Sun, Jun 10, 2018 - Page 7 News List

A verifiable path to nuclear disarmament

Even if North Korea agrees to denuclearization, the international community has no standard set of procedures to guarantee that a country claiming to disarm is actually doing so

By Piet de Klerk and Robert Floyd

Illustration: June Hsu

As officials from the US and North Korea prepare for the summit meeting on Tuesday between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, nuclear experts must come to terms with a significant question: If Kim commits to dismantling his nuclear stockpile, how can the world be sure that he is following through?

There is no question that North Korea poses a unique challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation regime — the political context for advancing disarmament globally is very different. Still, the technical aspects of verifying that a nuclear warhead has been dismantled are the same everywhere. Although a consensus on how to reduce global stockpiles of nuclear weapons might be a long way off, it is not too soon to begin preparing for the day when disarmament — in North Korea or elsewhere — is on the agenda.

For nearly four years, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) has been working to improve the weapons dismantlement process. As cochairs of an IPNDV working group, we are collaborating with experts from more than 25 nuclear and non-nuclear-armed countries to develop formulas, technologies and expertise that would help in the implementation of future disarmament agreements.

Ultimately, the partnership’s goal is to address capability gaps in the monitoring and verification of nuclear-weapons disposal. So far, our work has focused on four areas.

First, despite decades of strategic arms-control agreements and unilateral disarmament, the international community has no standardized way to guarantee that a country claiming to disarm is actually doing so. For example, previous treaties in the SALT and START series to reduce US and Soviet or Russian arsenals were aimed at limiting the number of nuclear warheads deployed on bombers, missiles and submarines. Inspectors verified the inventories of those delivery systems, but not the warheads themselves. This remains a major gap that is to become even more contentious as the number of weapons declines — and the need for stronger verification increases.

Second, the world requires a more diverse set of “verifiers” to build confidence in the disarmament process. During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the US were the two main nuclear-armed states — accounting for the bulk of the 70,000 weapons then in existence. While Russia and the US still possess the vast majority of the world’s 14,000 to 15,000 nuclear weapons, efforts to reduce stockpiles have grown more complicated as the number of nuclear-armed states has increased.

Third, with nuclear-weapons inventories still too high, a strong verification regime could help build political will for further reductions. The lower the number, the more important verification is to become. Moving toward zero, verification becomes absolutely critical.

Finally, because policymakers will no doubt make demands related to verification during future disarmament negotiations, persuasive answers, supported by strong technical evidence, will be critical to allaying the negotiators fears about cheating.

Since IPNDV was founded in December 2014, our members have been exploring the most challenging technical aspects of verifying weapons dismantlement. One issue we have sought to tackle is how to involve countries without nuclear weapons. While our work in this area is ongoing, what we are essentially developing is a system of “verification with a blindfold” — whereby states and inspectors unable to observe dismantlement directly can still be assured that it is carried out according to agreed procedures.

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