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"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."
– Lord Des Browne,
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Alicia Sanders-Zakre

North Korea Stays in Focus Amid Talk About Next Summits

This Op-ed originally appeared in InDepthNews , April 19, 2019. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have both said they are willing to meet for a third summit but are looking for certain conditions to be met ahead of any meeting. Kim said the United States must be more flexible and Trump is looking for North Korea to demonstrate its willingness to give up nuclear weapons. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an April 17 interview with Bloomberg that Washington is looking for a “real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision...

U.S. and North Korea Say Changes Must Precede Third Summit | North Korea Denuclearization Digest, April 19, 2019

U.S. and North Korea Say Changes Must Precede Third Summit North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have both said they are willing to meet for a third summit but are looking for certain conditions to be met ahead of any meeting. Kim said the United States must be more flexible and Trump is looking for North Korea to demonstrate its willingness to give up nuclear weapons. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an April 17 interview with Bloomberg that Washington is looking for a “real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to...

IAEA Reportedly Inspects Iranian Warehouse | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, April 5, 2019

IAEA Reportedly Inspects Iranian Warehouse The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently inspected a warehouse that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the agency to visit in September, three diplomats told Reuters in an April 4 piece . Netanyahu called on the IAEA to “immediately” inspect a warehouse in Tehran that he described as “storing massive amounts of equipment and material from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program,” including an unspecified radioactive material, in his September speech to the UN General Assembly. One diplomat told Reuters that inspectors visited...

Responses to Violations of the Norm Against Chemical Weapons

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A number of international bodies have been engaged in investigating alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, although attribution and accountability gaps remain to be filled.

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Volume 11, Issue 6, April 3, 2019

The use of chemical weapons throughout the eight-year conflict in Syria has challenged the international norm against the well-established chemical weapons ban and horrified the international community. Despite multiple UN reports confirming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for sarin nerve agent and chlorine gas attacks, Assad has continued to use these terrifying weapons against his own people.

The international community has constructed a number of investigative bodies to uncover the facts of these atrocious crimes, but attribution and accountability gaps remain. In order to hold Assad accountable for his violation of international law in the future, investigations into responsibility for chemical weapons use must restart as soon as possible.

Syrians reportedly suffering from breathing difficulties following Syrian regime’s Feb. 4 air strikes on the northwestern town of Saraqeb rest around a stove at a field hospital. (Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

Over the course of the horrific eight years of Syrian civil war, the government of Bashar al-Assad, his Russian allies, and extremist fighters have committed numerous war crimes. At least 500,000 people have died, and more than 10 million have been displaced.

Among the most heinous aspects of the war has been the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime beginning in late 2012, including the massive August 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The Ghouta attack led the United States in August and September 2013 to threaten the use of force to try to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

This threat prompted Moscow to work with Washington to develop and compel Assad to accept an ambitious agreement mandating the verified removal and elimination of Syria’s arsenal of 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents, storage and production facilities and associated equipment under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

The UN Security Council unanimously approved the OPCW timeline for destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal through Resolution 2118 and allowed for measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if Syria does not comply or otherwise violates the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The complex, multinational disposal operation was a major milestone that effectively eliminated the threat of further large-scale chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime against the Syrian people and neighboring states.

Ongoing Chemical Weapons Attacks

Despite the success of that operation, smaller-scale but still deadly and terrifying chemical attacks by Assad have continued. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) found the Syrian government responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks, including in April 2014, March 2015, March 2016, and April 2017.

The JIM also confirmed that Assad has continued to drop barrel bombs filled with chlorine from Russian-supplied military helicopters on civilian areas, even identifying which helicopter flights,  air bases, and Syrian Army Air Squadrons (the 253rd and 255th) were involved. It also determined that the Islamic State was responsible for chemical weapons attacks involving mustard agents in August 2015 and September 2016.

Reports of chemical weapons use in Syria continue to surface.

Although less destructive and deadly than sarin nerve agent, Assad’s industrial chlorine barrel bomb attacks violate the CWC and are war crimes. These are the first-ever documented cases that a CWC member state has used chemical weapons. 

This serious matter concerns all states and requires a strong and unified international response from the UN Security Council and the 193 states-parties of the OPCW.

Unfortunately, Russia has tried to shield the Syrian regime from tougher UN sanctions and accountability. In late 2017, after the sarin attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun launched by Syrian aircraft, Russia used its Security Council veto to block the UN from maintaining the JIM. 

Efforts to Investigate Chemical Weapons Violations in Syria

A number of international bodies have been engaged in investigating alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, although attribution and accountability gaps remain to be filled.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was created in 2011 by the Human Rights Council to investigate violations of international human rights law in Syria.

The commission of inquiry’s 16th report, released in September 2018, identified four instances of chemical weapons use in Syria between January and July 2018. The commission has documented 38 chemical attacks in total, mostly perpetrated by the Syrian government.

The International Impartial Independent Mechanism on the Syrian Arab Republic (IIIM), was established in 2011 by the UN General Assembly and it works in close cooperation with the UN Independent Commission.

The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission was established in 2014 to determine if chemical weapons were used in reported attacks, and if so, to report on what type of chemical weapon was used and on other relevant details of the attack.

As of June 2018, the FFM has investigated over 80 alleged attacks and confirmed chemical weapon use in 16 of those cases. The Fact-Finding Mission does not have the authority to investigate which party is responsible for using chemical weapons, however.

The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was established by UN Security Council Resolution 2235 in 2015 to determine which party is responsible for chemical weapons attacks. The JIM had the mandate to investigate the responsible actor in instances of chemical weapons use in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. In its two years of operation, the JIM issued seven reports and found the Syrian government responsible for four chemical weapons attacks and the Islamic State guilty of two.

The JIM’s mandate had to be renewed by the UN Security Council every year to continue operating, but Russia used its Security Council veto power to block the renewal of the mandate of the JIM in late 2017.

Investigation and Identification Team: In June 2018, a special session of CWC states-parties voted to establish another mechanism to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias announced in March 2019 that Ambassador Santiago Oñate would head the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) and that it was being finalized.

With that veto, the mechanism’s mandate expired and it ceased to exist. Russia claimed to be upset about the “unprofessional” manner in which inspections were conducted, but in reality, it was dissatisfied with the body’s conclusions that its ally, Syria, was guilty of violating international law.

Toward a Stronger International Response

An inadequate international response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime will only increase the risk that some of the world’s most dangerous, indiscriminate, and inhumane weapons will be used to commit atrocities in the future, erode the integrity of the CWC, and undermine the authority of the Security Council.

Other states have tried to overcome the obstacles to identifying those responsible so they can be held accountable. They also continue to press Syrian government officials to fill the gaps in their 2013 official declaration to the OPCW in order to ensure that Syria fully eliminates its chemical warfare capacity, including any further production of barrel bombs. 

In January 2018, the French government established the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, an association of 38 countries and international organizations. Its purpose is to supplement the international mechanisms to combat the use of chemical weapons. This intergovernmental initiative is a forum for cooperation on the issue of impunity for the perpetrators of chemical attacks worldwide. Participating states have committed to:

  • gather information on chemical weapons users;
  • facilitate information sharing on instances of chemical weapons use to later hold perpetrators accountable;
  • identify and document the individuals and entities involved in chemical weapons use
  • support multilateral action to sanction those identified as being involved in chemical weapons use;
  • publish online the names of all individuals, entities, groups or governments that have been sanctioned for involvement in chemical weapons use; and
  • help states in need of assistance to help collect information or implement national legislation to prosecute the perpetrators of chemical attacks.

What’s Next

In June 2018, after additional attempts by UN Security Council members to establish another mechanism to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks failed, a special session of CWC states-parties voted to give the OPCW the mandate to assign blame for such violations of the Convention.

