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In May 2021, following its classified review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden announced its intention to pursue “a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with [North Korea].” While the administration retains the long-standing objective of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it acknowledges that it seeks to “make practical progress” to increase the security of the United States, that of U.S. forces on and around the Korean Peninsula, and that of U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan. If North Korea agreed to pursue practical steps toward risk reduction, negotiators would face a range of challenges as they broke new ground, among the thorniest of which would be the need for novel methods to monitor and verify compliance with agreed-upon restraints.

The Verification Challenges North Korea Poses

In recent years, North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces have made tremendous qualitative advances. In 2018, before the country’s leader Kim Jong Un turned to international diplomacy with South Korea, the United States, China, and others, he called for North Korea to “mass produce” ballistic missile and nuclear warheads. Official assessments since then, including by the U.S. intelligence community and the United Nations (UN) Panel of Experts pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1874, have suggested that Kim’s directive has been implemented and continues to remain in effect. At military parades in October 2020 and January 2021, Kim further unveiled new missile capabilities, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile possibly capable of carrying multiple warheads. In the meantime, Kim has continued to emphasize that nuclear weapons represent the cornerstone of North Korea’s national defense strategy.

Because the scope of North Korea’s nuclear complex has grown substantially since the failures of prior negotiated agreements to cap its capabilities (such as the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks in the mid-2000s), a comprehensive agreement resulting in the country’s rapid total disarmament is not a realistic near-term prospect. If Washington and Pyongyang resume either direct bilateral talks or multilateral talks on matters related to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the most realistic formula for progress would involve initial caps on parts of North Korea’s programs of concern—including its nuclear and missile programs—before a long-term move toward reductions and, eventually, elimination.

Negotiators and political decisionmakers sitting across from their North Korean counterparts would seek to maximize the verifiability of each phase of any agreement that is reached. Verification and monitoring would be critically important not only to the political viability of any potential future agreement but also to generating measurable progress toward denuclearization. As history shows, orthodox approaches to verification—with robust onsite inspections and other well-defined protocols—are anathema for Pyongyang. While North Korea at times has allowed limited, ad hoc inspections and onsite access, it has only done so after protracted and difficult negotiations—and the last time it did so was when its capabilities were considerably more limited. Notably, North Korea’s checkered history with the International Atomic Energy Agency has shown no signs of improving since agency inspectors were evicted from the country in April 2009. Further, given the near total lack of trust between the United States and North Korea, policymakers cannot expect ideal verification conditions for potential near-term agreements. Even so, they should recall that verification is not an end in itself: it is a means of assessing and ensuring compliance with any number of potential agreements while also building confidence and sustainability along the way.

Novel Ways of Verifying and Monitoring North Korea

The Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, with support from the Korea Foundation, convened a group of international experts over several workshops in early 2021 to study novel tools and approaches to the verification and monitoring of a range of possible nuclear and missile restraints on North Korea. Their findings and proposals are summarized in this compilation. The experts broadly addressed potential accountable items in North Korea, including missiles, fissile material stocks, and warheads; piecemeal and probabilistic approaches to general verification and nuclear safeguards; open-source intelligence techniques that might support verification and confidence-building efforts; import-export monitoring; and lessons from other monitoring regimes, including the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Given the technical focus of this volume, the included chapters do not assess the political viability of any specific potential agreements or the sorts of concessions that North Korea may seek during implementation. The fundamental objective of this volume is to facilitate policymakers’ understanding of a range of verification and monitoring approaches to facilitate practical and incremental progress on denuclearization.

While orthodox approaches to verification are unquestionably the preferred standard for any potential agreement, near-term political realities require flexibility and tempered expectations. The ideas contained in this volume are intended to fit this purpose. Over time, as agreements are implemented with these approaches and tools, broader confidence building with North Korea may facilitate a more favorable political environment that enables the application of more standard verification approaches.

About the Editors

Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Toby Dalton is the co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order.

Thomas MacDonald is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Megan DuBois is a research assistant in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Megan Dubois and Tobin Hansen for their support in editing and collecting the compilation. Additionally, Carnegie’s communications team provided substantial editorial assistance with this volume. The authors are grateful in particular to Ryan DeVries, Haley Clasen, and Sam Brase for their work in refining and editing this compilation.