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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korea is an “illegal nuclear power” and has made substantial progress in its weapons development over the last decade, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Wednesday.
The comments, from Rafael Grossi, the new IAEA Director-General, come as Pyongyang has shown essentially no signs that it is willing to abandon its controversial nuclear weapons program — even in the face of punishing global sanctions, occasional threats of war from the U.S., and, on better days, unprecedented diplomatic outreach from President Donald Trump.
North Korea kicked IAEA inspectors out of the country in 2009, and Grossi said on Wednesday that the country will present an “enormous challenge” for the agency if it is ever allowed back in.
“North Korea is an illegal nuclear power,” said Grossi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington. “We do not recognize it, we do not accept that it is a nuclear weapons state, legally speaking.”
“We know that there are nuclear weapons there,” he continued. “We know that there are facilities beyond Yongbyon and the complex that our inspectors were familiar with.”
Yongbyon is a nuclear fuel production site in the DPRK.
“So you can imagine what kind of effort that we will have in terms of establishing baselines, establishing initial declarations, validating those — but it will have to be done,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Grossi also said that North Korea today would present a significantly larger challenge for the IAEA than it did in 2009 — and would require a much bigger effort than the agency has had to apply in Iran, which has also sought to develop nuclear weapons.
“The North Korea we would return to is a far more difficult, complex place to verify than the North Korea our inspectors were kicked out of back in 2009,” he said. “One needs to recognize that.”
“Back in the day, North Korea had performed — when we were expelled — just one nuclear weapon test, in 2006.”
The North has conducted five more nuclear tests since it kicked the IAEA out. One test occurred just a few weeks after the inspectors were sent home.
Grossi said he wants his agency to be ready to return to the DPRK “when the ink is still fresh on the agreement” — if, that is, the U.S. and DPRK can manage to write a nuclear agreement that makes both countries happy.
In the meantime, however, the North does not seem to be slowing down.
“With each passing day, North Korea is advancing its nuclear program,” Alexandra Bell, Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, told NK News.
Bell is a former senior advisor in the State Department’s Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
“That means with each passing day, rolling it back becomes that much harder,” she said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has emphasized his country’s need for nuclear weapons in recent weeks.
Despite a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests — which Kim has lately threatened to abandon — the North has shown no signs that it is slowing down its production of the weapons.
“There will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state, until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and [a] lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built,” Kim told ruling party officials in late December.
“We will reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S. and guaranteeing our long-term security,” Kim reportedly said.
Washington and Pyongyang have been locked for months in a diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear program.
Jenny Town, a Stimson Fellow and the Managing Editor of the website 38 North, told NK News that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons have become more powerful with each successive test.
“Since the last time the IAEA was on the ground, the North Koreans have conducted five underground nuclear weapons tests, with progressively larger yields each time,” she said. “Since IAEA left, North Korea excavated two additional test tunnel complexes at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.”
The DPRK famously claimed to have dismantled the test site in 2018 — nine years after kicking out the IAEA — but the demolition was never verified by expert observers.
Town listed a slew of improvements North Korea has made to its production of nuclear materials over the years: refurbished fuel cycles, bigger uranium enrichment facilities, another new reactor under construction, among others.
“Yes, the program has grown over the past decade,” she continued. “[It] makes the job of dismantlement and verification a much larger and more complex challenge than what existed under previous agreements.”
On Tuesday, one day before his public remarks, IAEA Director-General Grossi also met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has repeatedly called for North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.
In a public readout of their meeting, however, the State Department did not include North Korea as one of the topics Pompeo and Grossi discussed.
The State Department did not respond to an inquiry from NK News concerning the omission.
Edited by Oliver Hotham