The new Investigation and Identification Team that is now being put together by the OPCW secretariat should promptly work to identify those responsible for violating international norms by the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Preventing the erosion of the global taboo against chemical weapons usenot to mention the  use of weapons of mass destruction more broadlyis a core U.S. and international security interest. The international community must act decisively and with unanimity to preserve these norms and to better protect civilians caught up in the conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the years ahead. —ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant, and DARYL KIMBALL, executive director.

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Deep Divisions Challenge NPT Meeting

Persistent tension between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states threatens to undermine the last preparatory meeting before the 2020 NPT Review Conference.


April 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Long-standing disputes about nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament show no signs of easing as nations meet in April for the final preparatory meeting before the 2020 review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, oversees the U.S. initiative “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” (Photo: Paul Morigi/Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)The 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee will meet from April 29 to May 10 in New York. Although Shahrul Ikram, permanent representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, was originally slated to chair the meeting, he has been replaced by Syed Mohamad Hasrin Aidid, the Malaysian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Despite recent efforts to make progress on the treaty’s core contentious issues, including nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, deep divisions remain and have worsened in some ways.

Topping the list of issues dividing NPT parties is the pace of disarmament by nuclear-armed nations. Since 2018, the United States has sought to advance a controversial disarmament initiative, U.S.-Russian relations have further deteriorated, and nuclear-weapon states remain frustrated by the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

At the 2018 session of the preparatory committee, the United States outlined its new approach to nuclear disarmament in a working paper titled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament.” (See ACT, June 2018.) The approach was renamed “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND), Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told a conference in Washington in March, after some states raised concerns about the word “conditions.”

The U.S. initiative calls for convening working groups with representatives from 25 to 30 regionally and politically diverse states, according to Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, who described the plan in December 2018 remarks. Ford said implementation planning for the working groups would begin by the 2019 session of the preparatory committee and the groups would be “in full swing” by the 2020 NPT Review Conference.

The United States insists the approach is a good-faith effort to advance disarmament under challenging security conditions, but several states are skeptical.

“International security will not be advanced, nor the treaty preserved, by nuclear-weapon states creating doubt about their intention ever to fulfill their disarmament obligations,” New Zealand representative Dell Higgie told the preparatory committee on April 23, 2018.

Many states have expressed interest in taking part in the initiative, a State Department official told Arms Control Today March 21. The Netherlands announced in January that it would host an expert conference in Geneva on April 15 to “stimulate the dialogue initiated by the U.S. NPT working paper.”

Meanwhile, U.S.-Russian relations have continued to worsen since the 2018 session of the preparatory committee, particularly highlighted by the U.S. announcement that it intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August. Poor U.S.-Russian relations caused turmoil at the 2018 meeting, as Russia criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear activities, and the United States accused Russia of using chemical weapons and violating the INF Treaty. Still, the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) held a successful meeting in Beijing in late January, Thompson said.

The 2019 preparatory committee session will be the second NPT meeting since the July 2017 adoption of the nuclear prohibition treaty. Seventy nations have signed the treaty, and 22 have ratified it, nearly half of the 50 ratifications needed for the pact to enter into force. At the 2018 preparatory committee meeting, France and Russia devoted paragraphs of their statements to condemnation of the treaty, while dozens of states welcomed its adoption. Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament, claimed that states supporting the prohibition treaty tried to “undermine the NPT.” To clarify, the State Department official told Arms Control Today that “we do not intend to make opposition on the TPNW the centerpiece of our approach to disarmament” at NPT meetings and that the United States will focus instead on promoting CEND.

Another long-standing point of contention among NPT parties is the pursuit of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

At the 2019 preparatory committee meeting, this debate will be affected by a new U.S. approach and a UN conference later this year. The United States introduced a divisive working paper at the 2018 NPT meeting that encouraged promoting conditions conducive to a zone and stated that the “NPT review cycle cannot be the primary mechanism for progress” on the zone.

The Non-Aligned Movement, the African Group, and the Arab League pushed back in statements at the 2018 meeting, contending that the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995 in part due to a pledge to establish the zone. The State Department official said that “some Arab states sought to misrepresent the paper as an effort to impose additional preconditions,” arguing that the U.S. approach “remains the most viable and productive way ahead.”

