How Long Would It Take To *Cough* End North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program?

Observe how gracefully I avoided the unclear word denuclearization by saying what I mean. Another area of disagreement is in how long it would take to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and eliminate or repurpose the facilities that develop and build them. And we don’t know what North Korea thinks about that.

John Bolton estimated that it would take a year. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates 30 months. A study by Siegfried Hecker, Robert Carlin, and Elliot Serbin at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation estimates as long as 15 years.

Why the big differences?

North Korea’s nuclear weapons complex is made up of many buildings containing complex equipment. We don’t know where all those buildings are. We don’t know how many nuclear weapons they have built, nor how many missiles, nor how many of the two have been assembled together, nor where they are stored.

Removing or disabling all that would first require a declaration from North Korea of what and where it all is. From that could be developed an understanding of what the end state should be.  Then plans would be made for removing material, perhaps taking it out of the country, disassembling weapons and equipment, and finding other work for the scientists and engineers to pursue. All that would have to be verified, preferably by a neutral party like the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The administration started out talking about complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and has “softened” that to final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD). They have not gotten agreement on any definitions with North Korea on what those phrases mean, and they contain that contested word.

Bolton has given no specifics to back up his estimate of a year or less.

The Institute for Science and International Security says that their estimate comes out of a 100-page confidential study, from which they have permission to release a summary presentation. They assume complete cooperation by North Korea. Producing a declaration, they say, would take six months, with concurrent action to disable some of the program. That declaration would be verified over the next 12 months, and the remaining buildings and equipment would be dismantled through a total of 30 months.

The Stanford study is much more detailed and is based on a history of what we know of North Korea’s program. It is summarized in a presentation. Facilities would be ranked by risk, and the schedule devised to eliminate those most essential to producing weapons first.

Bolton may be thinking of how Libya gave up its nuclear program. Most of Libya’s nuclear equipment was in packing crates and had not been assembled into working factories, much less did they have nuclear weapons. All they had to do was transfer the packing crates onto American planes.

Assuming complete cooperation by North Korea is highly optimistic. For the purpose of this post, I’ve ignored that question. Given that North Korea is currently expanding its nuclear weapons production program and has kept most of it concealed, one might expect them to hold back some of their program, as Bashar al-Assad did with his chemical weapons program.

Negotiating a declaration, access, and verification will take time. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action required two years once Iran decided to cooperate. There is no reason to expect that six months would be enough for a much more developed program in North Korea.

The Stanford group has experience negotiating with North Korea and with somewhat similar activities to secure nuclear weapons and materials in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter was analogous in the need for agreements on access and activities. Even if North Korea is ready to cooperate fully, there will be sensitive areas that must be negotiated.

The cooperative activities with Russia took about fifteen years, and a few continue today.

What adds complexity to the Libyan, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian examples is that a program for North Korea would include dealing with their nuclear weapons. From the photos they have released, those weapons are reasonably compact. A half-dozen could easily fit in the basement of an American house. Handling and dismantling them will be a major issue. Another of the many unknowns is the design(s) of the weapons. How safe are they to handle? Dismantling would best be done by the North Koreans, who know how they were assembled.

The North Koreans will have concerns about allowing others to learn their secrets, even in a cooperative environment. Another factor is how other countries in the region would feel about the program and whether other countries would help in the effort. All of the examples I’ve cited included multiple countries.

The Stanford estimate comes closest to reality. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meetings in North Korea are barely a beginning.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.