UN Nuclear Gambit Succeeds in Raising Pressure on North Korea

The United Nations nuclear agency’s gambit to raise pressure on North Korea over its atomic-weapons program paid off today in Vienna, where Europe and the U.S. condemned Pyongyang’s government.

“We share the director general’s serious concern” about North Korea’s nuclear activities, U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies said in a four-page statement delivered to the International Atomic Energy Agency in the Austrian capital. “We call on all states to increase their vigilance against North Korean proliferation activities.”

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has pressed inspectors to apply more political pressure against member states that have run afoul of atomic nonproliferation rules. Earlier this month, the UN’s “Atoms for Peace” agency issued its first North Korean report in four years. It lists violations from testing nuclear weapons to exporting atomic technology and hiding its work from international inspection.

Noting a separate UN Security Council report, the European Union said today in a two-page statement that it was concerned “certain countries such as Syria and Iran continue to be associated with North Korea in regard to nuclear and ballistic-missile-related activity.”

The IAEA, which calls itself a technical agency, may face different risks by applying political pressure, according to Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has researched illicit nuclear networks for more than 20 years.

‘Rather Unusual’

“The length of this report on North Korea might appear to the casual observer as rather unusual, especially given the fact that IAEA safeguards personnel have not been to North Korea to do inspection-related work since 2008,” Hibbs wrote late yesterday in an analysis of the 13-page, single-spaced document. “The agency has received no new firsthand information from its verification activities in that country to report to member states.”

The agency did include unofficial, third-hand knowledge in its North Korea report. By doing so, IAEA inspectors may open themselves up to questions about why the agency won’t make assessments in other countries that lack transparency, Hibbs wrote. The IAEA has repeatedly denied Arab League requests to assess Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

The North Korea report follows similar tactics used by the agency to punish Syria, which Amano concluded in June was “very likely” to have been concealing a nuclear reactor. That led a divided IAEA board of governors to refer the Syrian government in Damascus to the Security Council, where it faces potential sanctions over its nuclear work.

Maintaining Pressure

IAEA officials told U.S. diplomats how they intended to use an unrelated “inspection as a means to keep the pressure on Damascus,” U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies wrote in a February 2010 cable released by Wikileaks. The director general “had approved their gambit, even after others in the secretariat had counseled a less confrontational approach.”

The Security Council’s Syrian referral and this month’s North Korea report are both legal and administrative steps toward raising pressure on Iran, according to Hibbs. The IAEA has been looking into Iran’s nuclear work since 2003, when the country’s program emerged from two decades of secrecy.

“We call on the director general to say what the IAEA believes to be the case about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program,” Davies told journalists in Vienna today. “Then it will be up to the Board of Governors to draw conclusions and possibly take action.”

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