Head of the CTBTO Discusses DPRK Test Site Dismantlement

By Rowan Humphries

 Dr. Lassina Zerbo, the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), was the keynote at an American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Arms Control Association cosponsored event on June 14, 2018 to discuss the role of technology in North Korean disarmament. Following his opening remarks, Dr. Zerbo and an accompanying panel of experts engaged in a discussion on how the scientific community and international organizations can work together to advance individual and collective goals, particularly as they relate to verifying the dismantlement of a nuclear test site. 

Dr. Zerbo’s opening remarks emphasized the importance of “getting the ball over the goal line,” when it comes to North Korean disarmament. He highlighted the science-based techniques and technologies the CTBTO has as its disposal to monitor nuclear testing, which could be used to verify North Korea’s voluntary testing moratorium, as declared by Kim Jong Un on April 20, 2018. Dr. Zerbo also pointed out that the technology the CTBTO employs to monitor nuclear testing could serve a side purpose of verifying nuclear test site dismantlement. 

While the CTBT has not yet entered into force, the CTBTO has pre-established systems and procedures for monitoring nuclear testing worldwide in three ways. The first is the International Monitoring System (IMS), a global network of 337 facilities that work to enable the detection, location, and identification of potential nuclear explosions. The data collected by the IMS is forwarded to the International Data Centre (IDC), the second element of the CTBTO’s verification regime, for analysis and dispersion to CTBT member states. The final pillar of the CTBTO’s monitoring system is its on-site inspection program, which allows for in-the-field examination of a suspected nuclear event detected by the IMS. 

In his remarks, Dr. Zerbo suggested that the CTBTO’s already existing capabilities and expertise in test site monitoring could be applied to serve the international community alongside other international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in verifying a denuclearization process in North Korea. 

Following Dr. Zerbo’s address, a panel of experts, moderated by the Arms Control Association’s Executive Director Daryl Kimball, led a discussion that focused heavily on the implications of North Korea’s voluntarily testing moratorium. The esteemed panel included Ms. Laura Kennedy, former ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament; Mr. Jon Wolfsthal of the Nuclear Crisis Group and former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council; and Ms. Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. 

The panelists praised the gesture of goodwill shown by Kim Jong Un’s public demolition of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but remained skeptical about the legitimacy of the closure, which cannot be verified without the presence of technical experts. The panelists emphasized the importance of North Korea backing up its commitment to end nuclear testing by taking diplomatic steps such as rejoining the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and ratifying the CTBT.

The speakers then took questions and comments from members of the audience, many of whom were other prominent members of the arms control field. The panel addressed questions related to the future of test monitoring technology, as well as concerns about the kind of information test monitoring technologies can collect. One individual highlighted the importance of pushing Annex 2 states to sign the CTBT, pointing out that such a move would put pressure on North Korea to reciprocate. The panelists agreed with this statement and concluded that the CTBT is at a crossroads: if the international community does not seize this opportunity to take advantage of the invaluable technologies and expertise the CTBTO has to offer, the treaty will quickly lose its relevance and legitimacy. 

Further Resources:

Transcript of Dr. Zerbo’s Opening Remarks

Science & Diplomacy Interview with Dr. Lassina Zerbo

France 24 Interview with Dr. Lassina Zerbo

Rowan Humphries is a rising senior at Dickinson College and the communications intern at the Arms Control Association.