North Korea, Iran nuclear deal and AUKUS nuclear sub updates

Diplomacy urgently needed to manage North Korea security risks

In a recent webinar presentation hosted by the Canadian International Council, (the recording of which can be accessed here), one of Canada’s foremost experts on North Korea, retired diplomat James Trottier, stated:

As you may have seen in the news, earlier in September, there was a North Korean cruise missile test launch, dueling North Korean and South Korean short-range ballistic missile test launches and then this week another North Korean [ballistic] missile test launch.

While the North Korean cruise missile launch is not in violation of UN sanctions, its ballistic missile launches are in violation.

With these recent tests signifying an “ongoing enhancement of military capability” by North Korea and “foreshadowing an incipient arms race” between North and South Korea, Trottier underscores their negative impact on regional and global security and the urgency of “examining prospects for renewed U.S./North Korean negotiations”:

As with the Iran deal [which we examine further on in the blog], President Biden does not have the luxury of time with North Korea.

He needs to seize the moment and break the stalemate that has existed since 2019 with the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Trottier defines the “progress” that can and must be made as follows:

the easing of tensions between North Korea and the U.S. and South Korea, the lowering of the nuclear threat North Korea poses and the establishment of a more stable relationship between North Korea and the international community.

He outlines three “essential elements” of a successful US policy on North Korea: sustained high-level attention by the Biden administration, a realistic policy with achievable aims, and

a strategy … that set[s] out clear benchmarks for the North Koreans to meet and make[s] clear that the U.S. will reciprocate to positive and measurable [North Korean] actions with its own positive, proportional and measurable actions.

US policy with realistic and achievable aims

A realistic policy cannot be totally dependent on North Korea’s denuclearization.

The overwhelming view of North Korea experts, including in the US intelligence community, and of both hawks and those who favour engagement, is that North Korea will never denuclearize. However, Trottier is at pains to emphasize that North Korea may be prepared to freeze development and testing of new weapons, and even eliminate parts of its existing [nuclear] stockpile in return for the right terms.

Denuclearization as an aspirational goal

The “needle to thread” for the Biden administration is keeping denuclearization as an “aspirational goal” while incremental progress is made in reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and other military capabilities.

Regarding the scope of the threat, Trottier reminds us:

North Korea’s threat capacity is not limited to its nuclear capability. It has forward deployed a massive army (the world’s fourth largest, with 1.3 million active personnel) with conventional artillery, rocket-launchers and missiles located just north of the DMZ within range of Seoul, and it has cyber expertise and well-trained and well-equipped special forces, not to mention possession of chemical and biological weapons.

An incremental approach encompassing North Korea’s non-nuclear capability could address a range of issues, including:

  • peace agreement/declaration formally ending the Korean war
  • de-escalation
  • arms control, including conventional arms reduction negotiations
  • cyber-security, and
  • confidence building measures.

In his presentation Trottier also draws attention to the challenge of addressing human rights in North Korea without “derailing” incremental progress in other areas and offers insights from his own diplomatic work in this area, observing that:

[my] diplomatic discussions about human rights had a surreal dimension to them, as we were well aware that, outside of what I might term the “safe space” of diplomatic discussions at the Foreign Ministry, such a discussion in North Korea about [their] human rights [record] … is unthinkable and would lead to imprisonment or worse.

The identification of benchmarks and reciprocal actions

In Trottier’s view, the easing of sanctions in exchange for a nuclear and missile testing freeze and/or rollback of nuclear capacity should be on the table. And in this regard:

[t]he identification of benchmarks and reciprocal actions needs to be the subject of negotiations between American and North Korean officials.

In the view of

By moving away from the impossible goal of denuclearization as the first step, Trottier’s proposals represent a pragmatic, step by step process of replacing a long-established negative US–North Korean action–reaction dynamic with incremental, positive forward actions.

The role for Canada and the international community

While it is too early to say whether the Biden administration will emphasize denuclearization or focus on diplomacy, dialogue and incremental measures, Trottier sees a role for Canada and other concerned countries in support of the incremental approach, including:

  • joining South Korean President Moon in urging the Biden administration to take a constructive and realistic approach to North Korea; and
  • urging North Korea to meet the US and South Korea halfway and respond in kind to positive proposals.

Trottier adds:

For Canada to play a useful role in this regard would require serious engagement on the North Korea file and, more broadly, on regional security, rather than the half-hearted efforts of recent years; the US and South Korea would welcome such engagement.

He goes on to elaborate the type of commitment needed from Canada, including the possibility of convening a conference of concerned states “to urge substantive negotiations towards achievable goals”. However, in contrast to the last such effort by Canada, which was anything but inclusive or focused on dialogue, he notes:

To be useful, such a conference must include countries such as Russia and, most importantly, China, which has such an important influence on North Korea.

For the recording of the full webinar presentation click here.

For Trottier’s recent policy paper on which the webinar was based, see: The Biden Administration’s North Korea Policy: A new Direction or Back to the Future? (CGAI, June 2021).

American analyst Jessica Lee, of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, shares Trottier’s concerns about Biden administration dithering, writing:

Seoul’s repeated call to address the political dimension of the instability on the peninsula presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to dispel fear-driven narratives about ending America’s longest “forever war” and instead chart a forward-looking vision for the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, Washington does not yet appear willing to consider Seoul’s proposal with the sense of urgency and seriousness it deserves. Instead, the Biden administration has been largely silent on matters related to formally ending the Korean War, which has created a vacuum that is being filled by more extremist voices seeking to prevent serious debates from taking place.

For a summary of the article, see It’s Time for Biden to End the Korean War (Jessica J. Lee,, 19 October 2021) and for the full article, for FP subscribers, click here.

