Focus on Nonproliferation—Not Disarmament—in North Korea

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U.S. diplomatic efforts are better expended on disincentivizing North Korea from selling nuclear materials and know-how than pointless denuclearization efforts.
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The physical reverberations from North Korea’s third nuclear test took just minutes to die down. But the political, psychological, and strategic consequences will be felt for years to come. The North Korean government has claimed that this test—which appears to have produced a higher yield than the first two—was of a “smaller and light” weapon. The implied threat is that North Korea can now mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

The test’s psychological aftershocks will, therefore, be felt strongly in Japan and South Korea, which are within range of North Korea’s existing missiles. But they will also be felt keenly in America, given that Pyongyang demonstrated real progress toward developing a ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States with its recent satellite launch.

Inevitably, Seoul and Tokyo will pressure Washington to refocus its energies on denuclearizing North Korea. This goal is obviously attractive to Americans too. Unfortunately, it is simply not attainable—at least not until the North Korean regime collapses, as it eventually must. While periodically bribing Pyongyang to suspend missile and nuclear tests may slow the program, the North Korean regime appears to have concluded that nuclear weapons are simply too vital to its own survival to trade them away.

The United States should not formally renounce the policy of denuclearization or publicly “accept” North Korea as a legitimate nuclear-armed state. However, it does need to refocus its efforts on more attainable goals: deterrence and nonproliferation. Plans by the United States and its allies to deter North Korea are relatively advanced. By contrast, while the challenge of stemming proliferation from North Korea has not been entirely ignored, it has not attracted anything like the attention or energy it merits.

North Korea has an appalling proliferation track record, including numerous ballistic missile sales. On the nuclear front, Pyongyang has sold unenriched uranium to Pakistan (who resold it to Libya) and, much more seriously, provided Syria with a plutonium-production reactor that was destroyed by Israel in 2007.

For so long as North Korea’s nuclear efforts appeared to center on plutonium, there was some room for optimism. With enough material for only a handful of bombs and a dilapidated production infrastructure that seemed incapable of churning out any more, Pyongyang appeared unlikely to sell any of its precious plutonium stockpile.

In November 2010, however, North Korea showed the inside of a uranium enrichment facility to a group of visiting American experts. Siegfried Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory who was part of the delegation, described his first look as “stunning.” While there had been prior speculation, some of it fueled by Pyongyang’s own statements, that North Korea had some kind of an enrichment program, Hecker’s visit suggested that these efforts were much more advanced than almost anyone had feared.

The exact status of North Korea’s enrichment efforts remains murky. Indeed, we do not know yet whether the recent nuclear test even used highly enriched uranium. There should, however, be genuine concern that—now or in the future—North Korea will sell enrichment technology or, worse still, enriched uranium itself. Certainly, there’s a potential market out there, including Iran (which is currently operating less advanced centrifuges than those that appear to be at work in North Korea).

There is no single answer to this problem. Intelligence sharing and the interdiction of suspect cargoes is the most obvious response. Indeed, it is already going on, including as part of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative and under a separate United Nations Security Council mandate. While this approach is welcome, it is far from foolproof. Additional measures are needed.

First, the United States should start urgent consultations with China about how to respond to North Korean proliferation. Because preventing proliferation from North Korea is a clear mutual interest for Washington and Beijing, these consultations might well be more productive than those over the goal of denuclearization have been.

Second, the United States—with China if possible, or alone if necessary—should engage Pyongyang in a behind-the-scenes dialogue to set out proliferation redlines. If at all possible, such meetings should be ongoing and insulated from any stop-start process put in place to try to curb the pace of North Korea’s nuclear development. In these meetings, listening to Pyongyang’s views about nuclear weapons will be every bit as useful—particularly for future crisis management—as talking.

Third and finally, the United States should publicly declare that it will hold responsible not only any state that uses a nuclear weapon but also any foreign supplier of nuclear material or manufacturing technology. This policy would not need to mention North Korea by name or spell out the consequences. But it would help reinforce private messages to Pyongyang that there will be dire consequences should it proliferate.

There is no guarantee that these steps will be enough. But there’s also no better use of the United States’ diplomatic energies right now.

End of document

About the Nuclear Policy Program

The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.


Comments (7)

  • Gunnar Westberg
    From where did DPRK get the centrifuges? It is quite unlikely they could build them without outside help. The source of the technology is probably known to US intelligence agencies. The transfer represents a failure of the sanctions. To stop this should have high priority.
    It is important to know if this was a uranium bomb. Unfortunately, there will probably not be any release of radionuclides so we will not know. In that case the DPRK gov't might claim this was a uranium bomb, but we will not know.
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    • James Acton replies...
      North Korea almost certainly received help with centrifuge technology from Pakistan and may still be importing some components and materials. See for more details.
  • Nir
    Excellent article, two comments:

    1. Regarding the possibility of North Korea's uranium hexafluoride (UF6) transfer to Libya, as far as I remember it was not a clear-cut case. The main evidence were containers found in Libya which were used for transferring UF6 and were Pakistani-origin. These containers had a mark of nuclear materials connected to the nuclear complex in Yongbyon. However, it is also possible that these containers were also used in the Past for delivering nuclear materials from Pakistan to North Korea, and there was no actual nuclear connection between North Korea and Libya.

    2. As emphasized in this article, If the US aspires seriously to prevent nuclear exports from North Korea, the key player is indeed China: with Beijing's cooperation it is quite simple to handle the threat of proliferation. All it is needed is a clear Chinese policy that every air and maritime shipment from North Korea passing via China's territory and ports will be scrutinized. This policy must also includes any air shipment from North Korea which uses China's airspace, so for example direct flights containing nuclear materials from Pyongyang to Tehran will not be possible. In the past, there were several incidence that China indeed checked or prevented shipments from North Korea with the encouragement of the US. All it is needed is an overall policy.

    As most of North Korea's outside connection with the world are through China's territory, the above policy will dramatically limit the possibility of nuclear exports from North Korea. China can relay on relevant UNSC resolutions to support this harsh policy and can easily be internationally embarrassed for refusing to contain this serious threat in light of China's aspiration to be considered as a responsible global power.   
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    • James Acton replies...
      Fair point. It would be better to say that North Korea probably sold UF6 to Libya (via Pakistan).
    The situation is paradoxical one. Both US and China are interested in non-proliferation. But China is unlikely welcome US intervention white a view to liquidate the PDRK nuclear potential as Beijing consider Korean Peninsula as its influence zone. The question is if Beijing would be ready to denuclearize PDRK by oneself.
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  • Thomas W. Makin, Former Envoy, Nixon Admin. 1972
    My approach to this is contrarian. I wish to accept North Korea as a Nation that desires peace, but yet has a potentially large Uranium products industry that needs an international marketing system with safety controls. It has been my belief for a long time that the North could emerge in the industry in an acceptable way by emerging as an electrical power provider for Asia. An example would be the construction of two nuclear power plants, one near the Chinese border, and the other near the South Korean border. China and South Korea could both purchase 50% of the output of each plant, while North Korea could retain the other 50% for its own use. Being benefactors of the plants output, China and South Korea could monitor the plants for safety concerns. It is my belief that in this circumstance, a legal immunity regarding United Nations sanctions would have to be arranged in regard to the two installations. Interferance with plant operations caused by sanctions cannot be allowed. The advantage of economic performance would help in non-proliferation of nuclear matters in North Korea as you would like to see.
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  • Thomas W. Makin, Former Envoy, Nixon Admin. 1972
    Jim, I have been considering the structure of a UNA 3 rocket lately, and I am developing the most unbelievable theory. This device is a 3 stage rocket, propelled by a very hot fuel. The fire retardant system turns on above the fuel chamber on the first stage almost immediately as the fuel is started to be utilized. Because of gases being built up during liftoff, the rocket must fly upwards at least 85 degrees in order for the fire retardant to be smoothly distributed on the back of the fuel plunger at all times. If this solution is not smoothly distributed while the rocket is flying at this required steep angle as necessary, the flight risks ignition of the gases and will cause the rocket to explode. Due to the required 85 degree liftoff angle because of the fire control problem, the effective mileage distance ability of the UNA 3 is obviously compromised. One of these cannot get here.
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