Foreign Affairs

Keeping North Korea to its word

With denuclearisation talks on the Korean peninsula proceeding apace, there is scepticism about whether Pyongyang will keep its word. The head of the world’s nuclear testing watchdog spoke to Sam Sachdeva about how his organisation can help verify progress - and how eight countries are holding nuclear-free efforts “hostage”.

Given his job, it’s somewhat reassuring that Dr Lassina Zerbo describes himself as an optimist.

As the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), Zerbo oversees its work on monitoring nuclear tests.

Negotiated between 1994 and 1996, the treaty was set up to ban all nuclear explosions and hinder or block the development and improvement of nuclear weapons.

With over 300 monitoring stations around the world, including eight in New Zealand, Zerbo says the goal is to make sure that no explosion goes undetected anywhere - whether underwater, in the air, or underground.

He likens the process to looking for a needle in a haystack, with nuclear tests needing to be distinguished from the earthquakes and potential tsunami which the systems can also pick up and share with the CTBTO’s member states.

Dr Lassina Zerbo, a former geophysicist, says his work as an advocate for a nuclear test ban treaty is an ideal mix of science and diplomacy. Photo: Photo Simonis/CTBTO.

Nuclear diplomacy is a change of pace from Zerbo’s initial work as a research geophysicist, while he suggests his West African origins also make him a somewhat unlikely fit.

“How does someone from Burkina Faso get involved in this type of work? I would say it seems like an anomaly, but it also shows the world is so global today that you don’t necessarily have to be from a nuclear weapon country, or a nuclear technology-dominated country, to be part of this framework.”

Zerbo sees his scientific background as a boon, giving him greater heft as an advocate than someone simply pushing from a political perspective.

“My work is to bring that nexus between science and diplomacy ... this is like a dream job for me.”

A treaty stuck in stasis

Unfortunately, the realities of diplomatic negotiations are a little less idyllic, with the test ban treaty having been in a state of stasis for decades.

While 167 countries have ratified the agreement, they do not include eight of the 44 “Annex Two” states - those assumed during negotiations to be in a position to develop nuclear weapons - whose approval is necessary for it to come into effect.

The ratification was meant to take two to three years; instead, there is still no resolution 22 years later, something which clearly frustrates Zerbo.

“At the time, the negotiation was going on for so long and people wanted to find a consensus, and that was one way out, but that one way out has put the threshold too high for the treaty to enter into force.”

Zerbo accuses the eight treaty holdouts - China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States - of holding the international community hostage. 

While the monitoring networks are still fully operational and the organisation’s framework, the lack of full ratification means the CTBTO lacks the authority to carry out the verification process necessary to confirm where nuclear tests have taken place.

While countries like North Korea have historically been quick to confirm their nuclear activity,  Zerbo says his organisation would struggle to verify tests in a more reticent country without the ability to enter and carry out an on-site inspection.

He accuses the eight holdouts - China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States - of holding the international community hostage, and says other countries must push to hold them to their obligations and show that multilateral diplomacy can work.

“When something is hard to get, when we get it it is sustainable, and that's the beauty of this treaty.”

One of New Zealand's eight CTBTO monitoring stations, at the Rata Peaks in Canterbury. Photo: CTBTO.

It is North Korea - the only one of the eight countries which the CTBTO been unable to hold formal discussions with - that Zerbo says can serve as the model to prepare for a widespread end to nuclear weapons.

While some people are sceptical about denuclearisation talks on the Korean peninsula, Zerbo borrows from former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans in declaring himself an “incorrigible optimist”.

“Many will tell me that they’ve been talking for years, years, years and nothing is happening, but for years, years, years they’ve never showcased the closure of their test site and engaged in such bilateral discussions ... so the world has to capitalise.”

But Kim Jong-un’s words must be backed by a legally binding commitment to the treaty, he says, confirming an end to testing and the irreversible closure of their testing sites.

The CTBTO lacks the mandate to itself verify the end of testing, but Zerbo says its expertise, resources and equipment can still play a role in a joint international effort to confirm an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

"New Zealand as a champion can come and gather traction from the rest of the world and then hold other countries accountable with regard to their responsibility.”

New Zealand’s own contribution to the wider arms control effort should not be understated, Zerbo says: “You can probably do a lot more than you think.”

Having joined every United Nations resolution against nuclear weapons and their testing since 1945, as well as swiftly signing and ratifying the test ban treaty, he says the country has fulfilled all its obligations, political and technical.

It is that track record which can make New Zealand valuable in a renewed push for a world free of nuclear weapons, Zerbo says.

“At the time where the usual suspects, the nuclear weapons countries, are not finding the leadership and the consensus that will show progress ... New Zealand as a champion can come and gather traction from the rest of the world and then hold other countries accountable with regard to their responsibility.”

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