Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Dismantling North Korea’s Nuclear Program
Dismantling North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Dismantling North Korea’s Nuclear Program

The Kim-Trump Summit last month, though largely a propaganda exercise, produced a measure of civility and goodwill—what Trump called a “special bond”—between the leaders that could bode well for future political relations. However, firm agreement on a path forward for disarming North Korea did not materialize. In a final communique from the summit, the North wrote in a nebulous promise to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but provided no details on how or when this goal was to be reached. The Summit yielded just two tangible results—Trump’s pledge to suspend bi-annual US-ROK war games and a North Korean commitment to dismantle a missile engine test site, neither historic outcomes.

Though the Summit did not produce tangible outcomes in disarmament terms, to say that it changed nothing is simply inaccurate. It may have injected a ray of light into an otherwise dismal relationship. The fact that the two leaders met face-to-face and seemed to get along well (this was obvious in the media coverage of the event) sets a positive mood and tone for future interactions. The sides pledged to build a lasting and robust peace along the peninsula, an important if symbolic tension-reducing step. Finally, the sides put aside or moderated their most extreme negotiating positions: the US demand for rapid and final denuclearization of the DPRK and the North’s insistence that the US remove its troops and its high-profile military hardware out of the region forthwith. Perhaps the most interesting moment in the meeting came toward the end, when Trump presented Kim with a short video depicting an alluring future for a North Korea without missiles. “He loved it,” said Trump, which (if true) suggests that the interplay between economic and nuclear defense issues will be a crucial element of DPRK policy debates in coming years.[1]

What to do Now: Threat Reduction Options

Can Washington and Pyongyang come to terms on a negotiating agenda for major denuclearization, especially disposition of the North’s nuclear arms? The United States sees the North’s nukes as an existential threat to the global order and insists on their destruction while North Korea sees possession of them as a survival strategy and a vital protective shield against powerful external enemies, including its erstwhile negotiating partner, the United States. It will take a while to negotiate a pathway through these differences and establish a unified set of meanings and objectives. In early July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang to nail down a concrete plan for implementing the denuclearization pledge at the Summit, but was rebuffed. The North’s Foreign Ministry accused the United States of a “unilateral and gangster-like demand on denuclearization” but also emphasized the need to build on the “friendly relationship and trust” established with Trump in Singapore. Despite the softening in tone, the comment argues for a more flexible (and less hurried) approach to dealing with the nuclear issue.[2]

Accordingly, the US should consider pushing discussion of complete and final denuclearization to a later stage of negotiations. The starting points of serious talks should focus on areas of possible agreement short of full-scale denuclearization. As a general strategy, the United States should try to secure concessions that reduce the value of the North’s nuclear arsenal as a military resource—that is, contain its strategic reach—but stop short of eliminating the weapons per se for now. Here there are plenty of opportunities for diplomatic negotiation. For example, making permanent a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing declared by Pyongyang last November, demolishing all test sites for nuclear weapons, prohibiting production of missiles of sufficient range to hit the US, and getting North Korea to join the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — an important limiting step.[3]

Moving farther along the denuclearization pathway, the United States should demand shuttering facilities for the production and processing of plutonium and prohibiting the production of highly-enriched uranium —essential ingredients of a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang should declare the location and design of all such facilities and agree to facilitate effective monitoring activities. This strategy, if implemented, would further reduce the threat from the North’s nuclear weapons, but would not eliminate it. (Loss of control, internal proliferation, and transfers to hostile states would remain potential problems.) Pyongyang of course, would want concessions and these are likely to be costly, more so than they would have been when Kim assumed power 6 years ago, before the North’s spectacular advances in nuclear and missile technology.[4]


The final stage of denuclearization, for our purposes here, is the disassembly and disposition of the North’s nuclear weapons inventory. This does not include the retooling and redirection of the massive industrial infrastructure and personnel systems now oriented to nuclear-military production. In a recent Stanford study, Sigfried Hecker and Robert Carlin estimate that the former would take up to 15 years and the latter up to 5 years. But these timetables seem to represent the time required to technically accomplish the activities – factoring in time for the political process and getting rid of the North’s nukes could take quite a but longer.[5]

