war on the rocks

Nuclear Diplomacy Between Brazil and Argentina: An Imperfect But Important History Lesson

May 25, 2018

International observers witnessed a historic moment on April 27 when the leaders of North and South Korea met for a landmark summit, the first time the two countries’ leaders had met in over a decade. Upon the summit’s conclusion, the leaders issued a joint statement promising to denuclearize and bring “lasting peace” to the peninsula and to end decades of hostilities.

After the ceremony comes the substance. Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula would be unprecedented and, indeed, is an unlikely outcome for many reasons. In addition, the North Korean interpretation of denuclearization differs vastly from that of the United States and South Korea. Despite the unfavorable geopolitical conditions and large gap between interpretations, there is progress the two Koreas can make toward a less hostile and more secure status quo. In this regard, lessons can be drawn from two other former rivals on the other side of the world: Argentina and Brazil.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, Argentina and Brazil were suspected by the international community — as well as by each other — to be pursuing covert nuclear weapons programs. Yet the two countries did not ultimately become nuclear weapon states – instead, they become nuclear partners. The end of Argentina and Brazil’s broader geopolitical rivalry took place partially through a gradual nuclear rapprochement process starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

By 1991, both countries had normalized relations and subsequently created the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC). The agency comprises an equal number of Brazilian and Argentine scientists and is the world’s only existing bilateral mutual safeguards inspection agency. The process behind its creation could provide a useful framework for both Koreas to contemplate as they move forward with their rapprochement. ABACC was crucial in helping Argentina and Brazil assuage suspicions by verifying one another’s non-nuclear weapon status, and to officially renounce any interest in nuclear weapons.

Skeptics may argue that ABACC might not be the best model to use as a comparison for the Korean Peninsula. It’s true that the challenge in Brazil and Argentina was to verify each other’s non-nuclear weapon statuses, while the challenge today is about persuading North Korea to denuclearize for the sake of regional stability and security. Nevertheless, the creation of ABACC is relevant. The experience of Brazil and Argentina provides three solid lessons that could be applicable to solving the crisis on the Korean Peninsula today.

The Importance of Dialogue

Argentina and Brazil’s normalization of relations can be traced back to May 1980, when both countries were ruled by military leaderships. As I outline in my book, upon an invitation from Argentine President Jorge Videla, President João Figeuiredo became the first Brazilian leader to visit Buenos Aires in 40 years. Figeuiredo’s visit was also personal because his father had previously been exiled in Argentina. Beyond the symbolic nature of the visit, the leaders made a significant policy advance, signing the first joint nuclear agreement between the countries. A decade later, following a series of further joint nuclear declarations, the nuclear rapprochement was firmly grounded through a 1991 agreement establishing ABACC. Consider the similarities to the Korean case: Kim Jong Un’s family traces its lineage to South Korea, while President Moon Jae-in’s family traces its lineage to North Korea. That both leaders crossed over to each other’s territory is a step in the right direction.

The case of Brazil and Argentina highlights the value of establishing and maintaining dialogue between countries at odds with one another. Indeed, the main activities of the Argentine/Brazilian nuclear working group involved dialogue, information exchanges, and technical consultations. Meeting every 120 days alternately in Argentina and Brazil allowed the group to discuss the possibilities of establishing a joint inspection regime and the related technical details. These discussions created opportunities to consider other mutual interests in the nuclear field. Diplomats and technical experts involved in the discussions were tasked with exploring all avenues for nuclear cooperation including collaboration, safety measures, a data bank for information exchange, and application of safeguards to the two states’ nuclear activities. It was the constant interaction and dialogue that allowed the countries to make progress.

In the Panmunjom declaration, the two leaders of North and South Korea agreed

through regular meetings and direct telephone conversations, to hold frequent and candid discussions on issues vital to the nation, to strengthen mutual trust and to jointly endeavor to strengthen the positive momentum toward continuous advancement of inter-Korean relations as well as peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean Peninsula.

This is a good start, as is the planned visit by South Korean President Moon Jae In to Pyongyang this fall. Kim Jong Un should reciprocate soon after with more meetings in the DMZ.

The Argentina and Brazil case is indicative of what all diplomats know: Dialogue matters. More specifically, meetings at both the head-of-state level and at the technical expert level can be important drivers of progress, while creating avenues for trust and confidence-building measures.

Trust and Confidence-Building

In creating ABACC, Argentina and Brazil embarked on a number of such measures, including high-level presidential and technical reciprocal visits to unsafeguarded and sensitive nuclear facilities. In 1987, Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín invited Brazilian President José Sarney to an exclusive tour of the unsafeguarded Pilcaniyeu pilot uranium enrichment facility. Until then, Argentina had not publicly admitted this facility existed. In response, Sarney invited Alfonsín to the navy-controlled Aramar uranium enrichment facility in the Iperó nuclear complex, Brazil’s own secret nuclear installation. Alfonsin was the first foreigner to visit the plant.

These mutual visits to previously secret and unsafeguarded nuclear installations created an atmosphere of trust, helping assure one another and the international community that neither country was pursuing nuclear weapons. In addition, these measures propelled further declarations, encouraging deeper bilateral nuclear cooperation. The process of building confidence increased trust and facilitated working relationships that were helpful in finding ways to turn goodwill into practical steps, most notably the creation of ABACC.

The North and South Koreans could explore various options for exchanges related to both nuclear and conventional issues, such as visits by South Korean and IAEA inspectors to North Korean nuclear sites. Over time, this could lead to a new policy based on openness rather than opacity.

Political Will

The final lesson concerns the political will of the Argentine and Brazilian leadership. A mutual safeguards inspection regime could not have been realized without the commitment of leaders in Buenos Aires and Brasilia. The re-emergence of civilian leadership in both countries in the mid-1980s created space for better engagement. Under the leadership of civilians committed to fostering cooperation, the bilateral nuclear agreements became a major part of the rapprochement process. The countries’ first democratic governments established a common nuclear policy by signing five nuclear cooperation agreements that helped demonstrate their respective programs were peaceful. Successive administrations maintained this cooperation, eventually resulting in the decision to implement ABACC, which remains in place today.

There seems to be a similar foundation of political will on both sides of the 38th parallel. Moon favors engagement with his North Korean neighbor, while Kim surprised the world with his diplomatic overture agreeing that both Koreas should walk under one flag at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

An Imperfect But Important Example

Of course, there are aspects of the ABACC process that differ from the situation between North and South Korea. First, while North Korea and South Korea also share a border, one has a nuclear weapons program, while the other doesn’t (though it sits under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella). This was not the case for Argentina and Brazil since neither had a nuclear weapons program, nor any security guarantees from allies. Second, while Korean peninsula tensions may have been diffused somewhat given the recent interactions between the heads of state, deep-rooted feelings of suspicion and mistrust may still exist. Third, no two regions can be expected to have identical political, military, or economic characteristics. Therefore, a mutual inspections and safeguards verification system that works well in one region is not guaranteed to do so in another. Still, the Panmunjom declaration outlines a path toward sustained dialogue, provides room for confidence and trust-building measures, and indicates nascent political will from both sides — all features that the Brazilian and Argentinian experience suggests are signs of progress.

With numerous challenges ahead, the lessons learned from the creation and subsequent sustained success of ABACC are a good starting point for a discussion of next steps between another pair of rival nations whose ties are fraught with nuclear tensions.


Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, focusing on efforts to combat nuclear terrorism, and author of the book, Politics and the Bomb: The Role of Experts in the Creation of Cooperative Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreements (New York: Routledge, 2014), which covers how ABACC (and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program) was created.

Image: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr