During a U.S. State Department press briefing on May 3, 2018, Spokeswoman Heather Nauert stated that Secretary Mike Pompeo had adopted the acronym CVID for the Trump administration’s approach to North Korean denuclearization. CVID, which stands for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” is not a new idea, but it is one that comes with several important underlying questions—both in terms of basic definitions and implementation. While this piece focuses mainly on the “V” of CVID, it is worth briefly exploring the definitional challenges of the other three letters before diving in.

Defining “complete denuclearization” and “irreversible” is difficult. There is little consensus among allies on the meaning of these concepts, especially when it comes to North Korea. Is denuclearization “complete” when there are no more nuclear weapons? No nuclear reactors? No peaceful nuclear activities at all, even if North Korea agrees to rejoin and uphold the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)? For allies, especially regional powers, does this include nuclear-capable-missile production and deployment? If it does, what range of missiles should be covered? When does the denuclearization become irreversible? Is it when all fissile material falls under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards protection? Or is it when that fissile material becomes irretrievable or unusable due to location, material form, or method of disposition? It appears every country interested in the future of the North Korean nuclear program has slightly different answers. With no agreed upon definition of what the end goal even is, it makes it supremely difficult to develop a path forward.

Corey Hinderstein
Corey Hinderstein serves as vice president of international fuel cycle strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Perhaps, then, it may be useful to do a slightly deeper dive into at least one of the parts of CVID—verification. As experts—and more often these days, the media and the public—talk about verification in the context of North Korean denuclearization, there are a few key questions that are worth asking to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.

What Is Verification?

Defining verification is a tricky task. While it may seem simple at face value, it is actually a deeply complicated concept that needs to be based on specific agreements or commitments.

A particularly thorough definition, as laid out by the National Threat Initiative, is “a set of national and cooperative activities, tools, procedures, analytical processes, and fundamentally, judgments about what is happening with regard to specific activities defined in an agreement.” Verification is a process leading to a political decision. It has to be in the service of an agreement that defines scope or limits, otherwise it is just monitoring. Verification is also not the data themselves, which are the inputs to verification collected through monitoring .

Who Does the Verification?

The role of the IAEA in verification is clear. However, since North Korea has not been a member of the IAEA since 1994, some have questioned whether, or when, IAEA involvement is appropriate. North Korea, for its part, has not been enthusiastic about the presence of the IAEA during past negotiations. Without IAEA involvement, the independent credibility of the verification process will be vulnerable. For both technical and political reasons, therefore, the involvement of the IAEA would strengthen a denuclearization agreement, and must be on the table.

Conservative estimates of the cost of verification activities in North Korea start at €5 million–€8 million per year, with the potential to be significantly more expensive. For instance, the cost of IAEA safeguards activities in Iran in 2017 was approximately €15.8 million. The North Korea nuclear program is arguably more secretive and the nuclear-weapons-related activities are more advanced than Iran’s, which would likely lead to a higher cost. While this may not seem like much, as the IAEA plans to spend approximately €145.3 million on nuclear verification worldwide in 2019, the money would have to come from somewhere. When IAEA involvement becomes appropriate, would funds from the regular budget be appropriated, or would the IAEA have to initially rely on extrabudgetary contributions to fund this work? Replicating the technical capability and procedural experience of the IAEA to verify fissile material activities would be even more expensive and likely less immediately effective.

The distinction between fissile material verification and nuclear weapons verification is important. A clear role for nuclear weapon state experts to help verify weapons-related activities will have to be defined, whether as a team within the IAEA (as happened for South Africa and Iraq) or in a parallel process.

When Does Verification Happen?

There must be a clear sense of when verification starts within the broader denuclearization process, and when the verifying parties believe that it ends. Verification will be most effective, and generate the highest confidence, if it is implemented in parallel with dismantlement activity. Verification efforts that are retrospective will take longer and conclusions will include greater uncertainties.

Alex Bednarek
Alex Bednarek currently serves as a program assistant with the International Fuel Cycle Strategies team, having previously served as an intern and research assistant with NTI’s Material Risk Management team.

The ending point ties into the topic of irreversibility, as previously discussed: Does verification end when all material is under IAEA safeguards, or when material is irretrievable or unusable? A detailed, but flexible, verification timeline is essential to the success of any plan to comprehensively and assuredly denuclearize North Korea to the extent that is agreed upon by the parties.

What Is the Role of the Declaration?

There can be no verification without, first, a declaration. Declarations are not all or nothing, but they are the first test of cooperation. For the party making the declarations, omitting information can be a huge gamble, but omission of information does not necessarily mean willful deception. There is always going to be a back-and-forth element to verifying declarations, and both parties must come to the table willing to resolve inconsistencies.

This will not be the first time the international community, and specifically the United States, has elicited declarations from North Korea. Unfortunately, this history is not bright. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States, along with its allies, come to the table with clear expectations, but with the understanding that the process will take some time, and that a comprehensive declaration on the first try is highly unlikely.

How Fast Can Verified Dismantlement Happen?

In short: no idea. There are certainly physical limits, but they are not determinative. The established relationship between the inspectors and the inspected will also play a large factor. While there have been four cases in history of countries giving up nuclear weapons on their territory—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and South Africa—only South Africa can truthfully be considered successful verified dismantlement. The three former Soviet states simply inherited weapons on their territory that they returned to Russia upon dissolution of the Soviet Union. South Africa, however, had domestically enriched its uranium and constructed several nuclear warheads. After South Africa announced its denuclearization, the IAEA conducted after-the-fact verification to determine that not only had the warheads been dismantled, but that the country’s domestic nuclear program had been transitioned to only peaceful uses. Since South Africa maintained a much smaller and cruder nuclear weapons infrastructure than North Korea does, so any comprehensive and lasting agreement with North Korea would lead us into uncharted territory in terms of time frame and complexity.

There are, however, early steps that can be taken by the North Koreans to assure that the process begins smoothly, and demonstrate that they are serious about verifiable dismantlement: (1) establishing continuity of knowledge over existing material, equipment, and locations; (2) allowing measurements; (3) cooperatively developing basic ground rules; and (4) allowing initial site familiarization visits.

The prospect of denuclearizing North Korea is daunting. It has been attempted before, and it has failed before. Despite a purported willingness from all sides to try again, a clear sense of expectations from every side—from simple definitions to implementation approaches—will determine the success of a verified dismantlement process.