In November, the UN secretary-general will convene a conference in New York to make progress on creation of the zone, Rafael Grossi, Argentine permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the likely chair of the 2020 review conference, told a Washington meeting in March. The UN General Assembly First Committee approved the UN conference in an October 2018 resolution, although the United States, Israel, and Micronesia voted against it and 71 others abstained. (See ACT, December 2018.)

A rare point of agreement among NPT states surrounds the issue of the right to peaceful nuclear energy for all NPT states. At the Washington meeting, Grossi emphasized the positive contribution of the right to nuclear energy and suggested convening regional working groups and involving stakeholders from the nuclear industry and regulators leading up to the 2020 review conference.

Some experts, however, have expressed concern that some NPT states could object to a focus on nuclear energy as a diversion from making progress on disarmament or the WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack

 

International investigators confirmed in March that a chemical weapon was used in an April 2018 attack in Douma, Syria. The Fact-Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was not asked to identify the responsible party for the April 7, 2018, attack that reportedly killed dozens and injured many more.

A laboratory technician examines a test vial at an OPCW laboratory near the Hague in 2017.  The agency has determined that an April 2018 attack in Syria used chlorine-based weapons.  (Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)Investigators from the OPCW, the implementing agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention, were unable to visit the attack site until about two weeks after the incident. Their report notes there was evidence of tampering at the site, but they were able to conclude that the “toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”

Although the mission was not empowered to identify the party responsible for the chemical attacks, the report notes several details at the scene that independent analysts have argued would be consistent with aircraft use. The Syrian regime has access to aircraft, but no nonstate actors in Syria do. The OPCW has created a new investigative body, the Investigation and Identification Team, to assess who conducted chemical weapons attacks in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. (See ACT, July/August 2018.) The head of the new team has been selected, and the team should be fully operational within weeks, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the OPCW Executive Council in mid-March.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

What Comes Next in U.S.-North Korean Negotiations?

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The failure of the Hanoi summit to produce tangible steps to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding is disappointing but it is not a disaster. The window of opportunity for negotiations, however, will not remain open indefinitely.

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Volume 11, Issue 5, March 20, 2019

The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly in Hanoi without any agreement on the next steps to advance the shared goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula. While both Trump and Kim described the meeting as valuable and appeared committed to continuing dialogue, the future of the diplomatic process is unclear. The summit ended without a plan for future talks and Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s vice minister for foreign affairs said March 15 that Pyongyang is considering halting the diplomatic process because Kim “may have lost the will” to continue negotiations.

Since the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last year, the negotiating process has not yielded concrete results that reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and put it on a path to full denuclearization. Nevertheless, diplomacy remains the best option for addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis. It is critical that the Trump administration does not squander the opportunity for engagement with Pyongyang.

But to meaningfully advance the goal of denuclearization and reduce the risk of conflict in the region, the two sides will need to establish a more effective and sustained negotiating process and recognize that an incremental, action-for-action approach provides the best pathway for progress.

What Happened in Hanoi?

Going into the Feb. 27-28 Hanoi summit, it was clear that gaps remained between the U.S. and North Korean positions on a deal involving reciprocal, concrete steps on denuclearization in exchange for actions addressing Pyongyang’s economic and security concerns. Even though the original U.S. schedule for Feb. 28 included a signing ceremony—suggesting that the Trump administration anticipated that reaching some type of agreement may have been possible— it is not clear if the ceremony referred to a limited deal trading denuclearization steps for U.S. actions or another set of issues. It also appears that the two sides were prepared to discuss a declaration ending the Korean War and the opening of joint liaison offices during the summit meeting.

While it is difficult to assess with any certainty what happened at Hanoi, it appears that both Trump and Kim may have attempted to expand the scope of the discussions, rather than focusing on bridging gaps between their negotiating teams on a more modest step toward the shared goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding.

