutions that require North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

Test Site Activity

Meanwhile, satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site indicates that Pyongyang is excavating new tunnels that could be used for future nuclear tests, according to an Oct. 23 analysis published by 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

38 North’s Nick Hansen, a former military imagery analyst, reported two new tunnel entrances at the site. The activities indicate that North Korea is preparing to conduct further nuclear tests, but there are “no signs” that Pyongyang plans to do so “in the immediate future,” he wrote. North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013.

An official commentary hinted that Pyongyang might suspend nuclear testing after six-party talks resume, but a South Korean official expressed skepticism.

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