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Politics and Verification: Lessons of North Korea

As any newspaper reader probably now knows, North Korea recently revealed to visiting American scientist Sig Hecker what he called a “stunning” and “astonishingly modern” uranium enrichment centrifuge plant.  The facility, containing some 2,000 centrifuges, allegedly has an enrichment capacity said to be about 8,000 kg SWU/year – which is a nuclear scientist’s way of saying it could produce two tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU) or 40 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) annually – and has shocked the outside world with its apparent sophistication.  Whatever the finesse of its builders and operators, however, it clearly finally puts to rest longstanding debates about whether North Korea (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) had a serious uranium enrichment program at all.

That there had so long been a debate about whether North Korea was pursuing enrichment, however, is really something of an embarrassment – and should provide a sobering lesson about some of the political limitations of arms control verification.  It is now generally acknowledged that the DPRK began its uranium enrichment work at least as early as the early- or mid-1990s, when it received substantial assistance from Pakistan.  As David Albright and Paul Brannan recently concluded, for instance, North Korea received training in centrifuge enrichment beginning in 1993 as part of a deal with Pakistan pursuant to which Islamabad received ballistic missile technology and Pyongyang got assistance with nuclear weapons.   Sig Hecker himself now goes so far as to conclude that the DPRK uranium program “started early, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s,” and then accelerated as a result of “dealings with [Pakistani nuclear scientist and international nuclear weapons technology smuggler] A.Q. Khan in the 1990s.”

Such conclusions have inescapable significance as the world now struggles with how to handle the growing threats to international peace and security presented by the North Korean regime.  (I’ll confine my discussion here to nuclear issues, but the reader will need no reminding that this has been a year in which DPRK forces torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel and shelled a South Korean village.)  In this context, the most recent uranium revelations make clear that in nuclear matters the DPRK has apparently never at any point negotiated or accepted agreements in good faith with its international interlocutors.

If its uranium enrichment program has been underway as long as Hecker believes, North Korea apparently did not show good faith in joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, nor in its 1991 denuclearization accord with South Korea, nor in signing an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement in 1992.  It did not show good faith in signing the “Agreed Framework” nuclear deal with America in 1994, nor in its dealings with the IAEA from 1994 to 2002, nor at any point during the long frustrations of the now-suspended “Six-Party Talks” begun by the Bush Administration after Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT in 2003 – including the promises it made in the 2005 Joint Declaration produced by these talks, among them not to transfer nuclear technology abroad and to provide a complete declaration of all its nuclear activities.

The implications of this consistent lack of good faith are obvious, and it is their very obviousness that has overshadowed – and, many would argue, undercut the legitimacy of – the ongoing diplomatic effort to negotiate with Pyongyang.  The shadow of the DPRK’s fundamental unseriousness as a negotiating partner, in turn, helps explain why assessments of DPRK enrichment have been so contested, even though much of the evidence of it has been available for years.

Since the Hecker revelations just a couple of weeks ago (in November 2010), some conservatives have pointed out how reluctant U.S. officials have long been – even under the Bush Administration – to accept the evidence of DPRK enrichment work.   Writing in the Weekly Standard, for instance, Stephen Hayes has sketched a history of official U.S. efforts to wish away evidence of enrichment in the name of continued commitment to the diplomatic process. His allegation is corroborated by my former State Department colleague Carolyn Leddy – who worked on these very issues for a time on the National Security Council staff, and whose first-hand account relates how “delusion” helped blind the Bush Administration during its second term to the “inconvenient truth” of ongoing North Korean enrichment work.  I myself have detailed on this website my experience of the dishonest lengths to which the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) went – during the first Bush Administration, which to its credit did reveal the existence of at least some DPRK enrichment work in 2002 – in its internal effort to discredit what turned out to be quite accurate reports and assessments of the North Korean enrichment program (and the aforementioned Pakistani missiles-for-bombs deal) dating back to the mid-1990s.  It’s not a pretty story.

These accounts of willful blindness, however – or, more specifically, of desperate efforts to find reasons not to believe an increasing weight of evidence because of the political and diplomatic implications of acknowledging such bad news – need to be set in context.  As Leddy accurately recounts, U.S. efforts to downplay the issue of DPRK enrichment do indeed represent what was in some regards a “bipartisan failure.”  (I'll confine my discussion here to U.S. timorousness, but one should remember that rest of the world has been even worse.  South Korea, for instance, suppressed reporting from a high-ranking North Korean defector who began spilling the beans about these matters in 1997 – though officials in Seoul had help from some of their U.S. intelligence counterparts.)  But these examples also represent more than just a singular failure.  They illustrate a profound political weakness in compliance verification that should worry anyone who supports the negotiation and maintenance of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements.

