Haeyoon Kim, Zhaniya Mukatay, and Qiyang Niu



At the 25th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), this paper seizes the opportunity of a self-imposed nuclear test moratorium by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), analyzes Kazakhstan’s experience in dismantling its nuclear test site, and proposes three policy recommendations as potential solutions to stir the DPRK to join the CTBT: First, the international community should count DPRK’s signing of the CTBT as a reason to consider relaxing sanctions against DPRK in the future; second, the international community should encourage the DPRK to vote in favor of UNGA resolutions on the CTBT as a first step forward towards the final signing; third, the international community and the CTBTO Preparatory Commission (CTBTO) should consider inviting the DPRK for CTBTO training and workshops to build trust. Together, these actions could not only push forward the CTBT with its coming into force but also melt the current stalemate of engaging with the DPRK positively.



The DPRK is one of the eight remaining countries whose signatures and ratifications are necessary for the CTBT to enter into force. This paper aims to present the followings in three parts: DPRK’s current state on nuclear disarmament and the recent diplomatic incidents that led to the current moratorium; how and why Kazakhstan’s gradual and staged closure of the Semipalatinsk site could lend lessons to the DPRK; and finally, how to take the opportunity of the moratorium to induce the DPRK to come back to the negotiating table and move forward on issues around the CTBT.


Part I. DPRK’s Nuclear Negotiations since 2018

Since the successful hosting of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in early 2018, then newly installed President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Moon Jae-in, pushed for a foreign policy initiative to improve Seoul’s relations with Pyongyang. This unique diplomatic opportunity was triggered by the New Year’s address delivered on the first day of 2018 by the DPRK leader, Kim Jong Un, that his delegation will be participating in the ROK-hosted Winter Olympics, and politically advocated by the International Olympic Committee President, Thomas Bach, under the name of promoting peace.    

A series of summit meetings between President Moon and Chairman Kim followed in 2018; the first-ever meeting between the two leaders in April produced the Panmunjom Declaration, promising to realize the common goal, “through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula”[1]; it also yielded President Moon 80 percent range approval ratings at the time.[2] Fueled by such public support, second summit in May and third summit in September came about.

While the Moon-Kim reconciliation was at play, Chairman Kim met with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, twice–in March and May of 2018–prior to his historic summit meeting with the US President Donald Trump. Most noticeably, amid such rapid developments on and around the Korean peninsula, DPRK released a statement in April 2018 announcing a moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and efforts towards the dismantlement of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, where all six of its nuclear tests were conducted since 2006.[3] DPRK also in May 2018–at the presence of foreign journalists visiting Pyongyang–demolished the Punggye-ri test facilities, and disclosed a video of the demolition to be broadcasted internationally.

Against this backdrop, the first meeting between President Trump and Chairman Kim took place in June 2018 in Singapore. Pledges listed in the joint statement echoed the commitment “to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”[4] But many American hawks in Washington were against the idea of giving DPRK the legitimacy it’s been craving for long through a summit meeting, and questioned Trump’s top-down approach to tackle North Korea’s nuclear program.  

Almost immediately after the Singapore summit, Kim met with Xi of China–third meeting between the two leaders in 2018 alone–which demonstrated Beijing’s strong political leverage over Pyongyang. South Korean government, eager to take the “driver’s seat” in the ongoing nuclear talks between the US and DPRK, as well sought for a third summit in Pyongyang, and produced the Pyongyang Joint Declaration; in the declaration, the two leaders, once again, reassured their commitment to “pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”[5]

President Moon, during his visit to New York for the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, echoed Seoul’s achievements vis-à-vis Pyongyang, and called for the second Trump-Kim meeting. Chairman Kim–only about a month ahead of the second US-DPRK meeting–visited Beijing again for the fourth Sino-DPRK meeting in early 2019, where Xi publicly supported the upcoming meeting and called for concessions from both Washington and Pyongyang.[6] 

