Features | Security | East Asia

Asia Makes Life Tough for IAEA

Most eyes may now be on the nuclear crisis in Japan. But North Korean defiance and Iran’s stalling remain the IAEA’s big headaches.

The insistence last week by the US representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency that North Korea must allow the organization’s inspectors back into its nuclear facilities before Six-Party Talks can resume further underscored the continued importance of IAEA verification as the ‘gold standard’ in confirming nuclear disarmament.

The comments by Glyn Davies came just a few days before Washington’s top diplomat for the region prepared to meet South Korean officials to discuss North Korea’s new uranium enrichment programme. They were also made at a time when Seoul and Washington have been looking to the UN Security Council to increase pressure on Pyongyang.

But while Davies’ comments highlighted the centrality of the IAEA in resolving key nuclear issues, they also served as a reminder about just how serious a challenge Asia poses to non-proliferation efforts.

Three of the four countries that aren’t currently Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty parties are in Asia, with India, Pakistan, and North Korea having all tested nuclear weapons while continuing to strengthen their nuclear arsenals.

Under the NPT, these nuclear forces are illegal as the countries weren’t recognized as nuclear weapons states at the time the treaty entered into force, in 1970. India and Pakistan have never signed the NPT, while North Korea flounced out in 2003 and has since twice detonated a nuclear device. In addition, the IAEA Board of Governors has found Iran noncompliant with its safeguard obligations. With India and Pakistan also engaging with the IAEA to only a limited extent, it’s hardly surprising that Asia is proving such a headache for international policymakers.

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North Korea is the only state to have withdrawn from the NPT, unilaterally disabled IAEA containment and surveillance systems, and expelled IAEA inspectors from its territory. But even before it withdrew, Pyongyang had already been in chronic noncompliance with its safeguards agreement since 1993, when the IAEA was unable to verify that it had declared all its nuclear material. When the IAEA demanded a special inspection that year, the North Korean government issued notice of its intention to withdraw from the NPT.

It was at this point that the United States intervened and negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework, which held until 2002, when North Korea, citing the failure of the other parties to provide Pyongyang with adequate energy assistance, seemingly acknowledged US government claims that it was conducting an undeclared uranium enrichment programme. Pyongyang expelled its IAEA inspectors in December of that year and announced its withdrawal from the NPT the following January.

It was an unprecedented move, and prompted the IAEA Board of Governors to refer the case to the UN Security Council for action, although Chinese opposition there prevented the Council from adopting coercive measures against North Korea.

Instead, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States established the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s denuclearization in August 2003. But these discussions have yielded mixed results, at best. In September 2005, North Korea committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes, and to quickly return to the NPT and restore IAEA safeguards. A year later, though, it followed up with a test of a nuclear explosive device.

Perhaps feeling the pressure from the ensuing international response, Kim Jong-il’s regime committed in early 2007 to shutting down and seal—and eventually dismantle—the Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility; inviting IAEA personnel back to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications; and sharing a list of all its nuclear programmes with all the other parties. The United States, meanwhile, made parallel commitments to North Korea to begin removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. When North Korea began disabling the three facilities at Yongbyon under the oversight of the IAEA and US Department of Energy officials later that year, it looked like international perseverance might pay off.

But it wasn’t to be. In an all-too-familiar story, things started unravelling in 2009. In April of that year, the Security Council imposed additional sanctions on North Korea after it defied foreign warnings and launched a ballistic missile under the guise of testing space rockets. Pyongyang responded defiantly by withdrawing from the talks, ceasing cooperation with the IAEA, again expelling all IAEA monitors, and then testing another nuclear weapon.

It’s clear that the international community needs to address the loophole within the NPT that has been exploited by North Korea, and which has meant that when it was caught violating the treaty it could simply announce its withdrawal. Pyongyang was never penalized for its cheating or subsequent withdrawal. A better system would involve automatic penalties of some kind, or an obligation to convene emergency meetings of the UN Security Council to deliberate on possible sanctions or other responses if a country withdraws from the NPT while still exploiting nuclear assistance they received within the treaty framework to develop nuclear weapons.

But recent developments have done more than demonstrate North Korean intransigence – they have also underscored the limits to IAEA influence. The organization has so far played a minimal role in this whole process, which has been led primarily by direct negotiations between China, North Korea, and the United States. IAEA personnel briefly returned to North Korea to help dismantle the Yongbyon facility, place its reactor under safeguards, and collect information on North Korea’s past nuclear activities. But they’ve since been expelled again. All this suggests that the effectiveness of the IAEA still depends very much on the political context within which it operates.

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But it’s not just over North Korea that the international community has struggled to compel a ‘problem’ country to address IAEA concerns. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been of concern to the IAEA and other members of the international community for some time, but discoveries in 2002 and 2003 were particular causes for alarm.

After an Iranian opposition group revealed in August 2002 the existence of clandestine nuclear activities at an enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak, the IAEA sought to clarify the status of Iran’s nuclear programmes. When it detected additional secret nuclear programmes, Iranian authorities began to object to the IAEA’s monitoring activities and limited the agency’s access within Iran.

In October 2003, talks between the European Union and Iran resulted in Tehran suspending its nuclear enrichment activities, and the country also signed the Additional Protocol in 2003 before voluntarily beginning to comply with some of its provisions pending its formal ratification.

But what the IAEA found when using these enhanced rights of access was troubling. The agency detected previously undeclared Iranian nuclear-related activities, while representatives also complained that Iranian officials were still impeding their monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities.

In November 2004, Iran managed to avert UN action by reaffirming its commitment to suspend its suspected nuclear activities while talks with the EU continued. However, any hope of progress seemed dashed by the June 2005 election of hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new president. Ahmadinejad insisted on Iran’s right to pursue any peaceful nuclear activity and he quickly re-launched Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.

The IAEA has consistently complained about Iran’s refusal to grant inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities or provide requested documentation regarding its nuclear activities. Iranian officials became even more reluctant to share information after IAEA examiners found one document, acquired through the illicit nuclear network led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, which showed how to cast enriched uranium into hemispheres and which could serve as the basis for a Nagasaki-like device.

To try to induce Tehran to cooperate more with the IAEA, the Security Council has passed numerous resolutions, some with sanctions, obliging the Iranian government to cease sensitive nuclear activities that could be used to make nuclear weapons until the IAEA is convinced that Iran’s nuclear activities have no military purpose. But according to the latest IAEA quarterly report, Iran’s nuclear programme continues to make progress despite international sanctions, cyber attacks, and other impediments. The reality is that whatever the international community has to say, Iran will soon be in a position to develop nuclear weapons—should its leaders decide to pursue them.

However, ensuring NPT compliance isn’t the only issue—some nuclear powers have decided not to sign up at all. India and Pakistan haven’t joined the NPT, and so aren’t required to sign comprehensive safeguards agreements with the IAEA. Both countries joined the IAEA in 1957 and have placed their main civilian power reactors under item-specific IAEA safeguards. But they both also still exclude several key nuclear facilities that engage in the production of nuclear weapons from IAEA safeguards.

The Indian government says it will stick to the NPT’s injunctions against assisting other countries to acquire nuclear weapons, but won’t accept legally binding constraints on the development of its own nuclear capabilities. Indian officials say they won’t sign the treaty because it’s discriminatory—the treaty allows some states to retain nuclear weapons, at least for a while, while denying other countries the same privilege.

Pakistani officials for their part refuse to sign the NPT unless their country is recognized as a nuclear weapons state or unless India also joins. But there are real concerns that some of the IAEA technical support programmes in Pakistan have aided its weapons programme. For two decades, Pakistan received millions of dollars in IAEA aid for operational upgrades and control systems for its safeguarded reactors, even as it was building and operating reactors of the same design outside safeguards for its military programme. If any progress is going to be made with Pakistan then these programmes need to be investigated and conditioned on Pakistan allowing negotiations on a fissile missile cut-off treaty to proceed within the UN Conference on Disarmament.

The recent experience in Asia shows both the value and limitations of the IAEA as a non-proliferation institution. Its ability to inspect nuclear facilities in North Korea and Iran has provided the international community with extensive information about nuclear programmes that may not have been available through other sources. Still, it’s also clear that the IAEA alone can do little to prevent a determined state’s march toward the acquisition of the capabilities needed to make an atomic bomb. Even with widespread diplomatic backing and sanctions, these two countries continue to defy international demands and sanctions to halt their sensitive nuclear activities.

So what can be done? Perhaps above all, the main nuclear suppliers need to do more to induce all Asian countries to accede to the IAEA Additional Protocol. The protocol is a voluntary supplement to the traditional Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which covers only nuclear facilities declared to the IAEA by the host government. In contrast, the Additional Protocol helps the IAEA detect undeclared nuclear material and activities, and requires parties to provide inspectors with greater rights of access to suspected sites.

Another way of exerting pressure would be for the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which includes most countries with advanced nuclear industries, to avoid selling nuclear technologies to states that don’t apply the Additional Protocol.

It’s just a start. But the stakes are too high in this volatile region not to keep up the pressure.