James ActonBig Questions, Small Questions

The Six Party talks restarted yesterday in Beijing with verification of North Korea’s declaration topping the agenda.

I’ve blogged about the technical aspects of verification on a number of previous occasions (including here and here). Today I want to focus on the bigger picture and it is this: What is the aim of verification? Too often this question is overlooked.

There are some big unanswered questions about North Korea’s nuclear programme. Did it unload the reactor in spring 1989? If it did, was the fuel reprocessed? Did it help Syria construct the reactor at Al Kibar? Is it building a production-scale centrifuge facility somewhere? (OK. We do know the answer to this one.)

Then there are some smaller questions. How many bench-scale reprocessing campaigns did North Korea conduct in or around 1990? Does North Korea have a pilot-scale enrichment programme?

A well-designed verification regime should be able to answer the big questions pretty conclusively (with the possible exception of the suspected proliferation activities to Syria). However, answering the small questions is likely to be exceptionally difficult. In fact verification is probably not going to produce an unambiguous answer to them—one way or the other.

The problem is most acute with enrichment. Crucially, inspections would be very unlikely to locate a pilot-scale enrichment facility if one did exist (unless exceptionally good intelligence to guide a search were available). Therefore, they won’t be of much help in determining whether North Korea has lied about its enrichment activities. However, the US is pretty certain that North Korea has at least a pilot-scale enrichment programme. Indeed, AQ Kahn has said so in the last few days (although he might, of course, have a political motive for lying.)

So what does the US do if North Korea continues to deny the existence of such a programme? Is it worth derailing the whole denuclearisation process because North Korea won’t fess up to a programme that might not exist—although it probably does?

Many would argue that if North Korea is lying about enrichment it proves that it isn’t serious about denuclearisation and so there’s no point going any further. Other would say that removing all plutonium from North Korea is the main priority and uncertainties about enrichment shouldn’t interfere with this. For what it’s worth, I honestly don’t know where I stand on this.

Given that plutonium is the first priority, the enrichment problem won’t have to be faced for some months or even years. But similar problems might emerge with the plutonium verification. What happens if North Korea continues to deny it conducted multiple bench-scale reprocessing campaigns in or around 1990 in spite of some evidence to the contrary? Should that be a showstopper?

One thing I am sure about is that the US needs to decide what uncertainties it can tolerate and what uncertainties it must see resolved and design a verification system accordingly. Moreover, it must discuss these issues with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. We have already seen a very public disagreement between Japan and the US over the abductees issue. It would be a real problem if the five parties had different views over what verification was supposed to achieve. Any such fractures could well undermine the difficult task of negotiating with North Korea.

Finally, since everyone else on this blog is advertising their articles at the moment, I’ll close by saying that I have a much longer article on this topic coming out in Jane’s Intelligence Review shortly.


  1. Ed Harris (History)

    Good news! Now that Israel will only have a seven-minute flight time (from Iraq), the operation should go quite smoothly.

    And somewhere, without letting anyone know, a few Arab governments will rejoice.

  2. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Verification is about whatever the parties agree it is about.

    My guess is that verification in North Korea will start on a few selected topics, revolving around plutonium production.

    Hopefully we have a number of experts examining the documents the North Koreans have provided so that they can develop specifics for verification. The first step would be to verify that the facts on the ground line up with the documents.

    As you note, the enrichment program comes later. If there is information about enrichment in the documents provided, then specifics can be developed.

    As to whether North Korea helped Syria, that, I am sure, will be the subject of continuing discussions. From various small comments by Christopher Hill, it appears that it has come up already.

    Sorry to take such a prosaic view of verification, but it’s made up of this sort of accounting. The bigger aims figure in the negotiations that lay down the objectives of verification. It’s not up to the inspectors to press beyond those objectives, although I would expect some intense debriefing of the inspectors.

  3. Paul Harrison (History)

    Why are you even worried about Nth Korea? do you not realise they wanted nuclear weapons for one reason only?
    They got them to protect themselves from the only country in the world that has used them in anger a country that still threatens to use them, would you not be better to write about the threat to the world from that country and as they have used them in the past the world should ban them from having nuclear weapons.