Yet, the much anticipated second summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim in February 2019 ended without a deal; at the Hanoi summit–according to the book written by then US national security advisor, John Bolton–Trump asked for more than giving up the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for a partial lifting of the sanctions against DPRK, but Kim rejected the deal.[7] Concerning whether the US-offered deal was too big or too small for Kim, opinion varies. But the joint assessment by the Center for Energy and Security Studies and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in July 2021 wrote that dismantling all Yongbyon facilities “would significantly reduce Pyongyang’s capability to make weapons-usable fissile materials.”[8] It also wrote, “If only one other enrichment plant is operational, then eliminating the Yongbyon facilities would reduce North Korea’s weapons-production capacity by up to 80 percent.”[9]

The two sides sat down face-to-face seven months later in Sweden to resume working-level negotiations, but again, failed to come to an agreement. DPRK ended up breaking the 18-month long silence and resumed firing missiles in May 2019. Pyongyang also clearly noted that it will no longer be bound by the self-imposed moratorium through a statement in January 2020.[10]

It is evident that since the Hanoi summit collapse, no significant progress has been made in nuclear negotiations with DPRK. Adding fuel to the fire, the global COVID-19 pandemic led to the country’s shut down, making it much harder for the stakeholders to negotiate with Pyongyang. DPRK, cornered due to COVID-19 and natural disasters on top of the sanctions, released a series of harsh statements denouncing Seoul for its joint military exercise with the US, and in June 2020, detonated the inter-Korean liaison office–South Korea’s de facto embassy in DPRK–located in Kaesong.

Yet under such circumstances, DPRK has not fired intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the US, nor conducted another nuclear test; especially concerning nuclear testing, Pyongyang, since its sixth and last testing in September 2017, declared that it has perfected its nuclear capabilities, and opened up for dialogue in 2018. Although the talks have stalled, and the missiles, including the ballistic ones, are back, the moratorium presents a window of opportunity for the key stakeholders to bring DPRK back to the negotiating table for nuclear talks today.


Part II. Nuclear Testing Site Dismantlement: Lessons to Learn

The recent de-escalation of the Korean peninsula and development of the US-DPRK rapprochement has created a window of opportunity for discussions on North Korea’s denuclearization. Some policymakers claim that Chairman Kim’s unilateral nuclear test moratorium and alleged closure of Punggye-ri test site have signaled his willingness to denuclearize. However, the recent deviation from the self-imposed moratorium and absence of the independent inspectors to witness the process of the nuclear test site’s dismantlement raise questions among the international community, especially given the DPRK’s history of departing from such agreements. One example is a situation in mid-2008 when North Korea destroyed the cooling tower of its plutonium-production reactor in Yongbyon but when the negotiations collapsed after they refused verification, the DPRK recovered the reactor with a new cooling system.[11] Therefore, since an immediate and complete North Korean denuclearization is unlikely to result from recent negotiations, the parties interested in dismantlement will need a conceptual framework taxonomy of required steps and stages. One of such frameworks is derived from Kazakhstan’s successful sealing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.

As the only state which voluntarily dismantled its nuclear test sites and cleared its territory from all nuclear warheads and weapons-grade nuclear material, Kazakhstan’s unique experience and progress in dismantling one of the world’s most-used nuclear test sites in Semipalatinsk, also known as “Polygon,” can be used as a framework for the DPRK in their effort of sealing Punggye-ri site in a verifiable to the international system and beneficial for the country way. The features of the Kazakh experience and their applicability for North Korea are outlined below.

The closure of the Semipalatinsk was a gradual and staged process with periodic remediation activities such as economic and humanitarian aid to deal with the consequences of testing. The dismantlement of the “Polygon” can be generalized into three main stages. The first stage was to cease the testing and production of nuclear weapons. Upon becoming an independent state, Kazakhstan immediately declared the termination of any nuclear activities on its territory and the dismantlement of its test site. In the same vein, Chairman Kim’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing, although lifted, coupled with the collapse of three existing tunnels at the Punggye-ri site, can be interpreted as a freeze on nuclear testing. The DPRK, therefore, is currently at this stage, and in the short run, no radical actions are required.