Trump, in his news conference following the talks, attributed the failure to reach an agreement on North Korea’s demand that the United States lift sanctions “in their entirety” in return for partial steps toward denuclearization. Trump said he “had to walk away” because the United States “couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”

In a news conference following the summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Kim proposed dismantling fissile material production capabilities at Yongbyon under U.S. monitoring and formalizing North Korea’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing in exchange for relief from UN Security Council sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017 that “hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people.” But Trump insisted North Korea take “one more step” on denuclearization, which North Korea appeared unprepared to discuss at the summit and was not acceptable to Kim.

The extent of the sanctions relief that North Korea wanted from the United States was significant. It is unclear if Kim expected Trump to agree to his demands or if the proposal was just a starting point for further bargaining. Pyongyang’s proposal, however, is further evidence that North Korea is primarily focused on receiving sanctions relief early in the process and does indicate that there is space to pursue a limited deal trading steps at Yongbyon for economic relief.

While the Trump administration has not yet publicly provided a detailed description of its proposal, the United States appeared focused on reaching a more specific agreement with North Korea on the overarching goals of the negotiating process, including a shared definition of denuclearization, and then pursuing incremental steps that roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and that advance peacebuilding. A senior State Department official later told press Feb. 28 that Trump urged Kim to go “all in,” which may be referring to Kim’s reluctance to negotiate in further detail on a definition of denuclearization and the end goals.

The Trump administration has also conditioned sanctions relief on completion of the denuclearization process. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun reiterated again March 11 at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that “the lifting of sanctions will come with attaining” the goal of fully verified denuclearization.

North Korea has flatly rejected the Trump administration’s approach, which is unsurprising given the delay in sanctions relief. Most recently Choe said in her March 15 news conference that North Korea has “no intention to yield to U.S. demands” and said Pyongyang is not willing to “engage in negotiations of this kind.”

While no new measures were agreed to in Hanoi, Trump said Kim pledged to continue abiding by its April 2018 moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests and that the United States would continue to modify joint military exercises with South Korea.

Following Trump’s statement, the United States and South Korea formally announced March 3 that two annual exercises that North Korea views as provocative, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, would be terminated, but North Korea has raised the possibility of resuming long-range missile testing. In her March 15 news conference, Choe said North Korea may resume intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches unless the United States is willing to take reciprocal actions. Satellite imagery also shows that North Korea has reconstructed elements of the Sohae Satellite Launch facility that were dismantled last year. North Korea may be signaling that its patience with the negotiations is limited and that it expects more from the United States earlier in the process.

Bridging the Gaps

The Hanoi summit highlighted two significant gaps between the U.S. and North Korean approaches to the negotiating process.

First, the Trump administration appears to be seeking a more detailed understanding of the end-state of negotiations before agreeing on incremental steps to advance toward those goals. It is clear for instance that Trump and Kim have different understandings of “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” a goal agreed to at their first meeting in Singapore.

The definitional differences are well-documented, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in July 2018 that despite agreeing on “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” the two countries do not have a shared understanding of the term. The United States is focused on verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, nuclear-capable delivery systems, and the means of production. North Korea’s definition is much more expansive and includes the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from the region, the removal of U.S. troops trained on nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, and an end to nuclear threats.

Post-Hanoi, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton widened the gap further by saying March 3 that the United States considers dismantlement of North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs as elements of denuclearization. Trump has at times referenced that the negotiations would cover these programs but typically U.S. officials have limited “denuclearization” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its nuclear-capable delivery systems.

There is value to agreeing on the scope of the talks early in the process. An agreed-upon end-state allows both sides to develop roadmaps and incremental steps toward the goal. It also demonstrates that their interests will be addressed as part of the process. A shared understanding of the scope and envisioned outcome can also help maintain momentum.

There is, however, a risk—particularly if the United States has expanded the definition of denuclearization to include chemical and biological weapons—that the United States and North Korea could get bogged down in negotiating the details of the end-state and jeopardize the opportunity to reduce the risk of conflict in the region and the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As the negotiating teams pursue an agreement on an end-state, it would be in the interests of both sides to negotiate additional confidence-building measures that demonstrate good faith in the diplomatic process and maintain momentum.

