Asia Makes Life Tough for IAEA


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.

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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.

North Korea is the only state to have withdrawn from the NPT, unilaterally disabled IAEA containment and surveillance systems, and expelled IAEA inspectors from its territory.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.

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