IAEA Chief Yukia Amano

As Elements of a Possibly Nuclear Deal With North Korea Emerge, the UN’s Role Becomes More Clear

This is a rather remarkable quote from South Korea’s President Moon Jae In:

On Thursday, Mr. Moon dismissed concerns that the United States might end up recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear power in return for a promise from it to freeze its nuclear and missile programs.

“I don’t think there is any difference between the parties over what they mean by denuclearization,” Mr. Moon said. “North Korea is expressing a willingness to denuclearize completely.”

As they say on the internet: “woah, if true.”

One of the key obstacles standing in the way of a possible deal between North Korea and the United States is how one actually defines “denuclearization.” For the Americans, this term typically refers to a process by which North Korea’s nuclear weapons are dismantled. For the North Koreans, this was understood to mean a variety of things, including removing all strategic assets in the region that are nuclear capable, and possibly lifting the US nuclear umbrella over its allies in the region, including South Korea and Japan. This position is unacceptable to the United States.

Mr. Moon’s comments, which come on the heels of North Korea apparently acquiescing to the presence of US troops on the Korean Peninsula, seem to suggest that the term “denuclearization” has been clarified.

One can now start to imagine that an eventual agreement will include the dismantling of North Korean nuclear weapons — a task that will require some international monitoring and verification.

Enter the United Nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency is the only international body that has the credibility and technical capacity to undertake such a complex and politically fraught mission. The IAEA has, for decades, deployed inspectors and monitors around the world to prevent states from turning their nuclear energy programs to nuclear weapons programs. North Korea, of course, already has a nuclear weapons program. But assuming it is dismantled as part of this deal, the IAEA will almost certainly be called upon to both oversee the dismantling of the program and monitor North Korea’s nuclear facilities to prevent future proliferation.

This is a useful reminder of the value and utility of an independent international entity like the IAEA. The founders of the IAEA, including President Dwight Eisenhower, demonstrated profound insight more than 60 years ago at the dawn of the nuclear age.  If something like the IAEA did not already exist, it would have to be invented from scratch to ensure this potential deal.