North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been full of surprises recently. Last week he announced he would close his nuclear test site and stop testing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. On Thursday, he stepped over the border into South Korea to conduct an historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Amid the jokes and smiles, the two leaders confirmed their “common goal of realizing…a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
The rhetoric is impressive and laudable, but denuclearization itself could take a long time. However, there’s still an opportunity to lock in progress along the way. The quickest route would be for North Korea to sign an existing treaty that bans all nuclear tests.
Although the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) hasn’t fully entered into force, it has been functioning as if it has: It has sophisticated monitoring stations around the globe and an inspectorate ready to help North Korea verify its commitments. The treaty will remain in legal limbo until eight states ratify it (several haven’t due to regional competition), including North Korea, the U.S., and China. Getting these three to sign on could provide enough momentum to end nuclear tests forever.
Since the treaty opened for signature in 1996, three states have tested nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, and North Korea. India and Pakistan conducted tests in 1998 and have adhered since then to a test moratorium. North Korea tested in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016 (twice), and 2017. The last nuclear test suggested that North Korea had achieved a thermonuclear capability (also known as a hydrogen bomb), a considerable advancement over previous tests.
It is very possible that the testing halt is Kim’s carrot for negotiations. If he does not obtain what he wants, he can reverse it. However, reading between the lines of the resolutions adopted at the Central Committee’s meeting on April 20, Kim has all but said he would join the test ban treaty. He called for transparent dismantlement of the test site and for the DPRK to “join the international…efforts for the total halt to the nuclear test[s].”
Joining the test ban treaty is important because denuclearization will not happen quickly, and possibly not at all. With actual weapons involved, monitoring of denuclearization will be much more comprehensive than it was in the case of Iran, and the chances of getting hung up on one of 1,000 details are high. Signing onto an international test ban would make Kim’s moratorium permanent and break the pattern thus far of taking two steps forward only to fall five steps back.
The U.S. signed the treaty in 1996 but failed to get Senate consent. Offering to ratify the treaty along with China as a trilateral confidence-building measure could make this move irresistible to North Korea. Kim would see himself joining the the “big boys” while China could use its much-vaunted leverage to get North Korea to come along. China has little incentive to ratify the CTBT without U.S. action, but a big incentive to see North Korean tests end because of their environmental damage. And the acceptance of non-discriminatory obligations would satisfy Kim’s rhetoric of joining international disarmament efforts without any impact on U.S. or Chinese national security. After all, neither country has tested for decades, nor has a need to.
President Trump may be an unlikely champion for a nuclear test ban. In speeches and tweets, he has made barely veiled threats to unleash U.S. nuclear weapons. Through a strange quirk of fate, he is in position to reduce nuclear risks in a fundamental way. Unlike former presidents Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, he has enough votes among Republican and Democratic senators to push the treaty through. Even the anti-Russian sentiment in Congress poses no obstacle here since Russia is already a party to the treaty.
Some may argue that securing binding limits on ballistic missile testing should take priority over limits on nuclear tests. North Koreans have had nuclear weapons for over 10 years, but the real threat is their ability to deliver them to American soil. Binding limits on both are desirable, but no ready-made treaty exists to restrict missiles. This is one reason why it was so difficult to get Iran to curtail its ballistic missile program.
A test ban triple-play will require considerable diplomatic skill as well as a broader focus than U.S.-DPRK negotiations. It would be a tall order for the United States to implement if it was already a policy objective. It is entirely possible that President Trump could view all previous commitments of the United States conducted by his predecessors as “bad deals,” including the signing of the test ban treaty.
Still, asking North Korea to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has never been a requirement in previous multilateral talks. For this reason alone, it might appeal to President Trump. It shouldn’t be added on top of what is likely a long list of requirements for nuclear disarmament, but instead, constitute its own simple, yet big, diplomatic gesture. It could be accomplished without a cadre of diplomats, but at the heads-of-state level. Keeping it apart from the other negotiations could force the North Koreans to consider it on its own merits.
For the U.S., submitting the test ban treaty to the Senate would reverse a recent decision not to seek Senate ratification of the treaty. The policy, which appeared in the Nuclear Posture Review released to the public in February, also expressed support for the monitoring system and the maintenance of a nuclear testing moratorium by all states with nuclear weapons. A policy reversal isn’t out of the question for a president who is not afraid to reverse course for a good reason: Securing a verified end to North Korea’s nuclear tests is a win for America’s security that only he can engineer.
Sharon Squassoni is a professor at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs.