In an unprecedented development, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may sit down in May 2018 to discuss—among many other matters—the DPRK’s nuclear programme. The talks, if they happen, would be the first-ever high-level meeting between the two countries. The summit would also be the first diplomatic engagement between the two states since the April 2009 collapse of the so-called six-party talks.
Progress on denuclearising the Korean peninsula has been stymied for almost a decade. Over this period, the DPRK has conducted five nuclear tests, and more than 80 missile tests. The US administration under President Obama preferred to keep the issue at arms-length. Throughout 2017, the Trump administration engaged in fiery rhetoric and heated exchanges with Pyongyang. The return to diplomacy may come as a relief to many regional governments, but it also comes with dangers.
Many experts agree that the DPRK in 2017 and 2018 demonstrated the ability to produce thermonuclear weapons and (separately) inter-continental ballistic missiles able to reach the United States. While the country’s ability to mate an explosive device to a means of delivery is mainly unknown, the emerging consensus is that they are close to being able to produce and deploy a credible nuclear arsenal. The DPRK has invested heavily in its nuclear capabilities and is not likely to give them up for anything but the steepest of prices. The country’s statements so far would not indicate a willingness to disarm unilaterally.
Even if they were willing to do so, one issue that negotiators will need to deal with is verification. How to verify that the DPRK is denuclearised, or even meets interim disarmament objectives, were stumbling blocks in the last round of the six-party talks. Disagreement centred on two issues: the time frame for verification, with North Korea insisting that it take place later in the process; and allowed procedures, with the US requesting the right to access locations outside the Yongbyon nuclear complex, and insisting on the use of environmental sampling. While specific rights of access and procedures will undoubtedly be subject to negotiation, one lesson that can be learned from past efforts is to clearly and unequivocally include verification at the early stages of any implementation timeline.
IAEA safeguards have covered parts of the North Korean nuclear fuel cycle in the past. However, it is assumed that the DPRK possesses undeclared facilities, such as a second uranium enrichment plant complementing the pilot facility built at Yongbyon. Any verification scheme introduced under the new talks would need to take into account the possibility of hidden facilities and undeclared material if it is to provide any confidence to the parties, especially given the failure of past efforts. A verification regime would need to have authority to investigate locations outside of Yongbyon where other parties believe nuclear activities may be taking place, conduct inspections, take measurements and collect samples for off-site analysis. Environmental sampling, already at the centre of controversy in 2008-2009, represents a particularly powerful tool, as it would identify what type of nuclear material—if any—is or has been handled at a specific location.
Should a cessation of nuclear activities be agreed on, a priority would be to ensure that violations are detected early and reliably, and that evading the letter of the agreement is costly (in both time and resources). North Korea’s ‘breakout time’ (to borrow a phrase from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed with Iran) would need to be long. How to ensure long reconstitution times will require some careful thinking, given North Korea’s significant nuclear fuel cycle and proven weaponisation capabilities.
The best way to achieve this goal is to approach the North Korean fuel cycle as a whole, seeking comprehensive information—and ongoing monitoring—of all facilities, from Uranium mines through to reprocessed spent fuel. This network-mapping method—known to the IAEA as the state level approach—would help to identify ‘choke points’ in the fuel cycle that could be removed, and would help find indications of undeclared or hidden facilities. Undeniably, it would need to be supplemented by other means of monitoring and verification—designed to ensure that weaponised material is removed. In turn, this would require access to the most sensitive parts of North Korea’s military-industrial complex. Getting this access will require much political horse-trading and is likely to take a long time.