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In pursuing the verified denuclearization of North Korea, international safeguards implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are the unquestionable standard for the verification of nuclear material and activities. However, given current realities, the implementation of such safeguards can only be a long-term goal and would entail a long and difficult process. Such monitoring and verification activities should pave the way for North Korea to ultimately conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an additional protocol, the full implementation of which should remain the ultimate objective.

Building on many earlier studies, this article explores what paths might eventually lead to comprehensive safeguards and how verification and safeguards could be introduced in a gradual and successive manner as part of a phased denuclearization process. The verification approaches considered here are within the scope of IAEA safeguards, so they do not include North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and associated weaponization activities, although the agency could be granted authority to take on monitoring tasks related to those areas as it has in past special cases (notably, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran).

The Basis for Comprehensive IAEA Safeguards

Historically, IAEA safeguards have been applied under a variety of mandates, and model safeguards agreements are applied in standard situations, notably for comprehensive safeguards under Article III of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).1 However, since the IAEA’s verification mandate in a given case is determined by the specific terms of each agreement, a monitoring and verification mandate for North Korea could be modified according to specific situations, and such a mandate could be as wide or as limited as the negotiating parties agree to make it, subject to the approval of the IAEA Board of Governors.

Marc-Gérard Albert
Marc-Gérard Albert has worked over the past twenty-five years in international nuclear matters and the governance of nuclear energy with respect to safeguards, safety, and security, as well as in senior managerial positions at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the French technical organizations CEA and IRSN, and the French diplomatic service.

Even with comprehensive safeguards as the ultimate objective, the gradual implementation of safeguards would have to adopt specific technical objectives and approaches. The basis for comprehensive safeguards is Article III of the NPT, and the general objective of such safeguards is to detect the diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material in a timely manner before a state seeking to break out can produce its first nuclear weapon. Practical safeguarding measures stem from this goal and aim at detecting, in particular, the diversion of the approximate quantity of nuclear material needed for one weapon. While this technical objective has value in a situation involving a state that has been compliant with its treaty obligations to date, that objective is not relevant to North Korea today, given that Pyongyang has already produced multiple nuclear weapons.

The referenced safeguards approach begins with a comprehensive declaration by the state in question of detailed information on all its nuclear activities, facilities, and material within the scope of the safeguards. The IAEA then gains access to the declared items and additional associated information (like operating records, for instance). Verification activities, which are generally conducted in a systematic manner, can then proceed. These activities include the verification of all nuclear material with a strict fixed periodicity and a detailed accounting of this material. At the end of the verification process, the IAEA aims to reach a conclusion on the correctness and completeness of the state’s declarations and on the peaceful use of nuclear material with a high level of confidence. In addition, standard verification adheres to a strict timeline so that potential violations are detected quickly.

Successive Safeguards and Gradual Implementation

Notably, the elements of this approach could be broken up and applied in parts, gradually and sequentially, in a case like North Korea. Instead of being implemented over a state’s entire civil nuclear complex at once, safeguards can be implemented in stages, providing only partial verification with incomplete knowledge and reduced confidence. Thus, safeguards could serve interim objectives related to transparency and confidence building and create the foundation for achieving the ultimate objective of full implementation and more complete assurances.

Staged implementation could apply with respect to the nature of such verification, its scope, its level of detail and/or accuracy, its timing, and the level of confidence provided. For starters, the nature of such verification may be—rather than full oversight of North Korea’s nuclear program’s activities, quantities of materials, and characteristics—the mere monitoring of a freeze, that is to say the absence of activities, production, or movement of materials at declared facilities.

With respect to scope, early phase verification could include partial coverage over space, facilities, and/or a range of nuclear activities and materials (such as the coverage of only plutonium production and processing facilities); it could also include partial declarations and verification. The level of detail involved in these early verification activities could vary as only a limited range of information might be declared or accessed. Verification activities themselves could be limited and/or nonsystematic, and they could be performed with less accuracy in the verification of quantities.

As regards timing—while in standard safeguards practice, the three elements of declaration, access, and verification closely follow one another for rapid detection—these three elements could be decoupled in a staged approach, and some of these actions could be deferred for extended periods of time. This could be the case, for instance, for declarations, access to declarations, or certain verification activities (such as access with limited activities and deferred, detailed verification).

Finally, stages could also apply with respect to the level of confidence in verification results, including the acceptance of staged levels of assurances with reduced confidence and the use of probabilistic approaches providing partial assurances.

From Gradual to Comprehensive Safeguards

Drawing on IAEA approaches, tools, and practices—as well as precedents for ad hoc verification by the agency—approaches departing from traditional safeguards may be applied for interim, ad hoc monitoring and verification. Such approaches could open windows on North Korea’s program, which could in turn be progressively enlarged to reveal, over time, the full scope of the country’s nuclear complex and lead toward standard full-scope safeguards. Such an approach could also allow a progressive restoration of the damaged working relationship and practices between North Korea and the IAEA.