The second stage was halting the uranium enrichment, in other words, the weapon-grade material production should be verifiably halted. In 1992, Kazakhstan halted its uranium enrichment and opened all nuclear facilities and nuclear materials to regular inspections and observation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).[12] Shortly thereafter, Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the IAEA that would assist the country in dealing with the consequences of testing at the Semipalatinsk site as well as in further development of nuclear energy.[13] Theoretically, at this stage, the DPRK is expected to terminate all nuclear activities, allow the international inspections at its test sites for verification, and give access to databases of production sites. But the interested parties should signal that they will offer quid pro quos such as lifting some of the sanctions and providing aid to induce North Korea to undertake these steps. Since this stage does not require the permanent dismantlement of the plants, the incentives offered also should be either temporary or reversible, that is, sanctions should not be eliminated but rather suspended, and instead of comprehensive economic aid, humanitarian assistance should be provided.

The last stage was dismantling infrastructure. Along with Kazakhstan’s decommissioning of its nuclear facilities in 4 locations and sealing of underground testing tunnels at the Degelen Mountain Complex, Kazakhstan received extensive financial and technical assistance from the US under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which helped Kazakhstan achieve the destruction of 148 silos, sealing of 13 boreholes and 181 tunnels, among others.[14] For North Korea, the assumption at this stage is that the country would still own its nuclear warheads, however, the international experts would either need to verify that the DPRK’s explosions indeed demolished the deep tunnels and infrastructure, or take additional steps to make the complex unusable. In other words, the dismantlement of the Punggye-ri must be executed and verified under the international nonproliferation regime. North Korea could prove its full commitment by inviting the CTBTO that has scientific methods and technologies for monitoring nuclear explosions to verify the closure of the Punggye-ri site. Similar to Kazakhstan’s case, the interested parties, presumably other nuclear-weapon states, should assist the DPRK at this stage. Along with the aid, after the dismantlement of the Punggye-ri site, some economic sanctions imposed by the UN, especially those that target commercial sources of revenue, should be eased in order to facilitate remediation.


Part III. DPRK Moratorium and Ways to Push Forward the CTBT

As of December 2021, the DPRK still maintains its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests. So long as the moratorium is in place, it presents a window of opportunity for the international community to incentivize the DPRK for signing–if not ratifying, since after all the US and China have not ratified–the CTBT. The tricky question is how to activate the interactive dynamics between the DPRK and the international community.

Existing analyses and proposals tend to focus primarily on the role of the CTBT in denuclearizing the DPRK. They suggest that the CTBT can prevent the DPRK from qualitatively improving its nuclear weapons, verify the destruction of the Punggye-ri test site, and raise the pressure for the DPRK should it fails to comply or withdraw from the treaty.[15] However, regarding the gains for the DPRK to sign the CTBT, apart from arguing that there is “no down side” for Chairman Kim Jong-un and that he can show “bona fides,” hardly anything is mentioned.[16] These “perks” are insufficient. The DPRK needs to see what there is to gain before agreeing to anything, just like when Pyongyang announced the moratorium, its calculation, as many believe, was to use it as leverage for potential negotiations with the US. In other words, the DPRK obtained political gains from announcing the moratorium.

Bearing this in mind, how to incentivize the DPRK to move forward with the CTBT process becomes the key question. This paper proposes the following policy recommendations as potential answers to the question:

  1. The international community should make it clear that the DPRK’s singing of the CTBT counts as one of the reasons for the international stakeholders to consider relaxing DPRK-related sanctions in the future.
  2. The international community should encourage the DPRK to vote in favor of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions on the CTBT.
  3. The international community, specifically the CTBTO, should consider inviting the DPRK for CTBTO training and workshops.

With appropriate efforts and coordination, these actions could not only push forward the CTBT with its coming into force, but also melt the current stalemate for the international community in engaging with the DPRK. The reasoning and feasibility of these recommendations are explained in the following paragraphs.

Based on the recent episodes of US-DPRK talks outlined in Part I of this paper, the signals sent during the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party, as well as the DPRK’s rejection of President Moon Jae-in’s offer to sign an end-of-war declaration, it is clear that Pyongyang is, as it has traditionally been, most interested in sanctions relaxation that can bring economic improvement to the country. Given the substantive nature of the CTBT–banning nuclear tests–the signing of this treaty alone can hardly bring the DPRK such economic benefits. Furthermore, the DPRK’s singing of the CTBT is probably a concession too small for exchange of any sanctions relaxation since the DPRK is still violating many of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions–it is not rolling back its nuclear and missile programs and may still be producing more fissile materials as well as making other advancements in its Weapons of Mass Destruction and missile programs.

