Government and governance, International relations, Law, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

26 January 2016

Could North Korea be convinced to give up its nuclear weapons capability? Yes, writes Joe Cirincione, and here’s how.

No country in history has ever been coerced into giving up nuclear weapons or weapons programs. But many countries have been convinced to do so.

In fact, more countries have given up nuclear capabilities in the past 30 years than have tried to acquire them. None of these were easy cases. They include Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, Libya and Iraq, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil. And most recently, Iran, who voluntarily surrendered their nascent nuclear weapons capability and allowed inspectors access to what little remains of the country’s once threatening complex.

Can we add North Korea to the list? It will not be easy; it may be the toughest case so far. But there is a way.

We will need a comprehensive plan. Nuclear crises manifest regionally but nuclear weapons are a global problem requiring a global solution. Nuclear whack-a-mole is a loser’s game. Any solution must tie the particular problem to universal norms and standards. In the case of North Korea, this means pursuing three main avenues to strengthen the barriers to getting nuclear weapons, increasing the penalties for violating global norms and increasing the incentives for giving up weapons and capabilities.

Build up the barriers

There are several steps that can make it more difficult for North Korea or any nation to test nuclear weapons – and that do not require North Korean cooperation.

The members of the United Nations should move to make the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), now a preparatory body awaiting entry into force of the treaty, a permanent organisation. This would provide secure funding and organisation to the global network of seismic, acoustic, and atmospheric sensors the CTBTO now maintains. Nations rely on this network to detect nuclear tests anywhere is the world. It is a prized global resource. It is time to make it permanent.

The UN Security Council could also pass a resolution declaring any new nuclear test a threat to international peace and security. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the test “a grave contravention of the international norm against nuclear testing,” and “profoundly destabilizing for regional security.” It is a short step to putting that finding into a Security Council resolution that would give the Council new tools to punish violators, including North Korea.

More on this: 'North Korea’s nuclear program is a threat to the world and must be treated as such'| John Carlson

Finally, the US Senate, many of whose members have denounced the latest and fourth North Korean test, should finally approve the test ban treaty that the United States signed in 1996. The US is one of the few states remaining whose approval is required to have the treaty enter into force. Once the Senate approves it, the US can urge other key states, including China, Iran, Israel, India and Pakistan to approve. This will substantially increase the pressures against new tests by any nation, solidify the global norm and isolate North Korea further.

Increase sanctions

Violators should be punished. North Korea has violated numerous UN resolutions with its nuclear and missile tests and should not escape with a slap on the wrist. There are targeted sanctions that can squeeze the income of the country’s corrupt leaders without harming the already suffering North Korean population.

The sanctions applied on the Banco Delta Asia by the United States in 2007 are an excellent example. They froze a small amount, some $25 million by some estimates, but these were funds used by North Korea’s top leaders for their personal pleasures. The timing was disastrous, coming just as the US State Department got North Korea to agree to shut down major parts of their nuclear program, effectively killing the deal, but the fury of the leaders at the action demonstrated the effectiveness of the tactic. Similar actions, better timed, could yield better results.

China will be key to any sanctions effort. Unlike Iran, where global sanctions crippled an economy intimately connected to world markets, North Korea is isolated in the world, save for China. China’s willingness to use more and stronger sticks is a critical component to any strategy. Though China is furious at North Korea’s nuclear antics (which stimulate greater South Korean, Japanese and US military reactions), it fears that too much pressure on the regime would cause its collapse and trigger chaos on the Korean peninsula. The trick will be finding the right balance.

Increase incentives

Sanctions have never compelled compliance. “Crippling sanctions” are a myth. At best, they are a tool to steer reluctant nations towards a negotiated solution. The stick is only useful if a door is opened, if there is a face-saving way out for the country’s leadership. “Eventual engagement is imperative,” my colleague, Philip Yun, recently wrote. There should not be a rush to new negotiations, but the path must be open for a new dialogue.

That means that the United States, its allies and North Korea must drop preconditions to such talks. The US and South Korea insist that new talks can only begin if they are focused on North Korea giving up its nuclear program. North Korea insists that talks can only begin if it starts with a peace treaty, and then and only then discusses the nuclear program. The result is gridlock.

Sig Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos Laboratories who has visited North Korea numerous times, has outlined the goal of new negotiations as containing the nuclear program with “The Three Nos.”  He means no new weapons, no better weapons, no transfer of nuclear technology. Do that, and you contain threat.

Hecker, Yun and others believe that this may be as much as we can hope for, a status quo of a nuclear but contained North Korea. But this process may open another door, one that leads to a more permanent solution: a roll-back of the program and a normalization of relations.

What is clear is that the Obama Administration strategy of “strategic patience” has failed to contain North Korea’s program. It is also clear that the Bush Administration policy of killing negotiations in favor of regime change failed to stop the program. North Korea went nuclear in 2006 under Bush and expanded under seven years of Obama.

It is time to try a new approach. Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” His words are enshrined on the walls of the United Nations. Our diplomats who walk by that quote every day may want to take that advice to heart.


Joe Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund. He serves on the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisor Board but the opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the views of the Secretary, the Department of State or the United States government.

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Cirincione, J. (2016). How to stop North Korea’s bomb - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: