An End to Nuclear Testing in North Korea? The Role for Technology and Cooperation

Thursday, June 14, 2018
2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Choate Conference Room
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036

The recent negotiations between the United States and North Korea on nuclear disarmament have placed renewed focus on the challenges of verification of nuclear test sites and denuclearization. Organizations like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization employ science-based techniques and technologies to detect nuclear testing[1] that some have suggested could have applications to verify the dismantlement of a nuclear test site.

In the face of current threats to global security, national and international organizations have their own roles to play to address these global challenges through cooperation and science and technology can help pave the way for greater security in the future.

Opening Remarks

  • Dr. Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization


  • Mr. Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association (Moderator)
  • Ambassador Laura Kennedy, Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament and Former Charge of the US Mission to International Organizations in Vienna
  • Mr. Jon Wolfsthal, Nonresident Scholar, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council
  • Ms. Alexandra Bell, Senior Policy Director, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Including Welcome Remarks

  • Dr. Mahlet N. Mesfin, Deputy Director, Center for Science Diplomacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)


[1] National Research Council. (2012) The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


Dr. Lassina Zerbo, Executive-Secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, opening remarks. Transcribed by Rowan Humphries. 

Zerbo: “Thank you, I think I know everybody, it’s like a family conversation, I would say because we all know each other. So, thank you for inviting me to be here, with friends, and colleagues and former colleagues in arms control and nonproliferation and disarmament.

Let me start by saying a quote that maybe you guys have heard or you remember: “if you don’t get the ball over the goal line, it doesn’t mean enough.” So if you remember where this is coming, we can talk about it later. But the reason why I’m saying this quote is because we are starting the World Cup today.

As you know in the World Cup, often there is a goal and then people wonder, the referees say ‘no, it crossed the line,’ and then people say ‘no’ and then people argue, and for the first time in the history of the World Cup they have the assistance of video, to be able to decide if the ball crossed the line and if it’s a real goal.

So I’ll tell you why I chose this. So these were the parting words of President Trump—I’m sure you guys, those of you who have listened to the press conference, you will remember—following the U.S.-DPRK summit in Singapore two days ago. So the joint statement recognized that mutual confidence building can promote the denuclearization of the Korea peninsula. It also commits the U.S. and the DPRK to join the effort to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula. It reaffirms North Korea’s commitment to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Peninsula. So I hope the panel will be able to enlighten many of us on this issue, on the statement and maybe on a point that came in the press conference that was not in the statement.

In the short time since the summit there were many comments. Some find the statement to be light on detail in how to achieve the denuclearization of the peninsula. From my own perspective, I mean I know you won’t blame me, so whenever people don’t talk about CTBT when they talk about disarmament, nonproliferation, when they don’t mention it, I’m never happy. So of course, I would say it’s a pity that nothing explicit is included relating to ending nuclear testing once and for all. This is what I would have loved to see.

But we are happy that there was a dialogue. A dialogue is much better than digging in with inflexible positions. And that’s a positive take from this meeting, and that’s why we call it a historical summit. And I’ve always maintained that engagement with North Korea should be pursued. And now the press statement came and the press takeout came and them gave a little bit more detail on what was seen or perceived as light from the statement.

For this reason, I wish to set out, especially in the context of permanently ending nuclear testing in the DPRK, how the ball can get over the goal line, which is how I started. Getting the ball over the goal line means for me, and for many, verification. Full stop. In his press conference, President Trump stated that denuclearization would be verifiable. This is important; verifiable measures are the heart of lasting nuclear arms control.

Although the summit experience is described as being like a movie—that’s what many of the journalists were talking about—real verification is not a show. It must be based on the best available technologies, the best expertise or the most rigorous protocols. In featuring the destruction of the Punggye-ri test site in May 24, 2018, North Korea aimed to demonstrate its commitment to ending nuclear tests. A number of outsiders, international journalists, watched from a distance—I say from a distance because they were only 500 meters and, you know, that if you can stay 500 meters from an explosion, it means that it’s not that big, and we can talk about that.

But these people were not technical experts in any in-field or on-site inspection, I tend not to use on-site inspection because it’s the wording that kicks in when the CTBT enters into force when you talk about nuclear testing, so let me avoid this word. But they were not geophysicists who could analyze local seismic data, multispectral imaging, gamma radiation, monitoring, environmental sampling, ground penetrating rubber, or any other techniques listed, for instance in the CTBT, as applicable in the field.

Only the CTBT, when I say “only the CTBT”—I’m not talking about much more technical means, but internationally—only the CTBT can provide adequate verification to monitor an end to nuclear tests. I insist on the word ‘tests’ because when I say ‘only the CTBT’ people take only that part and then they think I’m excluding other international organizations. That’s not what I’m saying.

I want to take this opportunity to talk about the differences between and the complementarity—let’s use the word complementarity—we could have in working on the denuclearization process in the Korean peninsula. Of course, nuclear material, IAEA master of technology, they are the one that can deal with it making sure that nobody crosses the line towards the military aspect of nuclear energy. But when somebody crosses that line and gets to a point where he does tests, there is no other international framework to monitor nuclear testing than the CTBT, and one can argue that we only monitor to verify whether it’s a test or not. It is true that that’s what we do. But if you want to characterize what’s happening on the test, before or after, or during, I mean what best than the technology and the expertise that we have, and we can comment on this.

