The primary issue that is being negotiated with North Korea is its nuclear weapons and the missiles they might be mounted on for attacks on the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan. A meaningful agreement will have to include many technical issues.
Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo are not nuclear or rocket scientists, nor can we expect most politicians to be. But the technical facts are no less difficult to learn than the economics. (Oops! They get that wrong, too. I will push forward anyway.) Pundits commenting on the negotiations and people who simply want to understand may find this list useful.
- North Korea has nuclear weapons. We don’t know how many or whether they are mounted on missiles. They have tested five nuclear devices, the last of which was probably a thermonuclear weapon (H-bomb). The best guesses at how many they have are in the 20-30 range. Estimates as high as 60 can be found.
- North Korean missile testing is not as far advanced as nuclear testing. Questions such as whether the warheads can survive re-entry into the atmosphere and ability to aim them remain for outside observers and possibly for the North Koreans as well.
- North Korea has several types of missiles with different ranges. Some would be aimed at Japan or South Korea, others at the United States, depending on those ranges.
- The Earth is a sphere, so North Korean missiles headed for the United States will go north on a great circle route, not straight across the Pacific, as is too often shown on television graphics.
- We know some things about the North Korean weapons complex, but not as much as we’d like. We know the reactor that produces plutonium and the centrifuge facility that produces enriched uranium, but not whether there are other such facilities. We know some of the other manufacturing facilities, but not all of them.
- The North Koreans used explosives to close the entrances to tunnels at their nuclear test site. My professional opinion, based on photos of the demolition, is that this was a minimal closure and the tunnels can easily be accessed again. I haven’t seen other opinions.
- The North Koreans have several missile test sites. They have offered to deactivate one, but we don’t know which one. 7a. It is useful to learn the names of the various sites.
- Verification is an essential part of arms control. It’s an abstract word that includes many concrete actions. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization can supply the expertise to design verification plans and carry them out. They are international organizations with inspectors from many countries.
- Verification consists of getting information from North Korea about their holdings of fissile material and the facilities in which missiles and bombs are produced. It includes inspections of those facilities by human visits and by installed equipment. The inspectors report to their organizations or an organization set up by treaty to monitor the treaty. Decisions must be made on schedules of inspection, equipment to be used, access to facilities, and other details.
- Taking apart a nuclear weapon can be tricky. If North Korea decides to dismantle its nuclear weapons, that adds a layer to verification that we don’t have a lot of experience with.
- Other expertise exists in the United States, in the State Department, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense. Each has different sorts of expertise. A couple hundred of these experts backed up the negotiations with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
- Other arms control agreements have elements that can be used in an agreement with North Korea – New START and its predecessors, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, previous agreements with North Korea, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the JCPOA.
There is more too, like how nuclear weapons work, why enriched uranium and plutonium are the fissile materials of choice, the kinds of fuels for missiles, but these are extras. It’s enough to know that plutonium (not “enriched”) and enriched uranium are the fissile materials and that the photos the North Koreans have shown are plausible as nuclear weapons and that the nuclear and missile tests show real progress.
So far I have seen no indication that Trump or Pompeo understands any of this.
Acknowledgement: This post grew out of a Twitter conversation with Dan Nexon.