Establishing a Framework for Verifying North Korean Disarmament

This post was written by Mary Fulham, an intern on NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy and Programs team who is a recent graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a major in Middle East Studies.

In the weeks since the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the Trump administration has insisted that North Korea is already making progress towards denuclearization. Regional and technical experts remain skeptical of North Korea’s commitment to ending its prized nuclear program, but if the North Koreans prove themselves ready to denuclearize, what practical measures will be required for an effective denuclearization and verification process?

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) invited experts to answer this question during an event titled, “Verifying North Korean Denuclearization: Where Do We Go From Here?” Moderator Stephen Pomper, US Program Director at the International Crisis Group, began the conversation by asking the panelists to put their skepticism “on mute.”

Panelist Richard Johnson, senior director for Fuel Cycle and Verification at NTI, emphasized the need for a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear program and a detailed, mutually agreed upon definition of the scope of disarmament before jumping into an ill-defined process. Johnson said it is important for US negotiators to “know at the outset what [they]…are talking about here” and “to leave the negotiating table with the same understanding” as their North Korean counterparts.

Johnson’s concern is informed by the derailment of previous US-DPRK negotiations caused by miscommunication and vague language. He cited the 2012 Leap Day deal, which broke down after the North Koreans launched a satellite. A satellite launch was not defined in the deal, and the US interpreted it to be a violation of the deal’s prohibition on missile launches. 

The key takeaway from the history of US-DPRK negotiations? “Definitions matter,” Johnson said. “They need to be as clear as possible.” He acknowledged that definitions can be hard to establish in diplomatic negotiations where “pragmatic ambiguity” is often seen as an asset. But he said it is best to “deal with these hard questions at the outset, rather than set ourselves up for failure,” noting that we have not even defined the current “freeze” on missile and nuclear tests.

Johnson’s fellow panelists, Rebecca Hersman, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior adviser of the International Security Program at CSIS, and William Tobey, senior fellow at the Belfer Center, both agreed that a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and a clear framework are foundational components of an effective and lasting denuclearization and verification regime.

After a declaration, the US and North Korean negotiators would need to settle on a framework for disarmament. Johnson highlighted the potential for a cooperative threat reduction (CTR)-style approach, as recommended by NTI Co-Chair Sam Nunn and Board Member Richard Lugar in an op-ed for The Washington Post in April 2018. The recommended approach draws from the successful experience of the Nunn-Lugar CTR program developed in the 1990s to address the urgent nuclear dangers posed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Johnson agreed that the CTR program, which brought together the US and other nations and international organizations to help Russia eliminate and secure Soviet nuclear, biological, and chemical materials and redirect scientists to peaceful work, could serve as a helpful template for North Korea.

Hersman said that any framework—whether it outlines a CTR-style, comprehensive, or step-by-step approach—will help to ensure that “we’re not just giving things away without getting something in return.”

Ideally, where would Johnson like to see North Korea in July 2019? He envisions IAEA inspectors monitoring a production freeze at North Korean nuclear facilities and taking environmental samples, the removal of fissile materials, and the destruction of some delivery systems. “This would be my best-case scenario outcome, but it is extremely challenging to do,” he said. 

July 31, 2018

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