Hostage North Korean Nukes?

The report keeps coming up that North Korea will be asked to (or will consider) giving up some of its nuclear weapons as a goodwill gesture. The source of these reports is not clear.

It’s not going to happen.

North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as its lifeline, a way to deter the United States from attempting to change its regime. More personally, Kim Jong Un sees them as his way to stay in power. That’s strong motivation. The statements from North Korea for the past week indicate that only with an ironclad assurance of regime continuance will North Korea even consider giving up its nuclear arsenal. That ironclad assurance will not come in a summit on June 12. Kim will not be easy to convince.

Giving five of its nuclear weapons to the United States would give the United States an enormous amount of information about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

  • How much and what kind of fissile material
  • The shape of the pit
  • Whether boosting is included
  • What kind of neutron initiator
  • The design and type of conventional explosive
  • The timing and initiator system
  • Quality of production
  • Configuration of the whole thing in the warhead

If you know those things, you can extrapolate back to how well their reactors and centrifuges work, which could help to estimate how many weapons they have. You would know whether they got the design from somewhere else or developed it themselves. You would know what to look for in overhead photos to locate weapons plants.

The level of sophistication in design would suggest whether the test blasts were from bombs of the type handed over, or perhaps something else entirely, something much bigger that wouldn’t fit on a re-entry vehicle. It is possible that there is some level of bluff in North Korea’s deterrence; five nukes would tell us more about that.

Knowing the timing and initiator systems would help with countermeasures against a North Korean attack. The United States would be likely to share something like that with Japan and South Korea.

Nuclear weapon design is under one of the highest levels of secrecy nations apply to information. Why should North Korea be different?

North Korea has been very secretive in conducting their nuclear tests. They make sure that nothing comes out of their tests; if telltale isotopes were emitted, the rest of the world could learn whether that last blast was a genuine hydrogen bomb, for example.

When North Korea has mentioned denuclearization in the past, it has meant that it is willing to consider giving up its nuclear weapons when the other nuclear powers are willing to give up theirs. Some in the Trump administration believe that North Korea’s mention of denuclearization means it is willing to give up its entire nuclear weapons program now.

The proposal that North Korea send “hostage” nuclear weapons to the United States smacks of a lead-up to the “Libya model” of full removal of their nuclear weapons program, which North Korea has unambiguously rejected.

Closer to the range of possible summit outcomes would be a North Korean commitment to move toward (note that hedge!) ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Joining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would mean giving up its nuclear weapons, so that is out of the question for now. Ratifying the CTBT would be the kind of large gesture that those advocating hostage nuclear weapons are looking for. They would do better to go in that direction.

Update: Here’s some sanity from Siegfried Hecker, and the report he mentions.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.

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