Verification Will Be the Next Hurdle for the North Korea Nuclear Deal

The United States needs to confirm that Pyongyang has come clean on past bomb-making activities.

A South Korean looks at a TV screen showing footage of the public demolition of North Korea's cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, at a railway station in Seoul on June 27, 2008. North Korea blew up the cooling tower to symbolize the communist state's commitment to scrapping its nuclear program.

North Korea blew up the cooling tower to symbolize its commitment to scrapping its nuclear program.

By + More

In a process marked by setbacks and only partially fulfilled obligations, the denuclearization of North Korea could be entering its most challenging period this summer as U.S. experts sift through thousands of pages of data and finalize painstakingly agreed arrangements on how to verify the secretive North's atomic activities.

Officials have been examining a trove of documents from the North Koreans: almost 19,000 pages of operating records and other information, dating to 1986, on their reactor complex at Yongbyon. U.S. officials say the review has yielded useful data but have not elaborated.

Last week, North Korea submitted a long-awaited declaration of its nuclear activities, and, in response, President Bush moved to end—now or in the near future—certain sanctions related to North Korea's status as an official adversary and to its past support for terrorism. Those actions shift the focus to nailing down the details of a verification accord that, in theory, would venture more aggressively into the North Korean nuclear program than has ever been done.

Whether North Korea—a state where concealment and secrecy are normal ways of doing business even in less sensitive policy matters—is really willing to go the distance on a robust verification scheme remains unclear. But without a credible verification system in place, the emerging nuclear deal is unlikely to garner sufficient political support in the United States, and the ensuing deadlock would leave North Korea in the position of a de facto nuclear weapons power.

"Verification is absolutely key to this whole process," Christopher Hill, an assistant secretary of state and the administration's lead negotiator on North Korea, said Tuesday in Washington. "We're not going to accept North Korea as a nuclear state." Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), he acknowledged that there remains "a lot of work ahead of us."

China, which hosts the six-nation denuclearization process, has said that North Korea and the others have agreed on the principles of a verification regime. Hill on Tuesday cited its key features as access to documents and nuclear sites and the ability to interview personnel in the nuclear program.

A State Department paper last week said there will be a "comprehensive" program that includes "short-notice access to declared or suspect sites related to the North Korean nuclear program, access to nuclear materials, environmental and bulk sampling of materials and equipment, interviews with personnel in North Korea, as well as access to additional documentation and records for all nuclear-related facilities and operations."

Nuclear experts broadly describe those as the correct elements, but there is plenty of skepticism about whether North Korea will accept them in practice.

"We've got to get enough access and cooperation from the North Koreans to see that they've really been transparent," says Jon Wolfsthal, a CSIS senior fellow who was involved in the issue at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. Then, the task was to attempt to verify a 1994 agreement to freeze North Korea's nuclear program called the "Agreed Framework." Wolfsthal recalls a painfully slow process. "The North Koreans did everything they could to maintain the ambiguity over their program," he says. "It was worse than pulling teeth."

Pyongyang would require negotiations over such seemingly minor technical issues as how many U.S. inspectors would participate in a particular trip and whether U.S. officials could use their own monitoring equipment. "They would nickel and dime us down," he says.

State Department officials say that once verification gets underway, any discrepancies discovered will have to be addressed by North Korea before its nuclear declaration is considered complete. If the process gets that far, the work could extend well into the next president's term in office.