Commentary

North Korean Rollback?

in Program

By Elizabeth Turpen – “If you want to avoid proliferation you want a country that is stable, is prosperous, and is engaged with the rest of the world. That involves, at its core, the scientists and engineers that were there and involved in … weapons programs. We must integrate them and provide them with a future with the West.” Former UN weapons inspector David Kay’s remarks about the West’s experience in the former Soviet Union pertain equally to today’s disarmament efforts, including North Korea.

With North Korea’s latest commitment to disable its nuclear facilities, US policymakers should take stock of what immediate tools can sow the seeds for long-term success of the desired rollback. The U.S. has many instruments in its toolbox, if the Hermit Kingdom really is looking for a graceful exit strategy from its isolation. As Senator Richard Lugar recently stated, “If a final agreement can be reached, the Nunn-Lugar program could play a central role in neutralizing the grave threat posed by the nuclear weapons and materials that Pyongyang has accumulated.”

In its early years, the Nunn-Lugar programs achieved successful denuclearization of three states that emerged from the Soviet Union; Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, respectively the third, fifth and sixth largest nuclear powers in the world in the early 1990s. The initial Nunn-Lugar emergency response to a collapsed heavily-armed WMD Empire spawned myriad programs to facilitate disarmament commitments, safeguard excess weapons material and provide peaceful employment for tens of thousands of highly-skilled weapons scientists – nuclear, chemical and biological. These programs continue to pursue the daunting task of dismantling and securing the WMD legacy of the Cold War and offer many apt tools to address similar issues should the hoped for rollback become reality on the Korean Peninsula.

Several lessons from the post-Soviet experience can be applied to the North Korean case. First, “Cooperative Threat Reduction” can go well beyond addressing the immediate tasks of weapons and fissile materials. If applied comprehensively, it can also facilitate larger foreign policy goals related to economic development and rule of law. Second, without high-level attention to getting the job done, these endeavors can fall prey to pernicious bureaucratic behavior and interagency processes. Third, whereas weapons can be dismantled and materials put under lock-and-key, the people whose expertise contributed to those weapons cannot. These three lessons are all interrelated and need to be part of the transparent and sustainable disarmament of North Korea.

Threat reduction pertains to dismantlement of facilities, disposition of materials, and demobilization and reintegration of North Korea’s WMD scientific capacity. These three D’s, plus reintegration, comprise a strategy to achieve verifiable denuclearization, create opportunities for transparency, build a foundation for sustainability, and promote North Korea’s exit from isolation. The hard part is assuring the measures taken are sustainable and the rollback achieved is not readily reversible. This requires inculcating a security culture that protects sensitive materials and technology as a society transitions from isolation to integration. Moreover, addressing the threat of know-how proliferation must be considered a priority rather than an afterthought. Reintegration of the scientific talent into civilian and potentially commercial pursuits provides the basis for long-term sustainability. Industry, not government, is needed to put the resident scientific capacity to productive use. In sum, “reintegration” must be leveraged as an integral component in the immediate tasks of disarmament and disposition and serve as a starting point for achieving the vision of “a future with the West.”

Skeptics are rightly wary of the recent agreements with North Korea. The DPRK has violated as many treaties and agreements as it has committed to in the last fifteen years. That said, the time is ripe for a reassessment of the multiple tools – beyond military might – that the U.S. might bring to bear to solve the tough proliferation cases. The cooperative nonproliferation programs resident at the Departments of Energy, Defense and State confer a viable suite of tools to address the North Korean situation. Full exploitation of these tools can help promote continued good behavior on the part of Pyongyang, and begin the slow process of integrating North Korea into the global economy. The only component missing is the leadership to orchestrate and employ these tools in the most strategic fashion feasible.


Elizabeth (Libby) Turpen, Ph.D. co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design innovative, new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and expertise.

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