US and North Korea Should Both Ban Nuclear Tests

International Day Against Nuclear Tests 2014 (CTBTO via Flickr)International Day Against Nuclear Tests 2014 (CTBTO via Flickr)

by Robert Kelley

The United States and North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) will now seriously begin to flesh out bilateral talks over “denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.” This is a largely undefined goal but clearly is aimed at slowing, rather then ending the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. The DPRK is being asked to give up nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, nuclear materials for weapons, and the facilities to produce them.

To achieve transparent denuclearization, existing international agreements can serve as a guideline and a vehicle to build confidence and achieve ends through verifiable inspections. The DPRK should be urged to conclude new Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. These will need to be modernized versions of agreements in place today, notably with India where the state is tacitly acknowledged to have nuclear weapons. The safeguards agreements cover the means of production of civil materials and could be used as a guide for appropriate agreements with the DPRK that could immediately halt production of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. That would be followed by verified dismantlement of actual weapons and re-entry to the NPT as a non-weapons state.

But the greatest good can come from insisting that the DPRK immediately sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The DPRK has just gone through a very public show of “disabling” its existing nuclear test site and stated it has no need for further testing. Ratification of the CTBT should not be difficult for the DPRK.

The US has very little to give up on its side of the pledge to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Insisting that the DPRK formally renounce testing draws attention to the fact that the US signed the CTBT in 1996 but has never ratified it with the required two-thirds vote in the Senate. The Senate has always had enough Republicans to block ratification of the CTBT. This could easily change under President Trump if he chooses to exert his power over the Republican Party and make ratification a key component of his effort to get the DPRK to do the same. For his part, Kim can profit by signing immediately and pledging to ratify when the US does the same.

The US has little or no need to ever test a nuclear device again. After 1,000 US tests in the atmosphere and underground, surely every imaginable device has been designed and tested since 1945. The US has a new emphasis on developing small weapons for highly specific targets. This goal can be achieved without nuclear testing. Trump has indicated that he reserves the right to conduct a non-scientific nuclear explosion only as a political gesture. Surely this political goal is less important than reaching a quid pro quo with the DPRK and far less significant than suspending military exercises with the ROK.

US ratification of the treaty would suddenly brighten the prospects for a treaty that is generally seen to be dead on arrival. The US holdout has always doomed the treaty. The unusual language of the treaty means that two classes of country are needed for ratification before it can go into effect.

The first group is the US, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and China who all have signed but not ratified. If the US opts in it can insist that Israel follow suit as a trade-off for the move of the US. embassy to Jerusalem. This could create bargaining room with Egypt and China. Iran needs a face-saving gesture in the aftermath of the U.S. rejection of the nuclear deal. Promising not to test weapons they are not developing would be an easy concession.

The second group of countries includes North Korea, Pakistan, and India, none of which has signed or ratified the CTBT. With the DPRK out of the way, negotiations with India and Pakistan could take on a new life. The US has many areas of leverage over both countries and there are deals to be made. Suddenly the CTBT looks like it has a small chance of being adopted. This would be a surprising and welcome outcome of the US-DPRK bilateral talks.

The US will have many thorny issues to work out with the DPRK. The former will surely insist on an Additional Protocol, maybe similar to the one that the US Congress accepted with India. Given US concerns about viable safeguards and dismantlement in the Iran agreement just vacated, Washington will have to search for an even tougher pact with the DPRK. But the ratification of the CTBT could be a relatively easy early compromise for both sides and might lead to a surprising number of good outcomes.

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Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a licensed professional nuclear and mechanical engineer in California. He spent his career in nuclear weapons development activities such as plutonium metallurgy, survivability of U.S. nuclear warheads in ABM intercepts and isotope separation by gas centrifuge and lasers. He later used these hands-on skills to lead intelligence analysis of foreign nuclear weapons systems for the U.S. government and then as a director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly in weapons related non-proliferation analysis in Iraq, South Africa and Libya. Along the way, he has been a research reactor supervisor, a plutonium facility manager and director of the DOE Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis Air Force Base. He currently writes on non-proliferation for a number of publications and is an associate research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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  1. The USA is the one nation that needs to keep to the rules of the NPT and in good faith gradually reduce, NOT “improve” the nukes it has. Demanding of others what the USA, a real danger to the world, refuses to consider is a non-starter.

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