This article does not intend to propose a ready-to-use roadmap; rather, it explores options that could be used and combined in defining and negotiating possible denuclearization paths for North Korea. Such options could include the ad hoc monitoring of specific facilities, which is close to the provisions in previous 1994 and 2007 mandates; the monitoring of specific activities (such as reactor operation, conversion, and waste management, for instance); item-specific verification with limited geographic coverage; the safeguarding of fixed quantities of nuclear material; the safeguarding of specific types of nuclear material (such as certain fuel, uranium, uranium ore concentrate, uranium hexafluoride, enrichment tails, certain waste, and nonweaponized stocks of highly enriched uranium and of plutonium, or according to isotopic composition).

In particular, the verification of waste products (including irradiated elements, waste from fuel cycle operations, and enrichment tails) could be among the useful first steps toward safeguards in a verified denuclearization process, as waste verification lends itself well to a step-by-step approach, is less intrusive than the verification of fissile material, and still provides useful insights on past production of those materials.

Nonsystematic and probabilistic verification could allow several approaches in which, rather than seeking high assurances through systematic verification of each activity, a satisfactory and progressively increasing level of assurance could be achieved by the probabilistic assessment of compliance over North Korea’s nuclear program as a whole.

Gradual safeguards would also offer a range of options on the submission of declarations. Overall, it was proposed to start with a global declaration of nuclear material in North Korea without details; similar phasing concepts could be applied at less global levels—by declaring, for instance, the total quantity of a certain type of equipment or material or the total quantity of certain fissile material with given characteristics, with details to be provided at a later stage. Declarations could also cover only parts of the activities or materials in question, like material at a certain location (such as Yongbyon) to be expanded at later stages. It also has been suggested that modern information technology could offer ways for North Korea to submit encrypted declarations that could not be altered and would be intended to be read immediately rather than at another, later stage.

For individual facilities or specific nuclear material, various levels of declaration and verification could also be envisaged as indicated in table 1 below.

In addition, some safeguard measures—including, for instance, those on certain materials such as waste—could surface useful information regarding other materials or facilities, thus expanding overall insight into the country’s full program.

Such options could be combined (with respect to scope) to constitute an ad hoc, successive approach and (with respect to timing) to compose a gradual process of phased provisions of information, access, and implementation of verification. This approach could have the effect of ratcheting up the implementation of safeguards gradually by expanding coverage, producing more detailed information on the quantities and characteristics of North Korea’s nuclear materials and facilities, encompassing increasingly sensitive items for Pyongyang, producing over time a complete history of the full scope of the country’s programs, and helping move verification conclusions from partial to full confidence.

Benefits, Risks, and Conditions

Such successive and gradual approaches to eventual comprehensive safeguards offer some real benefits. They could have verification significance, albeit less significance than comprehensive safeguards, and they could have value as confidence-building measures in a progressive denuclearization process. Furthermore, these approaches could be well-suited and tailored to support a process likely to be long and progressive, while offering a range of negotiation options. Importantly, all verification and monitoring measures need not be defined upfront; they can be agreed upon and implemented progressively (if this approach fits within the general scope of a potential future agreement). Finally, these approaches may allow an earlier and easier introduction of IAEA verification in North Korea than would be the case if more demanding measures were required up front.

Beyond these benefits, policymakers should be aware that these approaches carry specific risks. These approaches would likely be more susceptible to deception than comprehensive verification. They would offer lower probabilities of detecting noncompliance, may offer less conclusive findings, and they may increase the risks of false positive or negative conclusions. In addition, if not designed and implemented with great caution, they may lead to the irreparable loss of information resulting in the loss of completeness in the knowledge of past and present North Korean activities. Overall, these measures may be deemed to produce insufficient confidence, a limitation that would be compounded by the fact that partial confidence and associated probabilities are conceptually more difficult to apply in practice and may be misinterpreted, notably at political levels. These risks and their potential consequences, as well as possible mitigation measures, would have to be thoroughly analyzed in an overall assessment.

In addition, several conditions would have to be taken into account in defining such approaches. They would have to be compatible with and designed toward the final objective of implementing comprehensive IAEA safeguards in North Korea. In particular, the fact that safeguarding measures or information may be incomplete along the way should not compromise the possibility of eventually reaching completeness, and North Korea would need to agree to preserve the information needed for the IAEA to draw its conclusions. Also, to account for the conceptual difficulties and risks of misinterpretation with respect to partial confidence and associated probabilities, the remaining possibility of false positive or negative conclusions should be factored into analysis and decisionmaking. Overall, such technical approaches would have to be thoroughly defined and presented so as to adequately inform political decisionmaking.

Finally, if such approaches were to be implemented, several broader points would have to be considered, including the role of the IAEA, the agency’s relationship to the P5 countries (particularly for the verification of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal), and the role of other actors or mechanisms. The acceptability of deviations from standard safeguards implementation and the associated risks would have to be assessed along with how discrepancies and potential noncompliance would be managed. In addition, successive and phased safeguards would obviously have to fit with broader phasing issues, both technical and political.


Safeguards could be implemented in North Korea according to successive and gradual schemes. Such approaches could allow small steps that may be useful and necessary in a progressive denuclearization process while maintaining both verification significance and value as confidence-building measures. However, their political feasibility and acceptability, as well as their associated technical and political risks, would have to be thoroughly analyzed. In any event, comprehensive safeguards in North Korea should remain the standard and the final objective.


1 Based on the models for Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements INFCIRC/153/(Corrected) and for Additional Protocols INFCIRC/540(Corrected).