What I Learned Leading America’s 1st Nuclear Inspection In North Korea

Written by Joel Wit

With a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expected in late February, one crucial question looms large: Will Kim give up his nuclear weapons program?

If the past is any guide, a new 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.

I was the State Department official in charge of implementing the 1994 North Korean denuclearization deal. In the spring of 1999, I led the first American nuclear inspection in North Korea. It was an exercise fraught with difficulties that landed my team and me in hours-long detention at a remote North Korean army base near the border with China.

Future inspectors in North Korea will have a tough challenge, dealing with a combination of cooperation, resistance and at times outright hostility as they try to accomplish their job. Here are some lessons I learned as one of the few Americans who has attempted to verify North Korea’s actions from the inside.

According to the 1994 deal reached by the governments of President Bill Clinton and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, the U.S. would trade energy assistance for an end to Pyongyang’s production of nuclear bomb-making material and eventually its weapons program.

Five years later, my inspection team had a mission to find what some U.S. intelligence agencies thought was a secret facility that violated that agreement — a violation that, if proved correct, threatened to plunge the two countries into a renewed crisis.

American spy satellites watching a site called Kumchang-ri observed tunnels being dug and concrete poured. U.S. intelligence officials said they had gathered other information reinforcing their suspicions that North Korea was building a secret underground facility to produce nuclear weapons.

Read more at NPR

About the author

Joel Wit

Joel Wit (@Joel_Wit38) has participated in face-to-face talks as a State Department official and as a private citizen with North Korea for 25 years. He is a senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center and director of the 38North project.