Throughout the Trump administration, the State Department has repeatedly called for the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea. Heading into Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic negotiations in Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed this ambition on Monday. The talks will present numerous challenges and potential pitfalls, but perhaps the greatest of all is the question of how the global community can verify that North Korea keeps any promises it might make about its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is, of course, famously reclusive. For decades, the global community has had minimal visibility and insight into the country. Using tools like satellite imaging, heat sensing, and official releases from the North Korean government itself, analysts have been able to piece together some understanding of the country’s nuclear weapons program as it has grown. But these examinations are limited and imperfect, due to the dearth of useful intelligence. To have a real understanding of whether North Korea abides by any commitments it makes, the international community would need drastically more transparency and access than it has ever received previously from the Hermit Kingdom.
Camouflage, Concealment, Deception
Experts caution that disarmament is an unlikely outcome of this specific meeting. But any nuclear abatement on North Korea’s part, whether it comes now or later, will be incredibly difficult to monitor.
“North Korea does things in such a way where they build critical components of critical facilities in dispersed parts of the country and also underground,” says Joseph Bermudez, a strategic advisor of AllSource Analysis, Inc., who analyzes satellite images of North Korea for watchdog group 38 North. “Identifying those facilities and determining what’s in them is extremely difficult, because North Korea since the mid-1960s has practiced what we call CCD—camouflage, concealment, and deception—where you seek to give your opponent a false impression or false understanding of what’s actually happening.”
Kim Jong Un said in April that North Korea would pause nuclear weapons testing and even dismantle some of its program facilities. But just that initial gesture has proven difficult to evaluate and verify. The country certainly hasn’t conducted any ballistic missile tests since the statement, an event the international community can more easily track because it’s, you know, extremely visible. But the question of what exactly North Korea has destroyed and how much it impacts the overall viability of the country’s weapons program remains very much open.
Take as an example, North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, which is housed inside a mountain. Some satellite and seismic data indicates that it recently imploded as a result of increasingly powerful detonations, and has been rendered unusable. But analysts also see some counter-evidence indicating that North Korea simply collapsed the tunnels leading to the facility to make it appear inoperative, while secretly leaving crucial infrastructure intact inside.
‘Identifying those facilities and determining what’s in them is extremely difficult.’
Joseph Bermudez, AllSource Analysis, Inc.
Punggye-ri is North Korea’s main test site, and the country would need to build another in order to continue advancing its bomb technology if the site has actually been destroyed. But the country could conceivably already have another, as yet undetected full-service test site waiting in the wings. And even if it doesn’t, recent milestones in the country’s hydrogen bomb testing may have left Kim Jong Un confident that North Korean engineers now know how to build adequately light and powerful warheads for ballistic missiles, potentially lessening the immediate need for a test site.
Analysts agree that the only way to confirm whatever nuclear promises North Korea’s might make over time would be “an intrusive monitoring and inspection system,” as Frank Aum, a former Department of Defense senior advisor on North Korea, puts it. But Aum notes that any successes from the summit would more likely be broad verbal and written commitments, with specific details still months or years away.
“The two big issues going into the summit are price and pace,” Aum says. “What is each side willing to pay and how long will this process take to play out? North Korea wants something that’s prolonged and in phases, whereas the US is expecting something much more accelerated. So any kind of timeline coming out this would be very helpful—even just a date or ballpark for the next summit.”
However general or minor agreements coming out of this first summit may be, the crucial difficulty in holding North Korea accountable for anything is that no one knows exact inventories of what facilities and materials North Korea has where. Even if the country were to agree to admit foreign inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency or another body, the examiners would only know to ask to see certain sites. North Korea would need to voluntarily disclose the location and existence of concealed facilities and materials for inspectors to be able to check them. And given how carefully North Korea controls its borders and airspace, hunting for fissile material would prove tricky
The situation also creates a negotiating imbalance. “A verification framework would be complicated and very difficult,” Aum says. “Say, for example, intelligence estimates suggest that North Korea may have enough fissile material for 30 weapons, but then they declare that they have enough for 25. Will we keep asking for more intrusions and threaten a peace agreement or better relations because we think they have enough for five more than they said?”
Observers say it is very unlikely at this point that North Korea would show its cards anyway, or even agree to reducing its nuclear stockpiles in the first place. “The official North Korea statements are very clear that North Korea has nuclear weapons, they’re not giving them up, and this is about changing the relationship between the two countries on the basis of that fact,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.
‘A verification framework would be complicated and very difficult.’
Frank Aum, Former DoD Senior Advisor
But there are smaller trust-building gestures that Trump and Kim could consider. For example, North and South Korea could forge an open skies agreement similar to the one between the US and Russia that allows each country a certain number of unrestricted reconnaissance flights over the other. Such an agreement would give an opportunity for South Korea and its allies to gather higher fidelity data on what’s going on in North Korea than satellites can gather. But North Korea might also not jump at it, since it may not have the aeronautical and sensor technology needed to really from flyovers of South Korea. The two leaders could also offer things like observer status in military exercises, or tours of specific tactical facilities. But there is no easy answer to what either leader can offer that will satisfy the other.
“These promises, these agreements need to be backed up by on-the-ground assets and a greater transparency by North Korea, which will be challenging,” 38 North’s Bermudez says. “Even if Kim Jong Un was this person who wanted to open North Korea and wanted to change North Korea to make it a successful country the system itself does not permit that to happen quickly. There’s internal resistance.”
North Korea has failed to keep a number of denuclearization promises in the past, but observers note that Kim Jong Un himself has never made such promises. The summit in Singapore could be a first step, but given North Korea’s track record and the volatility of the Trump administration there’s a lot to overcome before there are even any promises to verify.