The central problem as we’ve emphasized repeatedly in recent writings is that after almost 70 years of hostile relations, the countries deeply mistrust each other. North Korea is inclined to trust its security to its nukes rather than to terms of an agreement with the Americans. (Note that Trump is now offering unspecified security guarantees to North Korea, whereas just a few short months ago he had threatened to totally destroy the country—maybe a bit of a disconnect for the North Koreans.) For its part, America is perennially suspicious that Pyongyang is cheating on nuclear agreements, such as the case involving clandestine production of highly-enriched uranium. Both sides have reasons for suspicion, and it will be essential to build a basis of trust that can sustain the complex technical, diplomatic, and political decisions needed to ensure progress along the denuclearization pathway.

Moreover, suspicion and mistrust pervade the issue of verification— the US Korea policy demands the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but we don’t have even reasonable ballpark numbers on the size of the North’s weapons arsenal. As an example, the highly respected Congressional Research Service estimates that the DPRK has the fissile material to assemble 16 to 60 weapons but has actually built only 10 to 20 weapons, while the Council on Foreign Relations, citing US intelligence sources, gives figures of 30 to 60 assembled weapons. Obviously this is a ridiculously wide range, which raises interesting possibilities.[6]

The methods and technologies for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula have been demonstrated to be effective, but require complete openness and cooperation of the party subject to the verification activities. The most salient example would be that of South Africa where, as the result of months of detailed verification activity, it was concluded that there were no indications that the South African nuclear weapons program had not been completely terminated and dismantled and that all nuclear material had been verified and placed under international control. The North won’t negotiate away its nuclear security blanket unless it really wants to disarm. A further implication is that successful verification will likely rely largely on the North Koreans—they know what’s on their home turf—creating a possible fox guarding the henhouse situation.[7]

There are many scenarios for how North Korea could cheat and retain hidden stashes of nuclear weapons materials or actual nuclear weapons. Each and every scenario would need to be thoroughly investigated and eliminated as a possible path for cheating. Clearly, the situation in North Korea would be far more difficult and complicated than that in South Africa. North Korea would need to make full declaration of all nuclear material and all facilities for handling of nuclear material in the country. Complete records of nuclear materials received, produced, processed, or otherwise used would also need to be made available – including fabrication and dismantlement activities related to nuclear weapons. Verification activities could make use of international teams of inspectors, but activities directly related to nuclear weapons should be limited to teams from Nuclear Weapons States to avoid the possible proliferation of information and weapons technology. The North would also need to agree and facilitate environmental sampling, unannounced verifications, and other intrusive activities as might be required for the process. The process would be difficult, costly, and time consuming, but the end result would be complete, verified, and irreversible denuclearization.

Other Approaches: The Economic Dimension

Trust can develop over time, but it won’t spring full-blown from the demonstrably positive rapport between Trump and Kim. A day after the Summit, the president, no doubt in a fit of euphoria, tweeted that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” — a naïve statement that he retracted several days later.[8] But his original thinking may have been on to something. It is clear that his primary vision for North Korea is unashamedly capitalistic, centering on what he calls its “brilliant potential” for becoming an economic and financial powerhouse one day.[9] Speaking in almost Biblical terms on the video he gave Kim, Trump intoned “out of the darkness can come light and the light of hope can burn bright.” Trump pictures North Korea’s development largely in real estate terms, “great beaches” studded with hotels and condos, catering to masses of clients from South Korea and China,” speedboats, skyscrapers and horses running along a secluded beach. Of course, the implication is that benefits only accrue if the country denuclearizes. The video, which probably laid the capitalist message on a bit too thick, seems partially compatible, using a bit of imagination, with the regime’s new stated priority, which is to favor economic reconstruction and development over defense matters.[10]