A second gap relates to the timing of sanctions relief during the negotiating process. Ri made clear in his post-Hanoi news conference that North Korea is prioritizing receiving relief—particularly from UN sanctions targeting sectors of the economy—early in the process and in exchange for steps on denuclearization. This proposal is also consistent with Kim’s focus on economic improvement in his 2019 New Years Day address.

The United States, however, has consistently stated that sanctions relief will only come late in the process, once verifiable denuclearization is complete. U.S. officials, however, have said that the Trump administration is willing to take other steps in parallel with North Korean actions. Biegun said March 11 that there are “other areas that we can explore outside of the lifting of sanctions” to advance the Singapore summit goals.

It is unclear if the U.S. position on holding sanctions relief under the end of the process is absolute or if it is open to negotiating limited relief earlier in the process. While reserving relief from some of the more significant sanctions until verifiable denuclearization is complete could serve as an incentive for Pyongyang to see the process through, the Trump administration should consider allowing limited, reversible relief earlier in the process to address North Korea’s more pressing economic interests. This could be accomplished through waivers that would be reversible in the event that negotiations collapse. The Obama administration took a similar approach in negotiating with Iran: waiving select sanctions in return for certain nuclear restrictions as part of an interim deal while holding out relief from the more significant sanctions until a comprehensive agreement was negotiated and Iran implemented its nuclear commitments.

The Value of a Step-by-Step Approach

While there appears to be disagreement over whether to begin with a more detailed definition of the end-state of negotiations, both the United States and North Korea still appear to be willing to work in phases toward that goal. The North Koreans have stated their preference for a step-by-step approach and the Trump administration appears to endorse incremental, parallel actions by both sides (excluding sanctions relief) to work toward the more detailed, agreed-upon goals of the process.

Irrespective of whether it is described as an incremental or step-by-step approach, there is value in working in phases. Trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement risks the talks ending without any concrete actions that reduce nuclear risk and increase stability in the region. Additionally, drawn-out talks could ultimately play in North Korea’s favor, as it would reap the benefits of engaging in negotiations, while simultaneously expanding its nuclear weapons program.

The time factor also plays against negotiating a more comprehensive agreement. The U.S. presidential election in 2020 and the South Korean presidential election in 2022 provide a narrow window of opportunity to advance the diplomatic process. A step-by-step process stands a better chance for maintaining continuity and momentum between changing administrations, whereas if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal, talks may falter in the transition to a new administration.

A step-for-step approach with the end goals of complete, verifiable denuclearization and regional stability stands a greater chance of achieving concrete results that reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the threat of conflict. Unlike a comprehensive "big" deal, a step-by-step approach builds confidence in the process and, if structured correctly, demonstrates to Kim that the survival of North Korea is not dependent on a nuclear arsenal.

Heading into the Hanoi summit, it appeared that a deal trading verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon in exchange for U.S. actions—perhaps opening liaison offices and ending the Korean War—was under discussion at the working level. Post-Hanoi, it would be valuable for the U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams to pick up on these discussions and pursue such an agreement—perhaps with the addition of limited sanctions relief—to advance the goals of both sides.

For the United States, verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon would be a significant step in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program and decreasing its fissile material production. The Yongbyon nuclear complex includes a uranium enrichment plant and the 5MWe reactor and reprocessing facility, which North Korea used to produce plutonium. There are a number of other facilities on-site, including a small research reactor (the IRT-2000 Nuclear Research Reactor), an isotope production laboratory, and a new experimental 20-30 MWe light-water reactor, which is still under construction.

If an agreement were to be reached for North Korea to dismantle all of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, experts assess it would effectively end its weapons-grade plutonium production and significantly curb but likely not end its uranium enrichment, as Pyongyang has built other covert uranium enrichment sites.