However, packaging the signing of the CTBT as part of future sanctions relaxation can serve as a possible mid-way solution for the DPRK and the international community: It could incentivize the DPRK while demonstrating that the international stakeholders still hold firm standards. Here, engaging the US to negotiate an acceptable package or roadmap of sanctions relaxation is perhaps the most challenging task, for which the CTBTO, Russia, and China can coordinate the efforts to achieve the best effect. Such coordination may have already had a basis: In September 2021, both the resolution in the General Conference of the IAEA and the declarations issued at the 12th Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the CTBT included the content of the rollback terms of the DPRK-related UNSC resolutions–an idea which China and Russia have been proposing for years.[17] This also signals greater international support for considering rooms for sanctions relaxation. After all, many accompanying processes of denuclearization, including the dismantlement, remediation, and rehabilitation of test sites, cannot be achieved without certain foreign aid–therefore a certain degree of sanctions relaxations–as Part II of this paper demonstrates when analyzing the Kazakh experience.

On encouraging the DPRK to vote in favor of CTBT-related UNGA resolutions, there are also reasons to believe that it could be attractive to the DPRK and that it is implementable. First, fundamentally, signing the CTBT is in line with the DPRK’s current policy. As many have observed, for the DPRK, there is no down side to signing the CTBT since the country is already in a moratorium, and Chairman Kim himself has said that further nuclear tests were no longer needed.[18] In early 2018, North Korea’s permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament even announced that the North will “join international disarmament efforts for a total ban on nuclear tests,” which logically means joining the CTBT.[19]

Second, the legal nature of UNGA resolutions is conducive for this moderate progress, and the DPRK has very likely noticed it. Except for decisions regarding payments to the regular and peacekeeping budgets of the United Nations, UNGA resolutions are not binding for Member States.[20] This non-legally binding feature allows greater likelihood for the DPRK to vote in favor of the resolution on the CTBT, which is constantly on UNGA agenda. According to diplomats familiar with the matter on grounds of anonymity, in 2018, the DPRK attempted to provide input for the draft text of the UNGA resolution on the CTBT. Although the attempt did not go through, it implies that the DPRK is interested in engaging in UNGA resolutions on the CTBT. Moreover, such a case would not be unprecedented. Pakistan, despite being a non-signatory to the CTBT, has been voting in favor of the UNGA resolutions on the CTBT for years, which demonstrates that voting in favor would not force the DPRK to sign the treaty immediately.

Another gentle gain for the DPRK is that by voting in favor, the DPRK would be politically lifted to a comparably better position in UNGA sessions, whereas its “biggest enemy,” the US, has been shifting between voting against and abstaining in CTBT-related resolutions.

Regarding CTBTO offering training and workshops to the DPRK, the non-political nature of such activities and the need for improved capacity in disaster relief of the DPRK present a natural opportunity. Each year, the CTBTO runs training and workshops across a wide range of topics including seismic data analysis, infrasound, and waveform processing. Several of these technologies can be used to detect natural events. Pyongyang, eager to address the insufficient capacity of natural disaster prevention and relief, is likely to be attracted to certain CTBTO training topics.[21] Surely, any training or workshops offered to the DPRK have to be thoroughly reviewed to prevent them from advancing Pyongyang’s military capability, but the pros of the CTBTO directly and positively engaging with the DPRK through such a confidence-building measure would be significant as the DPRK’s faith in the CTBT can be enhanced.



Based on the reasons above, coupling the DPRK’s signing of CTBT with future sanctions relaxation, encouraging the DPRK to vote in favor of CTBT-related UNGA resolutions, and encouraging the CTBTO to offer proper training and workshops would be practical ways to break the current stalemate on pushing forward CTBT’s coming into force and help melt the relations between the DPRK and the international community.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that the possibility of the DPRK abandoning the moratorium and restarting its nuclear tests still looms ahead. Taking the self-imposed moratorium as leverage for future talks, the DPRK has threatened to end it in late 2019 and early 2020.[22] With the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region intensifying and emerging alliances such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US potentially incentivizing new rounds of arms race, the end of the current moratorium could be triggered anytime. The international community needs to act fast to push forward the DPRK’s progress with the CTBT before the opportunity is lost.


