Despite major differences between the cases of Iran and North Korea, there are several useful observations from the lengthy talks between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating parties (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that might be applicable to future talks with North Korea. In particular, the innovative proscriptions and monitoring and verification provisions developed in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could be useful should North Korea agree to monitored constraints on its nuclear program.
Different Cases, Similar Challenges
Iran has never produced nuclear weapons, despite conducting extensive R&D activities to support weapons acquisition. Even prior to the JCPOA, the international community—via International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections pursuant to Iran’s safeguards agreement—had a fairly comprehensive picture of Iran’s nuclear program. With major unanswered questions about Iran’s design work on nuclear weapons, however, JCPOA negotiators sought to bound Iran’s fissile material accumulation and production potential and subject its nuclear activities to more rigorous IAEA monitoring. In this manner, Iran’s nuclear program would maintain a peaceful veneer, and the timeline for Tehran’s potential to break out of the agreement and produce nuclear weapons would be about one year, giving the international community time to mount a response.
In contrast to these goals, North Korea possesses an active and growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and a complex, dispersed supporting infrastructure with various elements. North Korea’s nuclear activities have been effectively unmonitored for decades (aside from a few periods of partial monitoring), so baseline knowledge of its activities and inventories is poor, and it would be nearly impossible to reach certainty that all of the country’s warheads, missiles, or fissile materials were accounted for. Even well-known facilities at the Yongbyon complex have gone unmonitored since the IAEA was last evicted from the country in April 2009. Much of what is known or believed about North Korea’s nuclear activities (in the public domain, at least) is shaped by Pyongyang’s propaganda efforts. There are major uncertainties about the locations of some activities, including the number of uranium enrichment facilities it operates. Meaningful constraints on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal—as well as the consequences of Pyongyang breaking out of an agreement—would have to extend well beyond fissile material to other relevant activities, such as missile production. Finally, unlike Iran, North Korea appears not to trust the IAEA as an independent monitoring body of nuclear activities.
Yet aspects of the two cases are similar enough that innovative elements of the JCPOA negotiations could provide useful lessons. For instance, with North Korea, negotiators would need to address a likely demand to permit trade activity in technology and goods that would flow into claimed peaceful nuclear and space activity; in the Iranian case, the JCPOA stipulated that nuclear-related imports were to be sent through an approved procurement channel in line with internationally established standards (see JCPOA Annex I, Section P). Other similarities include establishing a prohibition on exports of nuclear weapons–related items and (perhaps) missiles, securing provisions to facilitate access to sensitive sites (see JCPOA Annex I, Section Q), and proscribing certain research activities that would permit qualitative improvements to the performance of nuclear weapons (see JCPOA Annex I, Section T).
For Iran, relief from multilateral sanctions was an important negotiating objective, and presumably it would be for North Korea too. The P5+1 sought to monitor Iran’s nuclear-related imports once the sanctions that banned such goods were removed while facilitating the few imports necessary to redesign Iran’s 40 megawatt (thermal) heavy water reactor at Arak to be more proliferation-resistant—imports that would have remained otherwise prohibited by the UN Security Council (UNSC). UNSC Resolution 2231 satisfied the aims of both sides by removing the prior sanctions regime and the associated UN sanctions committee while also permitting imports of previously banned nuclear items, subject to P5+1 approval. This resolution also established a channel for monitoring Iranian procurement facilitated by the UN secretariat, a channel that provided the P5+1 governments with information about requested transfers for their approval. In addition, the procurement channel ensured that the IAEA would be notified of certain nuclear imports relevant to safeguards in Iran.
For the P5+1, an important benefit of the procurement channel was the ability to partially shape Iran’s nuclear activities through the control of imports for ten years starting when the JCPOA entered force. This channel also created a de facto understanding that any nuclear-related imports pursued by Iran outside the procurement channel would be suspicious and cause for evaluating Iran’s compliance with the agreement’s terms.
Implementation of the procurement channel since the JCPOA came into force has not been without glitches. Not least, the UN secretariat was not sufficiently staffed to support the operations of the channel, and it would have been better—if not politically, then practically—to keep the sanctions committee intact, albeit with a different name and function. Drawing from these lessons, an adapted procurement channel could be a useful component of an agreement with North Korea. A complementary approach to augment the monitoring gains of the channel would be to give exporting states the authority to conduct and report end-use verification monitoring to the UN (or another cognizant monitoring authority). This approach could facilitate, for example, inspection requests associated with military- or space-related facilities.
In addition to a mechanism for managing procurement, JCPOA negotiators were also mindful of the potential that Iran could export nuclear and missile items to third countries, especially those of concern such as Syria or North Korea. Moreover, since Iran is not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (notwithstanding its possession of fuel cycle capabilities) or the Missile Technology Control Regime, Iran has not conformed its policies with obligations contained in international trade regimes to condition sales of technologies that could be used for weapons of mass destruction. Section P of the JCPOA’s Annex I stipulates that the joint commission comprised of the P5+1 states approve any nuclear-related trade Iran would undertake with third countries for a period of fifteen years.
A similar requirement for approvals of North Korean exports of nuclear and, if possible, missile technology, equipment, or other related goods is an important objective for negotiators, given Pyongyang’s proliferation record. Such prohibitions are already contained in existing UNSC resolutions. That said, for purposes of diplomacy, an export prohibition could be framed effectively in more permissive terms, namely that North Korea would express its intention not to export certain goods, with any such exports to be approved by a designated body associated with overseeing implementation of the agreement.
