Total Denuclearization Is an Unattainable Goal. Here’s How to Reduce the North Korean Threat.
The United States and South Korea must help Pyongyang convert its military nuclear complex for civilian use.
At the June 12 summit in Singapore, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took a big step away from the brink of war. They must now take an equally big step to eliminate nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Odd as it might seem at first glance, the best way to do that is for the United States and South Korea to help North Korea convert its military nuclear and missile programs for civilian use rather than insisting on total denuclearization.
Pyongyang will almost surely insist on maintaining civilian programs, because it has in the past stressed that these programs are its sovereign right, not one that Washington can choose to grant or withhold.
Besides, both South Korea and Japan enjoy the benefits of civilian nuclear and space programs. For North Korea, this would mean that, instead of bombs, it would provide nuclear electricity and nuclear medicine for its people. Instead of missiles, it would engage in a peaceful space program to launch satellites for weather prediction and natural disaster relief efforts.
For this to happen, Pyongyang would first have to agree to halt, roll back, and eliminate its existing nuclear weapons and its military nuclear program. In concert with North Korea rolling back its ability to produce bombs and missiles, the United States and South Korea would then assist Pyongyang with civilian conversion.
Based on what we have seen in our many visits to the North Korean nuclear complex, the elimination of military capabilities would be a huge undertaking, because the North likely has approximately 30 nuclear weapons, an extensive nuclear complex to produce plutonium and highly-enriched uranium to fuel those bombs, the ability to manufacture the weapons, and a large arsenal of delivery systems that include intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The North Korean government would see cooperation in converting its nuclear program from military to civilian use as a concrete demonstration of goodwill and a signal of a serious policy change in Washington. The results, in turn, would foster an environment in which verifiable elimination of the military programs would be more likely.
Our proposed 10-year roadmap to halt, roll back, and eliminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program carves out a role for cooperative conversion, which would involve South Koreans and Americans working side by side with the North’s scientists and engineers at their nuclear and space complexes.
This effort could entail U.S. and South Korean technical experts working with the North Koreans to provide a source of much-needed medical isotopes by having South Korea construct one of their modern HANARO research reactors — regarded as the best-designed in the world — or retrofitting the existing small Yongbyon IRT-2000 reactor.
The United States and South Korea could also offer to help complete the construction of the North’s small, experimental light water reactor for generating electricity in accord with international safety standards. Although this sort of scenario was previously inconceivable, the rapprochement between North and South over the past six months makes the prospect of such cooperation possible.
There is no doubt that the demilitarization process will take time. But if carried out under the right conditions, a cooperative approach could speed up the timeline for denuclearization and, if offered early, will also provide a barometer of just how serious Pyongyang is about disarming.
Cooperative conversion offers the best chance for the verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The magnitude of the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the closed nature of the country will make verification of complete denuclearization virtually impossible. It will not be possible for inspectors, especially in an adversarial environment, to get unfettered access to all of North Korea’s facilities to verify that it has not secretly kept a few nuclear weapons, a few kilograms of plutonium, or one or more covert uranium centrifuge facilities. But cooperation on converting Pyongyang’s nuclear infrastructure will help.
With U.S. and South Korean technical personnel on the ground cooperating closely to advance civilian programs, they will be able to learn much more about the nature and extent of the North’s entire program and see facilities that otherwise might escape them.
Another benefit of cooperative conversion is that it resolves the dilemma of what to do with North Korean personnel connected to the military nuclear and missile programs. The technical staff currently producing plutonium, highly-enriched uranium, bombs, and missiles could instead help to both dismantle and decommission the facilities associated with the weapons program while transitioning to civilian activities.
The United States encountered a similar problem when faced with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and one could envision a professional staff reorientation in North Korea along the lines of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which sought to dismantle excess Soviet nuclear weapons and infrastructure while promoting scientific and military cooperation with a view to preventing proliferation.
Any such plan in North Korea will need to follow international laws and gain the support of the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It will also need to involve IAEA inspectors. Although it may run up against international strictures against nuclear assistance, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, we believe it is possible to get the support of the international community considering the immense potential benefits of eliminating the nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula.
We recognize that a plan that welcomes civilian nuclear and space programs in North Korea will be highly controversial in the United States. After all, North Korea’s retention of any nuclear capability has been at the heart of disagreements between Washington and Pyongyang during the previous three U.S. administrations.
The worry among skeptics, not fully unfounded, was always that civilian nuclear and space programs would allow North Korea to put in place the pieces necessary to build the bomb or develop a long-range missile capability, if it later made the political decision to do so. Our detailed historical study shows that the North was determined over the years to develop its military nuclear and missile programs. Its military advances resulted primarily from these efforts; the fears that civilian programs might provide critical assistance to the military program were mostly overblown.
These fears failed to take into account the risks and tradeoffs involved, and they led to the premature blockage of potential pathways to resolving the nuclear crisis. For example, Washington treated Pyongyang’s attempted space launches in 2006 and 2012 as military endeavors, thereby shutting down opportunities for diplomatic solutions.
Times have changed dramatically since then. Today, North Korea has a sizeable nuclear arsenal, composed not only of atomic bombs fueled by plutonium or highly-enriched uranium but likely also hydrogen bombs at least 10 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Pyongyang has also made remarkable progress with long-range missile technology. With its missile and nuclear weapons capabilities already so advanced, there is little the North will learn from civilian nuclear programs to advance North Korea’s military efforts at this point. As a result, the risks posed by civilian programs today are much less grave than in the past and, we believe, quite manageable.
Of course, a deal that allows North Korea to retain any civilian capabilities would inherently reduce the time required for North Korea to break out and once again build the bomb at a later date, should it choose to do so. However, any attempt would be quickly recognized because the civilian facilities will be under international safeguards and inspection.
Washington and Seoul can further mitigate the breakout risks by making the price of breakout — that is, the benefits that North Korea would forfeit if it remilitarizes — prohibitively costly. A return to a military nuclear program would almost surely cost Pyongyang hard-won diplomatic normalization and much-needed sanctions relief.
Furthermore, the technical risks of North Korea hedging, in the form of civilian nuclear and space programs, are manageable as long as Pyongyang addresses the most pressing military risks first — by dismantling existing weapons and the means to produce them. A civilian uranium enrichment program would constitute the most controversial hedge. As shown in our roadmap, the fate of uranium enrichment will still have to be determined. That is best accomplished by having both sides analyze the risks and benefits from technical, economic, and political perspectives. In any case, an enrichment facility would have to be subject to full international inspection to ensure that it is enriching uranium for civilian use only.
Many experts remain rightly skeptical that North Korea will ever willingly forfeit its entire nuclear arsenal. Cognizant of this concern, our roadmap lays out interim steps short of complete demilitarization that will reduce the nuclear threat significantly.
The best way to persuade Pyongyang to go faster and further to roll back and eliminate its military programs is to convince Kim that the United States is serious about coexisting with North Korea. Offering to help Pyongyang convert its nuclear and missile programs to civilian use would represent a huge step in that direction.
Siegfried S. Hecker is a senior fellow emeritus at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Elliot A. Serbin is research assistant at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.