VIENNA -- If the U.S.and North Korea manage to reach an agreement during their historic June 12 Singapore summit, the International Atomic Energy Agency will have its hands full trying to verify compliance with any terms of denuclearization.
The IAEA would play a vital role, but has never tackled inspections on the scale that would be required in North Korea, a tough job owing to the serious manpower shortage the agency faces.
On Monday, the U.N. nuclear oversight agency kicked off its regular Board of Governors meeting in Vienna. During the meeting, slated to last until Friday, representatives from about three dozen countries are expected to praise Pyongyang for showing a willingness to denuclearize. But the body will likely delay detailed discussions on inspections until after the summit.
The agency has been involved in past denluclearization programs. South Africa scrapped its nuclear arsenal on its own in the 1990's, then joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and accepted IAEA inspections. Libya agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in 2003, after which the IAEA entered the country for inspections and verification.
North Korea, however, has far more nuclear weapons and facilities than these countries. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency believes there may be more than 100 nuclear sites in North Korea, according to U.S. media.
The IAEA has been already been preparing for the formidable job, setting up a special task force last summer to plan inspections.
In a Monday news conference, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stressed that the organization is well prepared for its mission in North Korea, saying that the IAEA is ready to perform an important role.
"We will be able to resume our verification activities on short notice, within weeks, not months, once [governing] board authorization is given." The IAEA assumes that it will start by checking the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which it inspected in the past.
But mysteries remain concerning huge underground storage facilities in the reclusive nation, and gaining unfettered access to all these and having Pyongyang agree to surprise inspections are not the only challenges facing the IAEA. The agency would also need to add a large number of personnel.
The New York Times recently quoted an expert who said that "up to 300 inspectors" would be needed for the job. This would overwhelm the agency, which currently fields about 300 inspectors for nuclear inspections worldwide. Its workforce is already stretched thin, with 80 inspectors having been assigned to its Iran Task Force alone.
An IAEA official pointed out that the number of qualified nuclear experts is limited, noting that the biggest challenge is how to find enough inspectors for the job.
The official said the IAEA will begin staffing discussions among its Board of Governors and other agenices.
As for funding the inspections, talks are underway for an arrangement in which the countries involved will provide the money. Japan has said it is willing to contribute, and Amano expressed "confidence" that IAEA member countries will finance the efforts.
This week's IAEA meeting will also discuss the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which the country agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.
After Trump pulled the U.S. from the agreement, concerns are growing within the international community that Iran could restart its nuclear weapons program. But despite the U.S. withdrawal, Iran has continued to accept IAEA inspections.
In the Monday news conference, Amano also asserted that Iran has so far stuck to the agreement. The IAEA has been able to access all necessary places in Iran according to its Additional Protocol, which increases the body's ability to inspect, he said.