- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Confounding the skeptics, the Bush administration’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has had a string of recent successes. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has met with her North Korean counterpart. Pyongyang has provided nearly 19,000 pages detailing its nuclear history, destroyed the cooling tower at its main nuclear facility and provided a declaration of its nuclear activities. It has also disabled much of its nuclear infrastructure.

Yet given North Korea’s track record of deceit and dishonesty, the smart money is still on the skeptics as the nuclear negotiations enter a new and far more complex stage. The focus now turns to whether we can verify the North’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons programs.

Three broad verification challenges need to be overcome.

  • The first challenge is to agree upon a verification protocol that will guide the inspections. At the last round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing, the United States circulated a paper on verification principles. As yet, there is no consensus on this document, which will have to be negotiated before it can then be transformed into an operational inspection protocol, which will entail another negotiation. During this process, North Korea will no doubt try to water down its obligations by exploiting the parties’ different stances - the United States and Japan prefer wide-ranging and intrusive inspections; China and South Korea are more flexible.
  • This protocol will also need to specify a role for the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (The IAEA is in North Korea as “observers,” not inspectors, of the disablement taking place at Yongbyon.) The United States and the international community have a vested interest in empowering the IAEA, which is where “the rubber meets the road” in determining whether states are abiding by their non-nuclear commitments.

    But North Korea is not enthusiastic about IAEA conducting inspections. Pyongyang has suggested it would prefer the United States, but this may cause problems with the other members of the Six-Party Talks, especially America’s South Korean and Japanese allies. Indeed, this may be one of the North’s motives.

  • The next challenge is to determine what will be inspected. Undoubtedly, verification experts will visit all the sites listed in the North’s declaration, interview scientists, engineers and technicians, conduct forensic examinations of nuclear materials and take environmental samples.
  • And they will also insist on gaining access, perhaps on short notice, to additional sites not listed in the North’s nuclear declaration or to other suspect sites that become identified later on. North Korea is certain to resist this last demand, especially if these sites are co-located with military bases. This is likely to produce a new set of protracted negotiations.

    Significantly, North Korea will not allow access to all of its nuclear activities at this stage. Inspections will not cover North Korea’s enriched uranium, traces of which appeared on some of the documents previously handed over to the United States. Inspections will not cover the high-explosive test sites the North has used to refine its bomb-making skills. Inspections will not cover the nuclear weapons components the North may have constructed for its nuclear arsenal and that could be transferred to other countries.

    And inspections will not address the North’s other proliferation activities, such as the reactor it was helping Syria build and that Israel destroyed last September. All these issues will also be subject to future negotiations.

    Further, inspections may extend to South Korea. North Korean officials have recently referenced the September 2005 joint declaration, which emphasizes the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula. They have said Pyongyang wants the right to conduct reciprocal inspections in the South to ensure no U.S. nuclear weapons are based there. Any procedures adopted in the North will likely be applied in the South as well.

  • The last challenge is devising a standard for verification success. While perfect knowledge of all of the North’s nuclear activities would be wonderful, that is not going to happen. So the question becomes: How much uncertainty are the United States and the other parties willing to accept?
  • The answer should be less than a bomb’s worth.

    Historically, nuclear weapons states have never anticipated that their programs would one day be audited, so recordkeeping has been less than ideal, especially during the early years when states have usually tried to maximize output. Doubts arose even in the case of South Africa, which dismantled its nuclear bombs in the early 1990s. In 1993, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate could not guarantee South Africa did not still have a bomb somewhere. In recent years, non-nuclear weapons states such as Japan also have acknowledged enough sensitive “material unaccounted for” from their civilian nuclear activities to build nuclear bombs.

    After all the inspections, sampling and testing, at the end of the day a technical judgment is unlikely to be 100 percent certain that North Korea has come clean. At that point, a policy judgment will be needed to decide whether to go forward.

    Assuming North Korea had satisfactorily addressed all questions about its enriched uranium and proliferation activities, consensus could be formed around a standard of 3 to 6 kilograms of plutonium, the low-end amount needed to build one nuclear warhead. The challenge then would be to ensure high confidence that North Korea did not have more than this amount. Different members of the Six-Party Talks are likely to have different ideas about how much confidence is sufficient and how much uncertainty they can live with.

    Verification challenges still unaddressed are daunting. They will take many months, perhaps years, and last well into the next administration. With North Korea, we have not reached the beginning of the end, only the end of the beginning.

    Mitchell B. Reiss worked on North Korean issues at the U.S. State Department, where he was director of policy planning from 2003-05. He is vice provost for international affairs at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

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