Similar strands of thinking have emerged, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, from Graham Allison, the former head of Harvard’s Belfer Center and one of America’s truly innovative academic thinkers. A recent article by Allison in The National Interest, not once mentioning the terms “nuclear” or “denuclearization,” cites the potential allure of the Singapore model (a country with more than 37 times the per capita GDP of North Korea) for a regime thirsting for economic change. The central principles cited include embrace of market economics and autocratic state government like Singapore’s or China’s.[11] Tacked on to Allison’s principles might be some modest improvements in human rights—closing the country’s dreaded reeducation and political internment camps and allowing more press freedom, for example. A shift away from totalitarianism could strengthen Kim’s popularity at home, especially if translated into a faster pace of economic growth. Reform within could diminish pressures for reform from without (like forced regime change), create a more auspicious international environment, and perhaps arouse some enthusiasm for a legitimate denuclearization deal with the Americans that would eventually end the current crisis.

Of course, a lot could go wrong. Trump’s various economic blandishments and projections of a powerful and prosperous future haven’t fallen on deaf ears. However, fears persist among important members of the elite that the glowing future promised by Trump will devolve on some successor regime, if the North abandons its nuclear program, the crux of its national defense strategy, and its self-definition as an independent state. No one in Washington has yet thought of a security formula that would allay these fears (again, the issue is trust). Perhaps the best course is to pursue Allison’s principles, while chipping away at the most vicious aspects of its totalitarian system. Western analysts can help matters by demilitarizing coverage of the North focusing, say, on variations in the current rice crop rather than on how fast snow is melting on a rooftop at Yongbyon.

The politically tinted reforms and the greater flexibility they introduce into the system also pose dangers, especially the possibility of a backlash from unappreciative conservatives in the military and the party elite. Reforms should be introduced slowly and proceed gradually. The downside risks are considerable. For example if Kim Jong-un is leading the reform movement, he could be caught in a coup, ousted, arrested and ultimately executed. Also, care should be taken to ensure that social and economic changes do not occur so rapidly that a catastrophic collapse of the state occurs, leading to millions of North Koreans pouring over the South Korean, Chinese, and Russian borders, desperately in search of a better way of life. The need to proceed with changes in the North at a steady and appropriate pace is clear. A state of nuclear anarchy could emerge if conflicting regional and central government factions gain access to nuclear weapons and start to square off. Admittedly, the argument goes rather far afield, but it shows why final disarmament, albeit difficult to achieve, is a worthy objective, essential to the safety of the Korean peninsula and the region beyond.


[1] “Trump’s North Korea gamble ends with ‘special bond with Kim, CNN, June 12, 2018; “Watch the Movie Trailer Trump showed Kim about North Korea’s possible future,” VOX, June 12, 2018.

[2] Gardiner Harris and Choe Sang Hun, “North Korea Criticizes ‘gangster-like US attitude after Talks with Mike Pompeo,” The New York Times, July 7, 2018.

[3] See, for example, William Broad et al., “Nine Steps Required to Really Disarm North Korea”, The New York Times, June 12, 2018, p. A10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Broad and David Sanger, “North Korea Nuclear Disarmament Could Take 15 Years,” The New York Times, May 29, 2018, p. A10.

[6] Jonathan Chung, “Step One in North Korea: Find the Arsenal,” The Wall Street Journal, June 9-10, 2018, p. A10; Eleanor Albert, “North Korea’s military capabilities,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 6, 2018.

[7] David Sanger and William Broad, “Verifying the End of a Nuclear North Korea ‘Could Make Iran Look Easy,’” The New York Times, May 6, 2018.

[8] “Trump Declares North Korea ‘no longer a nuclear threat,’” CNN, June 13, 2018.

[9] Graham Allison, “Could North Korea Become the Next Singapore?” The National Interest, June 8, 2018.

[10] “Movie trailer”

[11] Graham Allison, Could North Korea Become the Next Singapore?” The National Interest, June 8, 2018.