An activist with a mask of Kim Jong-un marches with a model of a nuclear rocket Adam Berry/Getty Images

A Verifiable Path to Nuclear Disarmament

The on-again, off-again summit between the United States and North Korea is on again. But even if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to denuclearization, the international community has no standard set of procedures to guarantee that a country claiming to disarm is actually doing so.

WASHINGTON, DC – As officials from the United States and North Korea prepare for the June 12 summit meeting between Donald Trump and 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 may 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 has been working to improve the weapons dismantlement process. As co-chairs 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 will 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. Our work so far has focused on four key 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 will become even more contentious as the number of weapons declines – and the need for stronger verification increases.

Next, 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 14,000-15,000 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 will become. Moving toward zero, verification becomes absolutely critical.

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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 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 key question 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.

Other challenges we are working to address include long-term tracking of weapons as they are replaced or refurbished, and closing gaps in the documentation stage of dismantling. How can assurance be provided that verification tools meet the safety and security requirements of nuclear-weapons facilities? How can verification provide the high level of assurance required by states as the number of nuclear weapons approaches zero?

Our work is not occurring in a vacuum. When the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meet every five years to review the treaty’s effectiveness, progress on nuclear disarmament is usually a weak spot. While the IPNDV’s recommendations will never be a substitute for negotiations that engage nuclear-armed states, we believe they can improve the prospects of achieving the NPT’s goal of global denuclearization.

Nuclear disarmament poses many monitoring and verification challenges, but the huge scale of the task is no excuse for inaction. Eventually, the political headwinds will subside, and denuclearization will proceed again. When that happens, the world must be ready with the technical solutions to guarantee the credibility of countries’ promises.

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