The Value of a Cooperative Approach to Denuclearization with North Korea

A Kh-22 missile during the Cooperative Threat Reduction program elimination activities in Ozernoye, Ukraine. (Photo: Defense Threat Reduction Agency.)

Talks between the United States and North Korea are stuck in a ditch, and it is clear something new is needed if Washington and Pyongyang are to make any substantive breakthrough. To date, US-DPRK negotiations have been focused on familiar debates over sanctions relief, security guarantees and the scope and sequencing of denuclearization steps. Each of these elements is central to any future deal and will have to be on the agenda, but it could be useful to introduce an additional incentive that could help invigorate diplomacy while also laying the foundation for concrete implementation.

A Cooperative Approach to Denuclearization

To enhance the prospects for the comprehensive, verifiable and enduring denuclearization of North Korea, the United States should incorporate into the negotiations an offer to Pyongyang of a Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. Such a program would facilitate the dismantlement of the DPRK’s nuclear and other WMD programs and incentivize North Korea to take those dismantlement steps in return for technical and economic assistance on denuclearization and WMD threat reduction and to help redirect human and technical resources to civilian economic development. This approach would build on best practices and lessons learned from the CTR program that was crucial in helping the former Soviet states eliminate, reduce and secure nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, facilities and means of delivery.[1]

A successful process leading to denuclearization is one that must be done with—not to—North Korea.[2] As detailed in the Nuclear Threat Initiative report Building Security Through Cooperation that I co-authored with Lynn Rusten, the CTR model implemented in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s could be adapted to the needs and realities of the North Korea situation. Initially proposed by former Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar in an April 2018 Washington Post op-ed, this approach would build on best practices and lessons learned from CTR implementation not only in the former Soviet Union but later expanded to other states, such as Iraq and Libya.

How CTR Could Incentivize North Korea

While the US government’s priority is clear in seeking to eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile and other WMD programs to the United States and its regional allies, Pyongyang’s goals are more complex. The DPRK pursued a nuclear weapons program to protect the regime’s very survival against outside enemies and to maintain its unique political system. This makes it very difficult for Kim Jong Un to give up his deterrent. The only way to encourage North Korea to denuclearize is to address key questions about the future of a post-nuclear DPRK, including a process leading to a peace treaty and the end of the Korean War, the lifting of economic sanctions, normalization of relations with the United States and the international community and the transformation of the North Korean economy.

A CTR program is not going to address all of these issues, but a cooperative process that facilitates both dismantlement of weapons-related facilities and programs along with their conversion to civilian activities would go a long way to demonstrating that North Korea can have a secure, prosperous future in a post-nuclear weapons scenario. For example, CTR can be offered to: 1) help North Korea carry out specific denuclearization obligations; and 2) facilitate converting elements of its militarized economy, facilities and personnel to contribute to its civilian economic goals.[3] It remains unclear whether the DPRK would be permitted to retain a civilian nuclear capacity under a new deal. But the likelihood of long-term, sustainable cooperation would be greater under an agreement that allowed the DPRK to retain a civilian nuclear program, which could be scaled and scoped in various ways depending on the outcome of negotiations.[4]

For example, it is one thing to ask North Korea to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility, leaving behind an unemployed nuclear workforce and an uncertain future for North Korean security. It is another thing for the United States and other nations to partner with the DPRK, both to provide the necessary resources, equipment and experience to dismantle proliferation-sensitive facilities, and then to engage in new cooperative efforts to convert Yongbyon into a location for purely civilian nuclear activities. As part of this conversion, the United States and others could work with North Korea to rebuild or replace its existing research reactor with a modern one, down blend weapons-usable nuclear material for reuse in civilian power reactors outside North Korea or engage in projects to conduct environmental remediation and address the legacy of nuclear waste. In addition, North Korea could refocus its mining activities away from uranium and toward extracting rare earth minerals—a highly sought-after commodity for the electronics industry—creating a revenue source for a denuclearized DPRK and maintaining or expanding employment for a critical workforce.[5]

Similarly, potential areas for CTR cooperation exist in dismantling elements of the DPRK’s missile inventory and production facilities, such as the demating of warheads and securely transporting them to storage and elimination facilities; removal, transport and neutralization of missiles and fuels; and elimination of missiles and launchers, production facilities, test sites and other infrastructure.[6] There could be multiple opportunities to redirect North Korea’s missile workforce after these steps are concluded, including potentially into the civilian space sector, though it may be preferable for North Korea to focus on satellite design and construction rather than on launching its own space launch vehicles.