Although North Korea offered only to allow U.S. inspectors into Yongbyon in its Hanoi proposal, the United States should press for the International Atomic Energy Agency to be involved in verifiably halting and dismantling nuclear facilities to increase transparency and legitimacy and to set a better precedent for any similar inspections in the future.

These initial steps would build confidence in the diplomatic process, serve as an important test of Kim’s intentions, and would help ensure that North Korea could not expand its arsenal while the longer-term negotiations and denuclearization steps continue.

In return for the verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon, the United States should offer a package that addresses North Korea’s economic and security concerns, scaled to match Pyongyang’s concessions. Even if North Korea puts dismantlement of the entirety of the Yongbyon complex on the table and is willing to allow international inspectors, lifting the bulk of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the Security Council in 2016 and 2017 is an unreasonable demand. Instead, the Trump administration could offer limited relief from select U.S. and UN measures. As part of that package, the United States could include waivers for inter-Korean projects that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has prioritized but are stalled due to U.S. sanctions. Allowing these projects to go forward would show support for South Korea and contribute to advancing the inter-Korean relationship. In addition, the United States could offer other inducements, such as an end-of-war declaration and pursuing liaison offices that would contribute to regional stability.

It will take time to negotiate the details of an agreement trading Yongbyon dismantlement in return for a limited sanctions relief deal. In the meantime, North Korea should reiterate that it remains committed to its voluntary moratorium on nuclear and missile testing to help retain confidence in the diplomatic process.

The Importance of an Effective Process

Reaching an agreement on the next steps and defining the goals of the Singapore summit will require establishing an effective process for negotiations going forward. As a first step, this must include transitioning talks from the head-of-state level to the working-level negotiating teams.

While beginning the negotiations at the head-of-state level may have been a necessary step to signal to North Korea that Washington was willing to transform its relationship with Pyongyang, the details of a deal to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula are too complex for Trump and Kim to resolve themselves.

Unfortunately, neither the Singapore summit nor the Hanoi summit established an effective process to engage in the detailed discussions necessary to agree on concrete steps to advance the Singapore summit goals. While working-level meetings did commence just ahead of the summit in Hanoi, ultimately there was not enough time for negotiators to bridge gaps in positions and reach agreement. U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams should commit to meet consistently and often to reach agreement on a step-for-step deal.

Moving forward, Trump should empower Biegun and his team to engage in regular, detailed discussions with the North Korean team and make clear that another head-of-state summit will not take place absent agreed-upon, concrete steps by North Korea that advance denuclearization alongside corresponding U.S. actions.

If the Trump administration chooses to pursue a step-by-step approach, the U.S. negotiating team must also develop a roadmap for a comprehensive process. Such a roadmap can help demonstrate to the North Koreans that the United States is embedding verifiable denuclearization as part of a broader process that transforms the U.S-North Korean relationship. It will also help ensure that the United States retains sufficient leverage to incentivize North Korea to continue taking steps toward denuclearization.

Working-level negotiations will also function better with consistent messaging by the administration so that negotiators are not undercut by conflicting statements from senior officials. Divergent descriptions of the U.S. negotiating positions not only complicate the work of U.S. negotiators but will also make it more difficult for North Koreans to trust that positions expressed at lower levels reflect Trump’s views.

Establishing an effective diplomatic process should also include robust administration outreach to Congress. As past negotiations with North Korea have shown, the support of Congress, or lack thereof, can play an influential role in the success or failure of diplomacy. If Congress is not briefed on the negotiations and on the administration’s strategy, it increases the likelihood that Congress may take steps that complicate talks or reduce Trump’s flexibility to negotiate.

Conclusion

The failure of the Hanoi summit to produce tangible steps to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding is disappointing but it is not a disaster. Both Trump and Kim characterized the meeting as useful and the two countries appear to remain committed to pursuing diplomacy.

The window of opportunity for negotiations, however, will not remain open indefinitely. The United States has a unique opportunity to reduce the risk posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and to verifiably roll it back. Doing so, however, will require Trump to pursue reciprocal, step-by-step actions toward denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy; and ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant

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