Nuclear Weapons

The Iran Deal: A Pathway for North Korea?

10.14.15 | 13 min read | Text by Manit Shah & Jose Trevino

The majority of all nuclear experts and diplomats, as well as aspiring nuclear and policy students, must have their eyes set on North Korea’s slowly but steadily expanding nuclear weapons program, as well as the recent updates on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. North Korea has disregarded all issued warnings to carry out nuclear tests and claims to have nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States. Other nations have considered North Korea’s actions as signs of hostility but still have shown willingness to restart nuclear talks. Iran under President Hassan Rouhani was able to come to terms with the P5+1 group that includes six world powers, namely, the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany. They successfully negotiated the JCPOA after almost a decade of conciliation efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program to one with only peaceful purposes. The JCPOA is also significant because of the effect the deal will have on the Iranian economy; following its implementation, billions of dollars will be unfrozen. The deal promotes objectives central to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as well as promises to stimulate democracy, potentially bringing stability to the region. The deal with Iran and the companion JCPOA could open up opportunities for nations (like North Korea) to stabilize their regions in exchange for assistance in growing a peaceful nuclear program. In this article, key elements of the JCPOA are addressed, along with issues that demand attention for a deal with North Korea. Our hope is that the information provided will serve as a reference and stepping stone for the international nuclear community to resume discussions with North Korea.


The so-called “Iran Deal,” an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, was signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 group of nations, and the European Union. The deal helps to promote the three objectives of the NPT, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. Groundwork for the agreement was founded in the Joint Plan of Action – a temporary agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group that was signed in late 2013. The nuclear talks became most meaningful when Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013 as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It took almost twenty months for the negotiation parties to come to a final “Framework Agreement” in April 2015.

Iran was ensnared in a heavy load of sanctions beginning in 2006 that subsequently contributed to sinking its economy over the last decade. Yet by 2013, Iran had about 20,000 centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium, an increase from a mere few hundred in 2002. (A uranium enrichment facility can either be used to make low-enriched uranium, typically 3 to 5 percent in the fissile isotope uranium-235, or highly-enriched uranium, greater than 20 percent U-235 and that could be useful for nuclear weapons.) Furthermore, Iran had developed a heavy water reactor in Arak that (once operational) could produce plutonium, a uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, a military site in Parchin, and an underground enrichment plant in Fordow. As Iran has latent capability to pursue either the uranium enrichment or plutonium (the most sought after nuclear material through which it is realistic to fabricate a nuclear weapon) routes to build a nuclear weapon, the agreement, which addresses both routes, has major significance in the global community that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Under the agreement, Iran has agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for lifting imposed sanctions, which would help to revive its economy. These restrictions demand verification by which Iran would have to cooperate with inquiries and monitoring requirements. In addition, Iran’s past nuclear activities would be investigated (various sites could be inspected and environmental samples could be taken). Following these assessments, continuous monitoring would be required to maintain established knowledge that no clandestine activities are taking place. This will leverage the assistance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to keep a lookout for any import or export of dual-use technology. In particular, the agreement calls for a so-called “white” procurement channel to be created to monitor Iran’s acquisition of technologies for its nuclear program.

Key elements of the Iran deal are: a. Reduction of centrifuges to only 6104 – while only 5060 are allowed to enrich uranium over the next 10 years; b. Centrifuges will only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent (useful for fueling the commercial nuclear power plant at Bushehr) for 15 years; c. No new uranium enrichment facilities will be built; d. Stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium will be either blended down or sold; e. Only 300 kg of low-enriched uranium will be stockpiled for 15 years; f. Extension of the breakout time to about a year from the current status of two to three months for 10 years; g. The Fordow facility, located about 200 feet underground, would stop enriching uranium for at least 15 years; h. Current facilities will be maintained but modified to ensure the breakout time of about one year (such as the heavy water reactor in Arak); i. the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear “watch-dog” for the United Nations, will gain access to all of Iran’s facilities, including the military site in Parchin, to conclude an absence of weapons related activities; and j. The sanctions will be lifted in phases as the listed requirements are met. However, if Iran is found violating any obligations, the sanctions will be reinstated immediately.

The requirements in the Iran deal have been placed to lessen its nuclear program to a peaceful one and to increase the breakout time to about one year for the next 10 years. This would not only help other nations (as the deal will keep Iran from producing a nuclear weapon and bring stability and security to the region) but also Iran, who seeks to revive its economy and continue its peaceful nuclear program while maintaining sovereignty of their nation.

North Korea

On the other hand, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions started early in the 1950s, soon after the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. North Korea’s close rapport with the Soviet Union led to a nuclear cooperation agreement, signed in 1959. Under this agreement, the Soviet Union supplied the first research reactor, the IRT-2000. This became the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea’s major nuclear site, which has several facilities to support the North Korean nuclear program. In 1974, the IRT-2000 reactor was upgraded to a power level of 8 MWth (megawatt-thermal).1 2 A year later in 1975, North Korea installed the Isotope Production Laboratory (“Radiochemistry Laboratory”) to carry out small-scale reprocessing operations. Moreover, North Korea in the 1970s performed various activities such as: the indigenous construction of Yongbyon’s second research reactor, uranium mining operations at various locations near Sunchon and Pyongsan, and installation of ore-processing and fuel rod-fabrication plants in Yongbyon. They also began construction on their first electricity-producing reactor in 1985, which was based on the United Kingdom’s declassified information regarding the Calder Hall 50 MWe (megawatt-electric) reactor design.

