Issues and Insights Vol. 15, No. 11 - Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia
November 9, 2015
The Pacific Forum CSIS, with support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA), held a quadrilateral US-ROK-Japan-China nonproliferation and nuclear security cooperation dialogue in Seoul, Republic of Korea on August 5-7, 2015. Some 28 US, ROK, Japanese, and Chinese experts, officials, military officers, and observers attended, all in their private capacity. The off-the-record discussions covered the four countries’ perspectives and priorities on nonproliferation and nuclear security, the Nuclear Security Summit process, the nuclear security centers of excellence, the prevention and management of a nuclear accident or incident, strategic trade controls, and onward proliferation from North Korea. Key findings from this meeting are outlined below.
The best opportunities for quadrilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia are in nuclear security. While there are also opportunities for nonproliferation cooperation, particularly to address the North Korean problem, important political obstacles usually stand in the way. A key to success in both areas is promoting policy coordination and alignment, which requires sustained interactions among regional states.
All four states see North Korea as the most serious regional threat. There are significant concerns about Pyongyang’s increasing nuclear capabilities and its efforts to proliferate sensitive technologies (and maybe even nuclear materials) to third parties. Another worry is the possibility of a nuclear accident or incident in North Korea, namely during a regime collapse scenario. Further engagement among regional states is needed to address these problems.
The Republic of Korea, Japan, and China have advanced civil nuclear programs and have taken important steps to strengthen nuclear material security. To go further, one participant suggested that the three countries jointly improve security at existing plutonium and reprocessing sites, conclude a renewable five-year moratorium on commercial reprocessing, and cooperate on spent fuel storage disposal and research. Other suggestions included an ROK-Japan agreement on a bilateral highly enriched uranium-free zone, a Chinese commitment to disclose and downblend civil HEU holdings, a tripartite effort to convert HEU overseas, and a tripartite commitment to support the development of alternatives to high-risk radioactive sources.
The Republic of Korea, Japan, and China should, given their advanced nuclear programs and performance to strengthen nuclear security, build on growing momentum and push for a nuclear security convention to take over the nuclear security agenda after the Nuclear Security Summit process concludes its activities in 2016. The Northeast Asian Peace and Security Initiative, which currently focuses on cooperation in nuclear safety, should be expand in scope so it can contribute to a nuclear security convention.
Nuclear security cooperation in human capacity-building assistance for the Asia Pacific should also be enhanced through greater cooperation among the ROK, Japanese, and Chinese centers of excellence, all of which are at different development stages. Cooperation has already started but should be strengthened. Some participants stressed that it should focus on the development of standardized curricula, courses, and certification, the exchange of good practices, and transportation security. This will help build a nuclear security culture in the region and supplement the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
There are some difficulties to greater cooperation among the Northeast Asian nuclear security centers of excellence, however. One is that these centers are often in competition in Southeast Asia. Still, better coordination of activity might help them focus on their respective strengths and efficient cooperation for the countries in the region.
Greater regional cooperation, including through tabletop exercises, is needed to prevent and manage nuclear accidents and incidents. The nuclear accident at the Japanese Fukushima plant in March 2011 has shown that regional states are poorly prepared to deal with this problem. A nuclear accident or incident in North Korea would be much more difficult to solve. Contingency plans need to be discussed.
The extent of onward proliferation from North Korea is unknown. Experts speculate that there could be less demand from states for North Korean technologies given recent developments, in particular the conclusion of an international nuclear agreement with Iran. To some, this suggests that Pyongyang may be forced to turn to non-state actors if they want to continue to turn a profit.
Many US participants insisted that greater Chinese cooperation is needed to counter Pyongyang’s proliferation activities. Chinese participants, for their part, argued that Beijing takes nonproliferation extremely seriously and is doing everything that could be reasonably expected. The Karl Lee affair is a thorny issue that poisons US-Chinese nonproliferation cooperation.
Northeast Asian have high-standard strategic trade controls, but could become victims of proliferation networks. Information sharing regarding the detection of violations and the enforcement of controls is needed to enhance effectiveness. Toward this end, all three Northeast Asian countries should make strategic trade controls cooperation a focus of their activities and establish strategic trade controls working groups to permit, at a minimum, better information-sharing and good practices exchanges.