Whither Canada?

It is urgent that Canada engage with others in the international community in support of sustained US–North and –South Korean dialogue and incremental progress on the range of peace and security issues confronting the Korean peninsula.

We call on the Government of Canada, through a serious, sustained diplomatic effort,  to join with others in the international community in support of South Korean President Moon’s efforts to influence the Biden administration and North Korea towards diplomacy, dialogue and incremental measures.

Why has Iran not rejoined Vienna talks on the JCPOA revival?

In an extremely disturbing report from Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, “the real reason” for Iran’s delay in rejoining talks in Vienna to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement is revealed. Parsi writes:

[the] impasse is not because of an Iranian sense of immunity to pressure, but largely because President Joe Biden refused to commit to keeping sanctions lifted on Iran for the rest of his term, even if Iran rejoins and complies with the nuclear deal.

Iran’s initial position had been the inclusion in the text of a legally binding commitment that the USA would not once again unilaterally abandon the JCPOA, so long as Iran was also in compliance. But they apparently accepted the argument that the Biden administration “could not bind the hands of the next administration” and asked instead that:

Biden would simply commit to staying within the deal for rest of his own term, granted that Iran also would remain in compliance.

Yet, according to Parsi, the Biden administration was unwilling to meet even this minimal measure to address Iran’s “serious and legitimate concern” (to quote EU diplomats) over the ease with which the USA can quit the agreement.

Parsi summarizes the core of Iran’s dilemma:

By realigning with the JCPOA, Tehran will give up much of its nuclear leverage while Washington ostensibly lifts sanctions. However, sanctions relief will not lead to meaningful economic benefits for Iran unless Western companies feel confident about Washington’s longer-term fidelity to the agreement — which they do not.

This would leave Iran giving up its leverage for nothing — particularly if Washington once again exits the deal.

For the full article, see: Revealed: Biden rejected way forward in Iran deal talks (, 20 October 2021).

For an alarming discussion of potential actions by Israel and others if Iran does not return to negotiations, see Hawks on all sides ready to swoop if Iran drags feet on nuclear talks (Simon Tisdall,, 17 October 2021).

For the reasons outlined by Parsi above, we disagree with Simon Tisdall’s view that Iran does not really want the deal, but we share his assessment of the dire impact that failed negotiations would have:

it opens the door to hawks on all sides who recklessly promote military solutions when, in reality, no such “solutions” exist.

For a detailed look at actions the European Union (a party to the JCPOA) can take both to support a successful negotiation and cushion the blow of its failure, see: Iran: Push to Revive the Nuclear Deal, but Prepare for Worse Outcomes (, 7 October 2021).

Whither Canada?

We reiterate our call for Canada to publicly signal its strong support for the successful reinstatement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a key step in stabilizing the Middle East.  

IAEA chief weighs in on troubling AUKUS nuclear sub deal

In our 17 September blog, we outlined the grave nuclear non-proliferation implications of the AUKUS deal that would see the US providing its secret naval nuclear propulsion technology to Australia for nuclear-powered submarines. In the words of one expert we cited:

With the new AUKUS decision, we can now expect the proliferation of very sensitive military nuclear technology in the coming years, with literally tons of new nuclear materials under loose or no international safeguards. [emphasis added]

Now Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog responsible for ensuring that nuclear material for peaceful purposes is not diverted to prohibited military uses, has weighed in on the complexities of the matter.

In his address to the opening of the IAEA General Conference at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on September 20, 2021, Director General Grossi enumerates some of the challenges posed by Australia, a non-nuclear weapons state party to the NPT, possessing nuclear-powered naval submarines:

  • It will be the first time a nation without nuclear weapons will have nuclear-powered military submarines, creating a dangerous precedent that others could seek to emulate.
  • These vessels will be powered by “very highly enriched” weapons-grade uranium which can be excluded from IAEA safeguards while at sea.
  • Negotiations on how to manage this non-proliferation challenge will be “very complex”.

And the Guardian has now reported that the IAEA has convened a “special taskforce” to look into the deal.

As for the negative precedent, the Guardian article states that:

In meetings in New York during the UN General Assembly last month, Iranian officials pointed to the AUKUS deal as a precedent to move the country’s own nuclear submarine plans forward.

Whither Canada?

Canada should make a strong public statement on the fundamental importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA’s safeguards role therein. Privately, we should express our concerns over the negative non-proliferation impacts of the AUKUS deal to the parties concerned and urge them to develop a robust, credible plan for mitigating these impacts and being seen to do so.

Recording now available for CPG Policy Conference – “International Cyber Security: Threats and Opportunities for Canada,” held on 19 October 2021.

To view the recording of this informative virtual conference, featuring an all-Canadian roster of experts, click on the arrow below:

Government of Canada Statement on United Nations Day – 24 Oct 2021

We end our blog with a quote from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Statement on United Nations Day:

On behalf of the Government of Canada, I invite all Canadians to join me to celebrate United Nations Day and recognize the international organization’s important work to promote peace, human rights, and social progress around the world.

For the full statement, click here.

Photo credit: Wikimedia (Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right), with visitors paying homage)



Tags: "ending the Korean war", "North Korea missile launch", "U.S. - North Korea dialogue", AUKUS deal, Canadian International Council (CIC), Canadian International Council (CIC) National Capital Branch, Canadian Pugwash Group (CPG), CPG Policy Conference - "International Cyber Security: Threats and Opportunities for Canada, Dr. Trita Parsi, Hanoi Summit, International Crisis Group (ICG), Iran sanctions relief, James Trottier, Jessica J. Lee, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), North Korea, President Moon, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Rafael Grossi IAEA Director-General, South Korea