Finally, without prejudice to the sequencing of when such matters might be addressed in negotiations, an offer of CTR assistance could play a role in reducing risks from other North Korean weapons of mass destruction by assisting with elimination of chemical weapons and encouraging steps toward full compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. In the context of eliminating chemical and biological weapons capabilities, the United States and other members of the international community could assist North Korea in building capacity for peaceful basic and applied research and development, as well as potentially on biosafety, biosecurity and overall health security.[7]

Multilateral Partnerships to Sustain Denuclearization and Contribute to Normalization

Bilateral discussions are important, as they allow for direct engagement between the primary players in achieving denuclearization and promoting peace on the peninsula. But they will not be enough to secure a lasting outcome that builds peace and prevents a return to North Korean nuclear activities. At some point, any future US-DPRK deal must be embedded in a broader multilateral diplomatic process that addresses the security, economic and political requirements of key regional states—especially China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.[8]

The involvement of multiple countries in a CTR effort would further contribute to these efforts, including by providing reassurance to the DPRK on the sustainability of implementing CTR projects; in the longer term, it would benefit the United States by sharing the economic and implementation burden among the most interested and capable partners. The role of regional states is vital because of their relationships with the DPRK and the expertise they can offer, but other states outside the region along with international organizations also could play a constructive role.[9] There are multiple states that have experience in the nuclear, missile, mining, industrial and energy areas directly applicable to a CTR effort aimed at ending military programs and redirecting facilities and personnel to civilian activities.

A major benefit of such a program for North Korea could be increased scientific and technical engagement in nonsensitive areas with US and other international scientists and experts—engagement that could help build trust and buy-in over the long run.[10] Scientific engagement offers a way to bolster a broader normalization process through greater exposure to the outside world, introducing North Korean scientists and engineers to international counterparts and promoting an exchange of information and personnel.

Planning and Preparing for Success

The CTR program in the former Soviet Union was not predestined to succeed—indeed, many in Congress were very skeptical of providing US taxpayer dollars to fund projects for our former Cold War adversary. Due to the pioneering work of Nunn and Lugar, CTR advocates garnered bipartisan support and overcame initial opposition, but not without building a strong case within Congress and the executive branch that a cooperative approach was essential to prevent the spread of loose nuclear material, destroy delivery systems and remove nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics.

Any CTR effort for North Korea will need a similarly broad base of support in the US government, including champions on Capitol Hill for funding and strong technical and implementation support from a wide array of executive branch agencies, including the Departments of State, Energy, Defense, Treasury, the intelligence community and the US national laboratories. The Trump administration should begin now to inventory and locate the human capacity it would need, including reaching out to the military and to former officials and experts with experience in previous CTR efforts to consider how their technical expertise might be tapped.[11]

It will also be necessary to examine what legislative and legal authorities need to be adjusted to allow for CTR activities in North Korea, as well as identify how to relieve sanctions currently imposed on Pyongyang that would prohibit scientific engagement. The administration should begin consulting Congress to plan for potential funding requirements and be prepared to explain the national security benefits of such a program to the American people. The president should also consider issuing a National Security Presidential Memorandum to spell out the areas of scientific and technical cooperation related to denuclearization in which the US government is prepared to engage with the DPRK.[12]

Washington should urge other countries to contribute to a CTR program. Key partners and allies should amplify a message to North Korea about the potential benefits of a CTR approach and confirm their willingness to contribute to CTR-style assistance.[13] This is particularly true for key states like China and Russia, with which the DPRK may have more trust, but the involvement of other regional states like South Korea and Japan would also be crucial, as well as international organizations and states outside the region.

The most immediate need is to incorporate the CTR concept into the next round of working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang. While some might argue it is too early to discuss this idea when fundamental questions remain about the scope of denuclearization and potential US corresponding measures on sanctions and peace, it is important to insert the potential offer of CTR assistance into the negotiations now to demonstrate sincerity and begin laying the groundwork for implementing whatever deal emerges from the talks.

  1. [1]

    Lynn Rusten and Richard Johnson with Steve Andreasen and Hayley Anne Severance, Building Security Through Cooperation: Report of the NTI Working Group on Cooperative Threat Reduction with North Korea (Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2019), 5,

  2. [2]

    Ibid, 28.

  3. [3]

    Ibid, 27.

  4. [4]

    Ibid, 41 and 6.

  5. [5]

    Ibid, 51.

  6. [6]

    Ibid, 6-7.

  7. [7]

    Ibid, 7.

  8. [8]

    Ibid, 5.

  9. [9]


  10. [10]

    Ibid, 6.

  11. [11]

    Ibid, 37.

  12. [12]

    Ibid, 7-8.

  13. [13]

    Ibid, 6.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea