As a State Department official,
Joel Wit participated in face-to-face talks with North Korea, and in 1999 led
the first American nuclear inspection. Now a senior fellow at the
Henry L. Stimson Center and director of the 38North project, he shares his
With a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expected in late February … a North Korean pledge to denuclearize will be eyed warily in the West. Verification will require more than just photos snapped by orbiting spy satellites. The United States will need to send inspectors on the ground to ensure Kim’s regime is living up to its word. I know from personal experience that will not be an easy task. Here are some lessons I learned:
1.Mutual distrust runs deep.
2.Assemble the right team – [Back in 1999] a team of 10 inspectors was assembled quickly. It included scientists from American nuclear weapons labs but was dominated by a contingent of intelligence analysts. Because the North Koreans were allergic to anything that smacked of spying, we tried to hide the identities of the intelligence contingent by issuing new diplomatic passports to everyone, standard procedure for State Department employees. However, the North Koreans were not fooled. Once we arrived, one of our escorts — an old Foreign Ministry friend — asked me in private with a wry smile, “Why are all of the team’s diplomatic passports completely new except yours?” Nothing more was said, at least not initially.
3.Set detailed ground rules – Then, the details of what the team could inspect had to be worked out with the North Koreans. Talks almost collapsed over the North’s suspicions that a high-tech laser device we wanted to use to measure tunnels was really meant to secretly gather intelligence.
4.Know what to look for – American intelligence agencies had been watching [the nuclear site] for months so we had a great deal of information on activities at the site. Days before leaving for Asia, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency who believed North Korea was cheating briefed our team. They rattled off secret information they thought proved the site was intended to house a secret nuclear facility. That information covered everything from satellite photography to calculations on the volume of dirt piles near the suspected site that helped them reach conclusions about the size of the underground areas. It was impressive but proved wrong.
5.Expect the unexpected (and be prepared to deal with it).
6.Inspections can’t guarantee compliance – Inspections can reduce uncertainty but not eliminate it. The trick for any American president will be to judge whether uncertainty warrants breaking the deal or whether U.S. security is better served by keeping it.
7.Build trust. – The most important lesson is that verifying a denuclearization deal between Washington and Pyongyang will be impossible without trust-building and reconciliation between the two countries. North Korea will not be a defeated country. Its cooperation will be essential. That will only happen if there is a denuclearization deal that also paves the path away from Cold War confrontation toward an improving relationship with the United States.
[Read full NPR article]