In current circumstances, the possibility of IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) engagement in verification in North Korea may seem remote. Negotiations between the United States and North Korea have not progressed, and Kim Jong Un has stated that “if the US persists in its hostile policy toward [North Korea] there will never be denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.” This statement might sound negative, but it contains an important implication—that the direction taken by North Korea will depend on the actions of the US. This suggests that a resumption of negotiations, if not on the immediate horizon, cannot be ruled out.
The starting point for any agreed process for reducing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and associated infrastructure should be a freeze on the production of fissile material, followed by a commitment to permanently cease these activities and to disable and dismantle the facilities involved through a step-by-step process, with the ultimate objective of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This process would include: application of safeguards to all peaceful nuclear activities; progressive rollback of the nuclear arsenal, with fissile materials transferred irreversibly to safeguarded peaceful use or disposal; and verification measures for possible undeclared nuclear activities. The advantage of this process is that confidence and trust can be built progressively in support of each succeeding step.
The approaches set out in this paper to accomplish these tasks may seem unduly complicated, but all parties must recognize that effective verification is absolutely essential to the credibility, and therefore the sustainability, of any negotiating process for North Korea’s denuclearization. The IAEA would have the key verification role and full cooperation with its verification activities will be essential to building confidence that the parties to any denuclearization agreements are fulfilling their commitments at every stage of the process. This paper focuses on these activities and the verification role of the IAEA. It reaches the following key judgments:
- North Korea’s willingness to declare all enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and to negotiate mutually acceptable verification arrangements, is a basic threshold for cooperation and trust, without which any agreement is likely to be short-lived. However, for any future agreement or agreements with North Korea, the key point for all parties to appreciate is that the IAEA’s verification mandate is determined by the terms of the relevant agreements, and can be as wide or as limited as the parties agree.
- Pyongyang can be expected to resist the idea of international inspectors having rights of access around the country. However, it might be possible to assuage some of its fears, stressing that the scope of any new safeguards agreements will be limited to what the parties accept in these agreements.
- Some intrusive inspections will be required, but exactly what is needed to ensure effective verification will depend on what has to be verified (as set out in the relevant agreement). Under a step-by-step approach, the IAEA and all main actors will have to accept the reality that North Korea will have some nuclear materials and items outside the scope of verification (namely, nuclear materials in the military program), and IAEA inspectors will not have a general mandate to look for all “undeclared” nuclear material and activities.
- Continued enrichment operations would become a major issue in the negotiations; thus, if enrichment is agreed to it will be essential to place North Korea’s enrichment plant and its low enriched uranium (LEU) product and supporting activities under the most rigorous safeguards. Limits would also have to be agreed upon for the permissible level of enrichment and LEU stocks. If continuation of enrichment is a red line for North Korea, operating enrichment facilities under multilateral arrangements could be considered. A better approach would be to establish multilaterally guaranteed fuel supply arrangements.
- Successfully resolving all these issues highlights the importance of establishing the right mandate for the IAEA. In any agreement on safeguards and related verification measures, clarity is essential. Any misunderstandings could be disastrous, potentially resulting in a loss of trust amongst the parties, the collapse of the agreement and a long and difficult path to reaching any further agreement. Consequently, it is imperative to set out precisely the rights and obligations of North Korea and the IAEA, to ensure that the expectations of the parties correspond, and to define precise verification objectives to ensure there is a shared understanding of what these objectives involve.