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A mistake to expect Kim Jong Un to give a full renunciation of nuclear weapons in advance

Why Insisting on a North Korean Nuclear Declaration Up Front is a Big Mistake, 38 NORTH BY: SIEGFRIED S. HECKER, NOVEMBER 28, 2018,  My reply to the frequently asked question if Kim Jong Un will ever give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons is, “I don’t know, and most likely he doesn’t know either. But it is time to find out.” However, insisting that Kim Jong Un give a full declaration of his nuclear program up front will not work. It will breed more suspicion instead of building the trust necessary for the North to denuclearize, a process that will extend beyond the 2020 US presidential election.

However, the time it will take to get to the endpoint should not obscure the progress that has already been made. Since this spring, Kim Jong Un has taken significant steps to reduce the nuclear threat North Korea poses. He has declared an end to nuclear testing and closed the nuclear test tunnels by setting off explosive charges inside the test tunnel complex. He also declared an end to testing intermediate- and long-range missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). I consider these as two of the most important steps toward reducing the threat North Korea poses and as significant steps on the path to denuclearization.

Whereas the North still poses a nuclear threat to Japan and South Korea as well as US military forces and citizens in the region, the threat to the United States has been markedly reduced. In my opinion, North Korea needs more nuclear and ICBM tests to be able to reach the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. Freezing the sophistication of the program is a necessary precursor to rolling it back in a step-by-step process.

At the September 2018 inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, Kim also told President Moon that he would commit to dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex if the US takes commensurate measures—unspecified, at least in public. The Yongbyon complex is the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program. Shutting it down and dismantling it would be a very big deal because it would stop plutonium and tritium production (for hydrogen bombs) and significantly disrupt highly enriched uranium production.

Yet, Kim’s actions have been widely dismissed as insignificant or insincere by both the left and the right of the American political spectrum. In many of these quarters, the sincerity of Kim’s denuclearization promise is judged by whether or not he is willing to provide a full and complete declaration and to agree on adequate verification measures. But Kim’s willingness to provide a full declaration at this early stage tells us little about his willingness to denuclearize. Moreover, I maintain that insisting on this approach is a dead end, certainly as long as Washington continues to apply “maximum pressure” instead of moving to implement the steps on normalizing relations that President Trump agreed to in the June Singapore statement.

A full declaration is a dead end because it is tantamount to surrender, and Kim has not surrendered, nor will he. A complete account of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities would, in Kim’s view, likely be far too risky in that it would essentially provide a targeting list for US military planners and seal the inevitable end of the nuclear program and possibly his regime.

Furthermore, a declaration must be accompanied by a robust verification protocol. That, in turn, must allow inspections and a full accounting of all past activities such as production and procurement records as well as export activities. And, once all these activities are complete, an inspection protocol must provide assurances that activities that could support a weapons program are not being reconstituted. This would be a contentious and drawn-out affair.

It is inconceivable that the North would declare all of its nuclear weapons, their location, and allow inspections of the weapons or of their disassembly up front. But in addition to the weapons themselves, a nuclear weapon program consists of three interlocking elements: 1) the nuclear bomb fuel, which depending on the type of bomb includes plutonium, highly enriched uranium (HEU), and forms of heavy hydrogen—deuterium and tritium; 2) weaponization—that is, designing, building and testing weapons, and; 3) delivery systems, which in the case of North Korea appear to be missiles, although airplane or ship delivery cannot be ruled out. Each of these elements involves dozens of sites, hundreds of buildings, and several thousand people.

Let me give an example of what is involved just for verification of plutonium inventories and means of production. ………..

It should be apparent that the declaration plus commensurate verification of the amount of plutonium North Korea possesses, which I believe is only between 20 and 40 kilograms, will be an enormous job. I cannot see it being accomplished in the current adversarial environment and certainly not within the timeframe that has been specified by the US government.

A similar sequence of declarations, inspections, and verification measures would have to be developed for the other bomb fuels, namely HEU and the hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. Verification of HEU inventories and means of production will be particularly contentious because very little is known about the centrifuge facility at the Yongbyon site. As far as we know, my Stanford colleagues and I are the only foreigners to have seen that facility, and then only in a hurried walk-through in 2010. In addition, there exists at least one other covert centrifuge site.

The situation is even more problematic for the second element of the North’s nuclear program, that of weaponization, which includes bomb design, production, and testing because we know nothing about these activities or where they are performed. Although we have some information regarding the nuclear test site at which six nuclear tests were conducted, we do not know if there are other tunnel complexes that have been prepared for testing.

The third element includes all of the North’s missiles and its production, storage and launch sites and complexes. These will also represent a major challenge for complete and correct declarations, inspections and verification.

Once all of the elements have been declared and the dismantling begins, then the focus will have to change to verifying the dismantlement and assessing the potential reversibility of these actions—a challenge that is not only difficult, but one that must be ongoing. ………

At this time, the level of trust between Pyongyang and Washington required for North Korea to agree to a full, verifiable declaration up front does not exist. Hence, my colleagues Robert Carlin and Elliot Serbin and I have suggested a different approach. Negotiations should begin with an agreed end state: North Korea without nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapon program. Civilian nuclear and space programs would remain open for negotiation and possible cooperation. But all facilities and activities that have direct nuclear weapons applicability must eventually be eliminated.

Rather than insisting on a full declaration up front, the two sides should first agree to have the North take significant steps that reduce the nuclear threat it poses in return for commensurate movements toward normalization—the details of which would have to be worked out during negotiations. …………

The Trump team claims progress is being made but insists on maintaining maximum pressure. The North’s Foreign Ministry has pointed outthat the “improvement of relations and sanctions are incompatible.” Also, most US North Korea watchers are either wedded to old think that you can’t negotiate with Pyongyang or they are determined to prove President Trump’s claims on North Korea wrong.

With nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula dramatically reduced, it is time to find out if Kim’s drive to improve the economy will eventually lead to denuclearization. He may determine that his nuclear arsenal poses a significant hindrance to economic development that outweighs the putative benefits it confers. Washington and Seoul should work together to encourage rather than inhibit this potential shift.


December 1, 2018 - Posted by | North Korea, politics international

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