he Korean Peninsula nuclear situation improved significantly in 2018 thanks to the historic Kim-Trump meeting in Singapore and the peace summit between the top leaders of North Korea and South Korea. In early December 2018, US President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in January or February 2019 to push forward denuclearization on the peninsula.
NewsChina recently secured an exclusive interview with Siegfried S. Hecker, professor at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, who is also an internationally recognized expert in plutonium science, global threat reduction and nuclear security. Having visited North Korea on seven occasions and inspected its nuclear facilities four times, Hecker said that while the North Korean nuclear crisis remained dangerous in 2017, many positive things occurred in 2018. And in January 2019, Kim made a two-day visit to China, his fourth in the past year, ahead of a possible second summit with Trump. Hecker proposes a 10-year roadmap and three phases toward denuclearization, arguing that the process could be accelerated if sufficient trust is built between North Korea and the US.
NewsChina: The Korean Peninsula nuclear issue rapidly improved in 2018. Were you surprised?
Siegfried S. Hecker: The year of 2017 was very dangerous because of the technical advances that North Korea made with its nuclear programs, namely the big nuclear test in September and the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests. In addition, the political rhetoric was extremely dangerous. However, many positive things happened in 2018. The most important is that politically, we stepped away from the precipice of war, and that is good news, and somewhat unexpected.
NC: A second summit between the US and North Korea is expected to take place. If it happens, what fruits will the summit yield? Do you think the first summit between Trump and Kim opened the door to denuclearization?
SH: Yes, the Singapore Summit definitely opened the door to a resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis and the possibility of the denuclearization of the peninsula. The summit was made possible by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un taking important steps toward reconciliation. And President Trump welcomed the opening and met with Chairman Kim. The Singapore declaration was very basic, focusing on the overall objective of normalization and denuclearization. It left the difficult work for the future. A second summit should now agree on specific steps toward denuclearization and normalization.
NC: The US insists on denuclearization before sanctions are lifted, but North Korea expects a step-by-step approach. Will the two sides reach a compromise?
SH: I believe a step-by-step approach will be necessary, but on the North Korean side the steps will have to significantly reduce the risks its nuclear program poses. On the American side, the steps will have to make progress on normalization. These kinds of steps for each side should be on the agenda for the second summit.
NC: You have paid several visits to North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Based on your judgment, is North Korea a de facto nuclear power?
SH: There are many uncertainties about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. However, based on what we know about its nuclear complex and the six nuclear tests it conducted, North Korea may have sufficient nuclear material, that is, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, for approximately 20 to 60 nuclear weapons, with 30 being the most likely number.
North Korea has a wide array of missile capabilities. It is quite likely that North Korea has miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit on the short-range SCUD missiles and medium-range Nodong missiles and therefore may be able to reach all of South Korea and most of Japan. North Korea has demonstrated that it can launch ICBMs, but it has done so only on high flight trajectories rather than normal trajectories. That means it must do more missile tests before it has a reliable ICBM. It has also not demonstrated that it can make a nuclear warhead sufficiently small, light and robust to survive an ICBM flight.
I do not consider North Korea to be a nuclear weapon state, but it is a state with nuclear weapons, which does make it a de facto nuclear power.
NC: You have predicted in a report that it will take at least 15 years for North Korea to abandon its nuclear capabilities. What are the major obstacles to complete denuclearization?
SH: My Stanford University colleagues, Robert Carlin and Elliot Serbin, and I have published a comprehensive history of the North Korean nuclear program. Based on that history we developed a 10-year roadmap for denuclearization, rather than the 15 years quoted in the news media. Actually, it is better to call this a framework, because the real roadmap will have to be determined through negotiations.
It recommends three phases toward denuclearization. The first is to halt – that is, don’t make it worse. Second, take specific steps to roll back, reduce the threat – so no nuclear testing, no missile testing, no more plutonium. The uranium facilities will also have to be addressed, but that will take more time because only the Yongbyon centrifuge facility is known. North Korea has more centrifuge facilities that will eventually have to be addressed.
The third phase is to eliminate all weapons and facilities that support the nuclear weapons program. Those facilities that would support only a civilian program will have to be addressed during negotiations. Our framework indicated that the first phase could take up to one year, the second would take possibly four more, and the third would be completed by the 10th year.
This process could be accelerated if sufficient trust can be developed between North Korea and the US. One possible way to build trust and speed up the process is to have the US and South Korea tell Chairman Kim that they are willing to help him convert his military nuclear and missile programs to civilian nuclear and space programs. Having American and South Korean technical specialists working side-by-side with North Korean specialists at their nuclear and space facilities would provide the best approach to verification of denuclearization.
And, let me also say, there is a potential role here for China as well as for Russia. China can help North Korea with nuclear reactors for electricity and Russia could provide launch services for North Korean satellites.
NC: Has the 10-year denuclearization roadmap so far met your expectations? Which one of the three phases is the most important and which one is the most difficult?
SH: So far, North Korea has begun the first phase of our 10-year roadmap, namely to begin to halt nuclear development. Pyongyang has stopped nuclear testing and stopped long-range missile testing and has promised to dismantle facilities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The next important step is to stop reactor operations so as not to produce more plutonium.
The Trump administration is pressing for a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear inventory as the next step in the process. While a declaration at some point would be consistent with the three-phrase approach, right now it would not be as valuable as halting operations at Yongbyon and may in fact be counterproductive. I hope that the next Trump-Kim summit will start the second phase, that is to seriously roll back the nuclear and missile programs. The most difficult step will be the last one – that is, to eliminate all military nuclear and missile programs. That will require the development of trust between the two parties and help from the other parties, such as South Korea, China and Russia.
NC: How will the international community effectively monitor the denuclearization, and are these measures reversible? If North Korea resumes its activities, will it take the rest of the world long to discover?
SH: Monitoring an end to nuclear testing and long-range missile launches is easy. It can be done with great confidence. Monitoring the operation of the plutonium-producing reactors is also very effective using commercial satellite imagery. There is no way to monitor uranium enrichment facility operations without cooperation from North Korea. Of course, most operations are reversible. However, resuming nuclear testing will be difficult if the tunnels are effectively destroyed. To make plutonium production irreversible, the reactors would have to be incapacitated [poisoned or destroyed]. There is not much that can be done to confirm the suspension or prevent the resumption of uranium enrichment because no one outside North Korea knows where all the facilities are.
NC: How should the US compensate North Korea for complete denuclearization? What incentives can the international community provide to create a more beneficial environment?
SH: I would not look at this as compensation – we should not be viewed as paying off the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons program. Besides, I believe that what they want most is security guarantees. For this, one has to ask the North Koreans what they require. Since Chairman Kim appears very serious about improving North Korea’s economy, I believe he will ask for relief of sanctions so they can develop their economy. The US should be prepared to match North Korea’s denuclearization actions with steps toward political normalization and sanctions relief.
NC: Do you think Kim Jong-un is committed to complete denuclearization? Is he more dedicated to economic development than his father?
SH: The history of negotiations is long and complicated. No one outside North Korea really knows what Kim is prepared to do. However, he has taken important and encouraging steps toward denuclearization and expressed his deep commitment to economic development. Since the actions taken by Kim Jong-un, President Moon Jae-in and President Trump in 2018 moved us away from the brink of war. I think it is time to test just how far Chairman Kim is willing to go toward denuclearization and normalization. Time will tell.