[1] Panmunjom Declaration, April 27, 2018

[2] KBS, “Moon’s Job Approval Rating Jumps to 83%,” May 4, 2018, <http://world.kbs.co.kr/service/news_view.htm?lang=e&Seq_Code=135988>

[3] Mark Fitzpatrick, On the Mountaintop with North Korea, April 27, 2018, <https://www.iiss.org/blogs/survival-blog/2018/04/mountaintop-north-korea>

[4] Singapore Declaration, June 12, 2018

[5] Pyongyang Joint Declaration, September 18-20, 2018

[6] Al Jazeera, “In Talks with Kim, China’s Xi Backs Second North Korea-US Summit,” January 10, 2019, <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/1/10/in-talks-with-kim-chinas-xi-ba…;

[7] John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

[8] Center for Energy and Security Studies and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, DPRK strategic capabilities and security on the Korean Peninsula: looking ahead, July 14, 2021, <https://www.iiss.org/blogs/research-paper/2021/07/dprk-strategic-capabi…;

[9] Ibid

[10] Anthony Kuhn, “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Says He Is No Longer Bound By Nuclear Missile Moratorium,” NPR, December 31, 2019, <https://www.npr.org/2019/12/31/792793583/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-says-…;

[11] Mark Fitzpatrick, “Yongbyon restart: North Korea ramps up nuclear tension,” BBC News, April 2, 2013. <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22006636&gt;.

[12] Oxford Analytica, “Kazakhstan’s example in promoting nuclear non-proliferation,” September 2017, <https://www.oxan.com/media/1960/kazakhstan-nuclear-non-proliferation.pd…;.

[13] IAEA, “Agreement of 26 July 1994 between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the application of safeguards in connection with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” IAEA-INFCIRC/504, April 1996.

[14] Oxford Analytica, “Kazakhstan’s example in promoting nuclear non-proliferation.”

[15] Stephen Herzog, “A Way Forward With North Korea: The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty,” War On The Rocks, June 11, 2018, <https://warontherocks.com/2018/06/a-way-forward-with-north-korea-the-comprehensive-nuclear-test-ban-treaty/>.

Lassina Zerbo, “The Nuclear Test Ban and the Verifiable Denuclearization of North Korea,” Arms Control Today, November 2018, <https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-11/features/nuclear-test-ban-verifiable-denuclearization-north-korea>.

Jon Wolfsthal, “Make North Korea’s Nuclear Test Pause Permanent,” 38 North, May 7, 2018, <https://www.38north.org/2018/05/jwolfsthal050718/>.

[16] ibid.

[17] IAEA General Conference, GC(65)/RES/13, September 24, 2021.

CTBT, “Draft Final Declaration and Measures to Promote the Entry into Force of the CTBT,” CTBT-Art.XIV/2021/WP.1, September 23, 2021.

[18] Soyoung Kim and Cynthia Kim, “North Korea says will stop nuclear tests, scrap test site,” Reuters, April 21, 2018, <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-idUSKBN1HR37J>. 

[19] Zerbo, “The Nuclear Test Ban and the Verifiable Denuclearization of North Korea.”

[20] Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations, The GA Handbook: A practical guide to the United Nations General Assembly (New York, NY: Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations, 2017), p. 52. 

[21] Antoine Bondaz and Eric Ballbach, “Coping With Natural Disasters: How the EU Can Support More Effective DPRK Disaster Management Mechanisms,” 38 North, November 4, 2021, <https://www.38north.org/2021/11/coping-with-natural-disasters-how-the-eu-can-support-more-effective-dprk-disaster-management-mechanisms/>.

[22] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Is No Longer Bound by Nuclear Test Moratorium, Kim Says,” New York Times, December 31, 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/31/world/asia/north-korea-kim-speech.html>.

Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson, “North Korea Reiterates End to Test Moratorium,” Arms Control Now, January 30, 2020, <https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2020-01-30/north-korea-denuclearization-digest>.


Haeyoon Kim is an English Editor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea;

Zhaniya Mukatay is an M.A. Student at the Nazarbayev University;

Qiyang Niu is a Project Officer at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.