Rafael Grossi is Argentina’s ambassador to Austria and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A globally renowned expert in nuclear matters, he has been chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (2015-2016) and both chief-of-staff and assistant director general at the IAEA, (2009- 2013), where he was in charge of the deal with Iran.
Always in the limelight of international diplomatic and nuclear affairs, Grossi will head the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (TNP) Review Conference, considered the major upcoming international gathering around non-proliferation and nuclear matters.
This will be a platform for Argentina to present Mr Grossi’s candidacy for director general of the IAEA, the UN nuclear agency, in 2021, when Japan’s Yukika Amano ends his third and last term in the post.
In an exclusive interview with the Times, Grossi considers all the shots – literally – that North Korea can call in the nuclear game.
Will you, reader, be reassured after reading this? Not quite, I am afraid.
Is there a way out of the North Korea crisis?
North Korea has been engaged in a nuclear weapons development programme for many years now. Some analysts were surprised after the nuke tests conducted on September 3 (2017).
Well, they did not come out of the blue: what we are witnessing now with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a train wreck in slow motion. Their first nuclear weapon test took place in 2006, a second one in 2009, a third one in 2013, then two in 2016 and this one in 2017.
Their first tests were not taken seriously and some even described them as large conventional explosions disguised as nuclear weapons. It is estimated the DPRK has today a serious nuclear arsenal of between 15 to 50 warheads.
If you were to put a label on the North Korean crisis, would you name it a geopolitical- strategic game between China and the United States or is it mainly a problem of controlling nuclear arms?
The North Korean crisis is one of those crises where the word geopolitical fits perfectly. There are currently many hot spots in the world, but North Korea is a remnant of the Cold War, a part of the unresolved 1950s Korean War, with Seoul today being a close military ally of the United States and Pyongyang an openly hostile state to the latter, and not necessarily in full alignment with Beijing. It is clear there are close connections between China and the DPRK but in terms of the diplomatic biddings with North Korea, China has been always aligned with the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) resolutions.
So China is fully cooperating with this crisis?
China is neither opposing nor obstructing and has not departed from the international consensus, in which there is unanimous condemnation of the regime. There have been 10 resolutions on North Korea establishing economic and financial sanctions and appealing to the regime to stop altogether with its nuclear and ballistic missile programme.
At the same time, [there is] a diplomatic negotiation, what Pyongyang has in mind with the US. So there is an aspiration to a showdown – in diplomatic terms hopefully – at the negotiating table with the Americans and [North Korea’s] desire to be recognised by the White House as a nuclear armed state.
Can China help to resolve the mess?
China can and will help, but there is a limit to what they can do. The economic sanctions and the UNSC resolutions are not yet fully comprehensive, in the sense that they are not a full shutdown for the North Korean economy. So a lot of voices now, and that includes [US] President [Donald] Trump, are appealing to Beijing to exercise its utmost pressure on the regime. This may naturally help but my impression is that the crisis is not going to be solved just because Beijing takes any action to definitively cripple Pyongyang.
Diplomacy: will it work with North Korea? Is there a chance?
It has worked partially in the past, with the Framework Agreement signed in 1994 with North Korea by which a model was established and the ensuing Six Party talks. They would show some constraints on their nuclear programme and allow themselves to be monitored by IAEA. But when the inspectors started looking at North Korea’s declarations they realised that there were many loopholes. North Korea expelled the inspectors and denounced the NPT and the agreement.
That was the last diplomatic effort because with the exception of the unilateral exercise of the UN, with appeals and resolutions, in recent years there has been no dialogue whatsoever but a monologue or at best two sides talking past each other.
What kind of diplomatic equation are we going to have to deal with? We don’t know: the next time will be different because we will be dealing with an established and confirmed nuclear weapon state.
Mr Kim Jong-un, a cruel dictator, is a defiant, strong personality – almost a strongman – as is President Trump is. Is this a thugs’ tit-for-tat exchange or blast of rhetoric?