North Korea was a part of the NPT for about two decades, from its ratification by the government in 1985 until its withdrawal in 2003. [North Korea had first begun to withdraw in 1993, but when the dialogue commenced directly with the United States, they later suspended this action (with only one day left on the intent to withdraw).] Due in part to diplomacy between former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, North Korea signed the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994. However, the Agreed Framework dissolved in 2002 after President George W. Bush named the country as part of the “axis of evil.” Following its withdrawal, North Korea still showed readiness in freezing its nuclear program in exchange for various concessions. The nuclear talks between North Korea and world powers were recurring, as they never found a common ground, including the Six-Party talks in which South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, the United States, and North Korea were involved. In fact, the last time Six-Party talks were held was six years ago in 2009, despite numerous efforts to resume them.

“On October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, despite warnings by the country’s principal economic benefactors, China and South Korea, not to proceed,” states Marcus Nolan, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 3 According to Nolan, “the pre-test conventional wisdom was that a North Korean nuclear test would result in sanctions with dramatic economic consequences.” Five days later, the UN imposed economic sanctions on North Korea, with the passing of Resolution 1718. What is compelling to note, according to Nolan, is that “there is no statistical evidence that the nuclear test and subsequent sanctions had any impact on North Korean trade.” Nolan’s analysis of the trade data suggests that “for better or worse, North Korea correctly calculated that the penalties for nuclear action, at least in this primary sphere, would be trivial to the point of being undetectable – potentially establishing a very unwelcome precedent with respect both to the country’s future behavior and to the behavior of potential emulators.” Following the very first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea carried out two more tests in 2009 and 2013. “Sanctions won’t bring North Korea to its knees,” said Kim Keun-sik, a specialist on North Korea at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “The North knows this very well, from having lived with economic sanctions of one sort or another for the past 60 years.” 4 Does this mean the sanctions are not firm? The answer may be debatable, but the nuclear tests do demonstrate their failure. According to recent reports, activities at the Yongbyon reactor and Radiochemistry Laboratory are proceeding swiftly and it is assumed that the country is gearing up for a fourth nuclear test. This suggests that either sanctions needs to be more robust, which paves a pathway for serious nuclear talks, or North Korea is simply not interested in nuclear talks.

The Across-the-Board Treaty

The Iran Deal has been the hot topic in nonproliferation for various and obvious reasons, but two key questions remain: 1.) Is the deal apt to restrain Iran from advancing further in its nuclear weapons technology? 2.) And would the world see the deal through to successful implementation? The easy answer is that the world powers will know almost immediately whether restraints will take effect because of important milestones within the next six months, but the long-term implementation is more complicated. However, according to various experts, the JCPOA is the best that world powers can achieve given the competing interests among the negotiating parties. Moreover, we argue that this deal can act as a benchmark for many other countries like India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan that seek to expand or preserve their nuclear weapons capabilities. The challenge is how to craft deals with these other nuclear-armed states that will not lead to further proliferation or buildup of their nuclear arsenals.

One of the main reasons why North Korea has been able to operate in such a hostile manner in the past is the failure of sanctions. As part of the 1718 resolution of the UN Security Council, an embargo was imposed on exports of heavy weapons, dual-use items, and luxury goods to North Korea, as well as on the exportation of heavy weapons systems from North Korea, though the administration of the sanctions was left to each individual-sanctioning countries. “Russia, for example, defined luxury goods so narrowly (e.g., fur coats costing more than $9,637 and watches costing nearly $2,000) that the effect of the sanctions was questionable,” says Nolan. It is the sanctions themselves that can be the first step in bringing a country to the bargaining table; then, offering some concessions can lead to the meaningful and significant decisions. In this case, it appears North Korea was never cornered-off in yielding them. Most analysts, including Kim Keun-sik, suggest that the most effective measures are “those that target the lifestyle of North Korean leaders: financial sanctions aimed at ending all banking transactions related to North Korea’s weapons trade, and halting most grants and loans. This would effectively freeze many of the North’s overseas bank accounts, cutting off the funds that the North Korean leader has used to secure the cognac, Swiss watches, and other luxury items needed to buy the loyalty of his country’s elite.”

Another dimension to the issue of imposed sanctions is the support North Korea has received from China, who has been their primary trading partner and has provided them with food and energy. In fact, China supported the 1718 resolution only when the sanctions were reduced – less than severe, as they fear the regime collapse and subsequent, refugee invasion across their border. This is the key reason why China has played an important role in the Six-Party talks. However, following the third nuclear test in 2013, China’s patience with North Korea appeared to run out, as they imposed new sanctions and called for nuclear talks. In fact, a forum is planning to be held by a think-tank, the China Institute of International Studies, and backed by the Chinese government. 5 Academics and experts from the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and North Korea (Six-Party) will be attending with the intent to restart the nuclear talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to a recent report, the United States and China have also discussed ways to boost the sanctions.