So that’s why I say that only the CTBT can do that, but the CTBT will do that in the overall process when we bring that little part of contribution that we have in the big field of expertise that could come from the IAEA and any other international organizations or even much more technical means, for that matter. So, especially when we talk about test-site closure, the CTBT can offer key operation verification tasks, such as site characterization, surveying, sampling, documentation as well, let’s not forget that, because we have expertise in documentation of on-site inspection activities, and providing a baseline for the current state of the site. Site-closure verification in line with agreed protocols.

Off-site closures as well, and dismantlement verification, including periodic site visits to compare to the baseline, along with ongoing local video and seismic monitoring. And of course, ongoing what we always do, remote monitoring, that’s our job. This is what the CTBT is capable of doing. As you all know, the treaty is not in force yet, and that’s why I say we don’t talk about on-site inspection. What I’m insisting on is how the expertise and the technology that we have can serve the international community in verifying any agreement related to the closing of a test site. That’s all that we talk about.

I’m not talking about the CTBT carrying out an on-site inspection. What I’m talking about is the CTBT contributing with its expertise and technology and the capability to serve the purpose of verifying the permanent closure of the test site and contributing as well to maybe forensic studies, because some of the things that we do go far beyond just nuclear testing monitoring and then knowing whether it’s a nuclear test or not.

So why don’t we use it? You ask us, you ask all international organizations, to be cost effective. Do you want to go and create another organizational framework where you use this technology, the same technology, to do what we can do and the expertise that we have? And this is what we talk about, nothing else. Of course, when you talk about denuclearization, the first name that comes, it’s the IAEA. Yes, the IAEA does a lot, and the IAEA will always do a lot and they’ll always do a great job. But in that process to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, when you talk about testing, please don’t forget the CTBT, as it is going to do it.

If it doesn’t play the role as the CTBT’s played the role as the organizational framework that has the expertise and the capability to do so and the equipment as well. And this you shouldn’t forget because you are paying for all international organizations to have the capability, please use it.

You may say you have your own national technological means here. Of course not many, but a few countries have the national technical means for doing so. But the national technical means will not give the legitimacy and the credibility that is needed internationally to say ‘this country has done this’ and ‘this country is saying this.’ But when an international body is bringing that expertise, there is trust. And that’s what we need now, in this multilateral diplomacy. Because there is a deficit of trust, and to deal with that deficit of trust, let’s use international bodies who can help do that.

So, science is there, science often has one logical way of addressing issues. Because when you are in science, they say 1+1, it’s often 2. But sometimes people say 3, and then they want to explain why it’s 3. But in diplomacy, 1+1 is never 2. That’s a problem, it’s 3,5, and then they tell you why it’s not 2. And that’s the difference between science that we are dealing with, and diplomacy, as it’s known especially in arms control.

At least that’s what I’ve learned. And I’ve learned it the hard way, and I say the hard way because it hasn’t been easy. And that’s why because it hasn’t been easy, I try to keep that optimism that some, you know, many people that I respect a lot in this field they tell me, ‘we don’t share that optimism that you have Lassina.’ And I say ‘yes, but you won’t change me, because I’ll always remain optimistic on this issue.’

If you’re not, your [inaudible] will stop and say, ‘we forget the CTBT.’ And we might forget the CTBT, but at this particular time, what I’m talking about is not to lose the opportunity about the technology that makes the CTBT. The technology is important, and it’s the technology that could help people be confident and then trust that this treaty is verifiable. Even if they are not ready today, it might create the condition for them to be ready one day, and that’s why we should focus on the technical aspect of the CTBT, the technical contribution that we can bring, to get more ground and more room to convince people that with the technology, we have to get the treaty. We can also make the decision that the treaty is not longer up to date, no longer valid in this 21st century, but that is a question that is beyond my paycheck. My paycheck is to link this treaty with the technical ground, and then see how the technical ground can help move things forward. And that’s what I’m trying to do, and that’s why I’m happy that you guys, experts from arms control, former ambassador Laura Kennedy, Alex Bell and many of you here who that have worked who are here not to help the CTBT, but to help the relevance of the technologies that are needed to deal with the Korean peninsula issue.

So, speaking about the best possible outcome on the negotiation, President Trump has said, ‘the prize I want is victory for the world.’ That’s great. In addition to preventing nuclear tests and deescalating the political and security situation in East Asia, the DPRK adherence to the CTBT would be an important milestone towards its entry into force. Because if we can’t put the CTBT on the table, for the DPRK to at least be like the U.S.—sign the treaty— how do you want me to run around and then tell India and Pakistan, and Egypt and Iran, and Israel, to ratify. India and Pakistan would tell me, ‘what’s your problem, we have a voluntarily moratorium anyway, we don’t need to ratify.’ And they will say, ‘oh but why didn’t you manage to get the DPRK to ratify?’ Somebody would say ‘Clearly, I am closing my test site.’ You don’t put that on the table, they won’t listen to me anymore.

So we are basically putting the treaty at risk, and that’s what we shouldn’t do. The point that I was making is, the treaty should come on the table of the DPRK. They might say ‘no, it doesn’t matter,’ but if we don’t bring it, we won’t be able to justify to any other person or any other Annex 2 countries that the ratification is important. And this is why bringing the CTBT, and bringing the DPRK to sign, at least, the CTBT is what the victory for the world would be, the same victory that President Trump is talking about. Thank you.”