Rhetoric, no doubt. But beyond it, there is the recognition that the only possible solution is in the diplomatic field, because we cannot afford a military confrontation which would very possibly escalate to a nuclear conflict. That conflict would have an extremely costly threshold of destruction in South Korea, where entire zones of the country would be wiped off, destroyed. Victims would be counted in hundreds of thousands, Japan – another ally of the US – would probably be hit as well. In an armed conflict, the most powerful side (the US and its allies) will prevail in the end; at the same time, the casualties and scope of destruction plus the chaos, financially and economically wise, would be tremendous. Plus, China said clearly at the Security Council that they will not allow a conflict at their doorstep. Can a North Korean nuke reach the West Coast of the US?
It is no easy feat. One thing is to test a nuke under a mountain and another to miniaturise it, to make it sturdy enough to move across the atmosphere atop a missile, make its entry toward its final target and function as expected. There is no evidence that North Korea has successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead and there is no other way to prove it other than seeing a nuclear missile from DPRK being fired. This is one part of the story. The other is the missile. So far, the North Koreans have been relatively successful with intermediate range missiles, the ones that can go with accuracy up to 3,500km from the launching pad. In order to reach the United States’ West Coast, twice as much will be needed. They do have a couple of missiles capable of doing that, but cannot afford to test it by overflying the US because this would trigger an immediate retaliation and probably nuclear war. So what they do is altitude tests. The long range is still defective but it is good nough for deterrence. This uncertainty,that lies at the heart of deterrence, is the doubt nobody wants to clarify.
North Koreans have persevered and been successful in spite of all the limitations, having to resort to the black market for some things, or to indigenous developments for others. There is no doubt, in my mind, that sooner or later they will have the capability of reaching the US or its allies. The capability is certainly there.
In your view, which will be North Korea’s next steps?
Based on my knowledge of the country acquired during my time at the IAEA and the way they have been acting for 11 years, since their first nuclear test and even before that, I think they are going to continue to test missiles and nukes to pre-position themselves as a sizeable nuclear power before coming to the negotiating table. Those negotiations will be extremely complex.
I am sure they will speed up, because with every new test of a weapon, of a missile, they become a stronger, more credible antagonist. The most important thing for the regime is perpetuity, being there forever. Their ambition is to remain as a cushion state in Northeast Asia with the Kim dynasty at the top. I cannot see or imagine any incentive to be offered to this government so that they unilaterally roll back and dismantle their nuke programme. Whoever dreams that North Korea is going to disarm unilaterally is mistaken. They will go on and we will have to deal with it.
Let’s move onto Iran. The stakes are high and President Trump says he will withdraw his endorsement of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. What is your take on the matter?
President Trump never liked the Iran deal and he said so during the presidential campaign and afterwards. The multilateral nuclear agreement, signed in July 2015 by the US, the UK, China, France, Russia, Germany and Iran and called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was negotiated and approved under president [Barack] Obama. Significant sectors within the Republican and Democratic parties were reluctant to it on the basis that the JCPOA was freezing but not rolling back Iran’s nuclear capabilities and, at the end of the day, it was only kicking the can down the road and postponing the problem. These were the views back then. All I am saying is that these reservations on the JCPOA are not new.
If Donald Trump decertifies the Iran deal (under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, INARA, the president must issue a certification to Congress every 90 days that is tied to Iran’s performance under the JCPOA), what will the immediate consequences be?
INARA has two parts: one says that Iran has to be in compliance with the letter of the agreement; the other, that the US president must be able to confirm that the agreement is not at odds with the vital security interests of the US, providing a legal basis, for him to challenge the agreement.
On Friday, the Trump administration chose not to scrap the deal altogether but to take a middle course, consisting of decertifying and at the same time sending the whole thing back to Capitol Hill. Congress will have to decide if new sanctions, conditions and parameters are required for the Executive branch to continue with the agreement. So Congress enters into the frame and the agreement stands as is but surely reactions will come.
Another serious consequence would be a split within the P5+1, the group that negotiated the agreement, probably with the US on one side and the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany on the other, based on what these countries have said over the past few weeks. Decertification, in this sense, is not the end of the deal, but it puts a big question mark around it. This may have to do with something top US government officials have mentioned quite often, when they refer to a stronger implementation of the deal by the inspector, namely, the IAEA.
Even if Trump has legal grounds for the decertification, is it worth vis-à-vis the split it will bring among his allies?
That is a matter of political judgement, perhaps it would not appropriate for me as a diplomat to get into that.