One means of combining both an import- and export-monitoring and approval function would be by establishing a nuclear and missile commerce commission (or an organ with a similar nomenclature) within the UN secretariat. This body could be charged with facilitating both functions and conveying pertinent information to the relevant authorities that may be monitoring and/or inspecting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Drawing on the JCPOA experience, it would be prudent to specify the operational procedures of such a commission in detail so as to mitigate potential delays, including by specifying the languages in which relevant information should be made available.
Establishing Access Deadlines
JCPOA negotiators gave special consideration to securing IAEA access to undeclared Iranian sites long suspected of having a nuclear-related purpose. Delays in Iranian acquiescence to access requests could cause significant technical challenges for determining compliance, as well as political challenges to the sustainability of the agreement. Accordingly, in Section Q of the JCPOA, negotiators established a process that effectively capped the length of time that Iran could stall an access request at twenty-four days. Although this period seems lengthy, under the prevailing IAEA safeguards arrangements, there was no limit on how long Iran could delay or deny an access request.
Future agreements with North Korea presumably would not start from a baseline assumption of blanket access to any site connected to (or suspected of association with) the country’s nuclear weapons program. This is an important distinction from the requirement for Iran to provide such access under its IAEA safeguards agreements. Instead, access to North Korean sites or facilities is likely to be negotiated more on an individual basis. However, there would come a point—under a comprehensive fissile material freeze agreement, for example—at which concerns about undeclared activities could require access to suspected North Korean fuel cycle facilities. Establishing a clear process with given timelines for handling access requests would be important for managing concerns about Pyongyang’s delay tactics. Equally, given Iranian statements after the JCPOA entered into force that the agreement did not apply to military sites, it would be important to seek in negotiations with North Korea clear language that access would not be limited by the need to protect military secrets.
Outside the IAEA, the JCPOA also established a secondary track for access requests: members of the joint commission could call a meeting to raise specific concerns about access. A majority vote of the joint commission would be sufficient to trigger an access requirement. Depending on how the monitoring body for a potential agreement with North Korea would be constituted, a secondary system in which designated member states are able to address access challenges would be desirable.
Banning Weaponization R&D
Although Iran has denied accusations it has carried out work on nuclear weapons designs or other activities involving possible military applications of nuclear technology, the IAEA possesses credible evidence cataloguing a range of suspected Iranian activities that violated its nonproliferation commitments. Despite a baseline Iranian declaration concerning these activities and general uncertainty around the question of possible military dimensions, the permanent prohibition on weapons research, design, and development is an important principle contained in Annex I, Section T of the agreement. The language in that section draws from the Nuclear Suppliers Group Part 2 Guidelines (the so-called dual-use list) as well as information provided by the IAEA about suspected Iranian activities.
Based on publicly available information and North Korean claims, it appears that Pyongyang has successfully tested and started to serially manufacture at least two standardized nuclear weapon designs, and Pyongyang probably continues to carry out weaponization R&D. Since North Korea’s last nuclear test in September 2017, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has mentioned “sub-critical” testing and alluded to the pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons, which could entail new weaponization R&D activities. If a future agreement were to stipulate a freeze or cap of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, it would be important to include provisions prohibiting further activities that could be used to modernize or improve the quality of its existing nuclear arsenal, similar to the provisions in Section T. Ultimately, a North Korean baseline declaration of such activities would be instrumental to determining compliance during a final denuclearization phase; like Iran, it is unlikely North Korea would provide such information at the outset. There may be additional activities or equipment not contained in Section T that would be more relevant to the advanced stage of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. Negotiators could reasonably start with the entirety of Sections 5 and 6 of the Nuclear Suppliers Group Part 2 Guidelines.
A key challenge with respect to Section T that would also apply to North Korea is the lack of established means for monitoring compliance with a prohibition on weaponization. Indeed, many pertinent activities—such as computer simulations—are inherently difficult to monitor with any confidence, and detecting undeclared facilities where such activities might take place is an added challenge. Furthermore, the IAEA, which is responsible for monitoring Section T, does not have standard tools or protocols for monitoring such activities. Even so, creating a principle that such activities are inconsistent with the agreement would be vital to this purpose. Notably, it may be necessary to permit North Korea to undertake certain activities for purposes of safety, surety, or stockpile stewardship; these activities should be subject to monitoring and access requirements. In a late-phase agreement that may cover the dismantlement of all or part of North Korea’s nuclear warheads, certain exemptions could be included to allow the country’s nuclear scientists to participate in warhead dismantlement activities.
One important but less observed virtue of the JCPOA is that it draws on a variety of inspection mandates, including not only those in the JCPOA itself but also those in Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and additional protocols. As the IAEA executes inspections in Iran, all three mandates have been used and invoked. In the case of North Korea, vesting multiple bodies with monitoring mandates could provide greater flexibility.
The provisions of the JCPOA contain a range of deadlines. Some expire in ten years or fifteen years, while others are permanent. A similar approach could prove useful with North Korea. Certain activities—including aspects of the country’s nuclear energy program, such as uranium enrichment (if it cannot be banned)—could be frozen for specific periods to incentivize sustained compliance and implementation. Other activities, such as weaponization research, should be prohibited for the life of the agreement. Despite the many meaningful differences between the cases of Iran and North Korea, the JCPOA provides important and useful precedent for how future negotiators might proceed with incorporating innovative verification and monitoring approaches.
The authors are indebted to Richard Nephew for generously sharing many observations and ideas discussed in this article.