A deal with North Korea could potentially be realized once the sanctions are applied in an effective manner, such that loopholes that have previously allowed shortcutting of sanctions are henceforth closed off. Specifically, sanctions will only be effective if China is on board with the other major powers. China has been lenient in the past while dealing with North Korea, as they fear the ripple effects that could be triggered by the sanctions. China can be a part of the enforcement, provided additional world powers offers their support in terms of finance and manpower to maintain the law and order in China’s territory by the border, as they fear the refugee invasion. Furthermore, China has personal interest to reform North Korea. Thus, an assertion from other world powers that they will help to reestablish government in North Korea could strongly sway China.

Once these firm sanctions are enforced, the prime factors, which will be of utmost importance to address during the deal, are hereby listed for diplomats and nuclear experts for their perusal: a. The IRT-2000 reactor was upgraded to use a weapons-usable, highly-enriched uranium fuel containing 80% U-235 by weight (from the original that used only low-enriched uranium fuel, 10% U-235 by weight); b. The reactor modeled after the UK’s Calder Hall was a gas-graphite design that is of concern for proliferation – it uses natural uranium fuel, making it self-reliant on North Korea’s indigenous uranium and able to allow for production of weapons-grade plutonium; c. In the 1970s, the Radiochemistry Laboratory was used to separate 300-mg of plutonium from the irradiated IRT-2000 fuel. This information was not revealed until 1992 to the IAEA and requires significant attention; d. North Korea had initiated the construction of a second 50 MWe reactor, but the specific details were unclear as to its origin and therefore need to be examined; e. According to the IAEA, the activities at the Yongbyon site suggest that the country houses uranium enrichment centrifuges that could help create a uranium-based bomb; f. North Korea was constructing another light-water reactor in the vicinity of Yongbyon that may have become operational; and g. Recent reports indicate a large amount of activity being carried out at the Yongbyon and Pyongsan sites, possibly meaning they are preparing for another nuclear detonation test. 6 7

Presently, the Iran deal has been finalized and the hard task of implementation is underway; yet the activities carried out by North Korea demand valuable attention as well. The aforementioned issues will be vital points of discussion between the world powers during their negotiations with North Korea to curtail their nuclear activities. However, the sanctions need to be effective a priori in order for North Korea to be genuine during the bargaining process. Here, China plays an important role in the implementation of sanctions, as they have been so far submissive due to fear of potential hullabaloo effects. An assertion (moreover, an undertaking) from other world powers that their manpower and funds are accessible for mitigating any ripple effects of harsh sanctions will ensure China’s full backing to boost the efforts against North Korea.


In this article, Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs have been outlined, as well as the central factors of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Further, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and a summary of obstacles that will need to be overcome are detailed – a possible pathway to negotiate with North Korea has been presented with the caveat that it will be extremely challenging to implement effective controls on the North Korean nuclear program (given the hermetic and hostile behaviors of the North Korean government). In the near future, one can anticipate the implementation of the Iran deal, which will have a great impact in the global community and especially the greater Middle Eastern region. In return, the Iranian economy will have tens of billions of dollars unfrozen and ready to be spent, while promoting NPT objectives, as well as bringing stability to the region. In many ways, the Iran deal could act as a stepping stone in establishing a similar relationship with countries such as India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, but given that these nations are already nuclear-armed, the challenges to creating agreements for them are much tougher than for Iran. Such agreements have the potential to further bolster the pillars of the NPT regime: safeguards and verification, safety and security, and science and technology.

Manit Shah is a Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and is a part of the Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute (NSSPI). His fields of interest are Nuclear Safeguards and Security, and Radiation Detectors. He plans to graduate by May 2016 and is on a job hunt.

Jose Trevino is a Ph. D. Student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and is also a part of the NSSPI. He has interests in Health Physics and Emergency Response. He plans to graduate by May 2016 and hoping to join Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Steven Aftergood and Hans Kristensen; “Nuclear Weapons Program,” Federation of American Scientists, November 16, 2006.
Derek Bolton; “North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” American Security Project, August 2012.
Marcus Noland; “The (Non-) Impact of UN Sanctions on North Korea,” Asia Policy, Number 7, pp. 61-88, January 2009.
Martin Fackler and Choe Sang-hun; “Will Sanctions Ever Work on North Korea,” New York Times, June 12, 2009.
David Brunnstorm and Ju-Min Park; “Kerry says U.S. and China discuss further sanctions on North Korea,” Reuters, May 28, 2015.
Francois Murphy; “North Korea apparently building facilities at Yongbyon nuclear site, IAEA says,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 8, 2015.
38 North; “North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Facility: New Activity at the Plutonium Production Complex,” US-Korea Institute at SAIS, September 8, 2015.