To some extent, this is not a new observation.  In an article published in the mid-1990s, for instance, David Kay – who had stepped down in 1992 as the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector in Iraq – warned that the politics of arms control verification frequently mitigates against honesty in compliance assessment by creating incentives to ignore evidence of violations in cases where admitting such problems would tend to force leaders to make difficult diplomatic or even military choices.  Historically, Kay wrote, “the verification process is often twisted to avoid finding violations because of the uncertainty or unpalatability of political choices that would arise from confirmed violations.”*  In that article, he offered the example of Allied inspectors ignoring German violations of the Versailles treaty in the interwar years because their governments were entirely unprepared to do anything in response, and did not wish to suffer embarrassment by having to confront the issue.  Kay also pointed to the Clinton Administration’s determination to turn a blind eye to Chinese assistance for ballistic missile and nuclear weapons proliferation in the 1990s – a recurring problem that led to fierce battles with the Republican-controlled Congress of the time, and produced President Clinton’s 1998 infamous confession about feeling pressure to “fudge” official assessments of such matters.

Subsequent experience offers additional examples, perhaps the most notable being the disgraceful determination of IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei to protect Iran against glaringly obvious conclusions of safeguards and NPT noncompliance based upon evidence gathered by his own agency.  Rather than actually do his crucial job in supporting nuclear safeguards verification, ElBaradei chose to try to play a role as what he called the world’s “secular pope” – a man doing “God’s work” in saving the planet from “crazies” who might seize upon news of Iranian violations as an excuse for war.  (In comparison with ElBaradei’s solipcistic grandiosity, my old sparring partners at INR and the State Department’s legal bureau were modest indeed.  They, too, seem to have tried to seize for themselves a political role that superseded their professional responsibilities, but at least they pretended to argue about the law and the strength of the evidence.)

The long struggles over admitting the existence of a serious DPRK uranium enrichment program thus constitute merely one example of a broader phenomenon – a dynamic which one needs to bear in mind when assessing arguments about the reliability of verification in the future, especially in multilateral contexts.  There is much discussion in the disarmament community today about how one might overcome the technical challenges of verifying the dismantlement of nuclear warheads and handling fissile material accountability in a nuclear weapons abolition regime.  I do not wish to minimize such challenges, for they are formidable.  The lessons of DPRK enrichment assessments, however, make clear that David Kay is right that verification can also present political challenges.  Where admitting a violation would force one to face difficult choices about compliance enforcement – and especially when confronting such a problem might even lead to war – there will exist powerful incentives to ignore or dismiss evidence of noncompliance.

It is sometimes alleged in disarmament circles that skeptics should be less worried about the reliability of compliance enforcement in a “nuclear zero” regime because all countries would have such a powerful security interest in preventing regime “breakout” by a rogue government that they would surely work quickly and effectively together to bring pressure upon the malefactor – even to the point of undertaking compliance enforcement by force of arms.  As one scholar put it at a recent disarmament conference I attended, “[t]he readiness to join forces for preventive military action, even against a major power, would most likely be considerably higher than today.”  So confident was he in the reliability of such quick and effective cooperation – and in the efficacy of such guaranteed compliance enforcement in deterring violations in the first place – that he even suggested vesting in the IAEA Director General or the U.N. Secretary General the power to set in motion a process pursuant to which that official’s finding of noncompliance would authorize preventative war against the violator if the problem were not resolved within a certain period of time.

The abovementioned examples of the political difficulties of verification, however, indicate that such confidence may be misplaced.  Indeed, they suggest quite the opposite possibility: precisely because the “cost” of a noncompliance finding would be so much higher than in most compliance assessment situations in today’s world, the assessment of violations under an abolition regime would be especially controversial and contested.  In a world of “nuclear zero,” after all, finding a violation to have occurred and one state’s nuclear “breakout” to be underway – especially under my friend’s wild scheme of tying the legality of preventative war to a noncompliance finding made by an international bureaucrat such as ElBaradei – could have positively enormous implications, including in sparking a precipitous nuclear rearmament race by many states, and quite possibly a preventative war that could involve the use of nuclear weapons on one or both sides.  With this being the stakes, how rigorous do you think political leaders could be depended upon to be in their interpretation of the evidence?  The standard of proof that would likely be demanded in such circumstances might be staggeringly high, if indeed it could be met at all before the violator had decided the time was ripe to reveal things himself.

It is hard to imagine any way to guarantee political reliability in the verification process: there is no way of getting around the responsibilities of rigor in compliance analysis, nor of ensuring that leaders will not shirk these responsibilities when findings of violations have such consequences.  To be sure, in a future world – no less than today – some national leaders, depending upon their circumstances and the types of threats at issue, would probably feel incentives to err in the other direction, preferring to risk a false positive (e.g., overreacting to what turns out not to be a violation) than to suffer the consequences of a false negative (e.g., not catching a violation until it may be too late to reverse things).  Yet it also seems likely that others will follow the pattern identified by David Kay, being willing to believe well-nigh anything except that noncompliance has occurred.

There is no “fix” for the problems that are likely to ensue when such perspectives collide; this is a tension that the international community must manage on an ongoing basis as it stumbles along.  But we are fooling ourselves if we simply dismiss these problems of verification politics, for they are quite real, and one should be skeptical of arguments that presuppose there to be some inherent reliability in any verification process.  The recent revelations about DPRK uranium enrichment should remind us that Leddy’s “inconvenient truth” problem is in fact a general one.  No serious student of arms control should ignore it.

-- Christopher Ford


*     David Kay, “The Challenge of Inspecting and Verifying Virtual Nuclear Arsenals,” Nuclear Weapons in a Transformed World (Michael J. Mazarr, ed.) (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), at 103, 111.

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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