‘Denuclearization is a process, not a singular event,’ expert says

Ahead of tomorrow’s United States-North Korea summit, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, and following the recent Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site closing event, Daily NK sat down with Kim Dong Yub (pictured above), professor at the Institute for Far East Studies of Kyungnam University, to discuss these developments and potential strategies going forward.

The following is a transcript from the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Q. On the 24th, there was a special demolition ceremony held for the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Do you think the event can be considered a complete decommissioning of the facility?

If you consider the conditions required for a ‘complete decommission’, it’s still not quite there yet. There are quite a few things that we haven’t been able to confirm on the technical side, so it’s premature to draw conclusions about the test site. When we talk about complete disarmament, we have to consider whether any restoration efforts are taking place.

Disarmament goes beyond just destroying a facility, and also requires efforts aimed at eventually normalizing the site and opening it up. While we cannot definitively call this complete disarmament due to the lack of any obvious efforts to restore the site, for the most part it has come very close. Any attempt to reopen the area would require a complete reconstruction of the facility.

Q. So it would be difficult to say that the physical destruction of the nuclear testing site has any significance for the technicalities of disarmament?

I don’t want to try and make a connection between the two. Several experts are claiming that the destruction of the site has limited North Korea’s capacity to make any further advances in improving their nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, North Korea has already conducted six nuclear tests.

If you look at the situation from the standpoint that there is no more need to conduct tests, because North Korea could still develop its nuclear arsenal through simulations, there isn’t any value in trying to connect the physical destruction of the testing site and the technical aspects.       

Q. There is also the opinion that the destruction of the nuclear facility was nothing more than a show.

By itself, the destruction of the test site can most certainly be considered a show. The more important question is whether or not it was meaningful. I believe that it had significance and served as a chance for North Korea to show its resolution to give up its nuclear program. Rather than being seen as putting on a spectacle designed to trick the international community, it instead should be viewed as a starting point that shows North Korea’s willingness to work towards denuclearization.

Q. Are you saying that the significance is in North Korea showing its resolve toward denuclearization?

Exactly. North Korea originally stated that they were going to undergo a ‘phased and simultaneous’ denuclearization, receiving compensation for each step along the way. Despite this, North Korea destroyed the nuclear test site without any promise of reward or compensation. In light of this, is it not too early to be debating the sincerity of the situation?    

Q. Earlier you said that there are several things that still need to be confirmed with the destruction of the testing site, what were you referring to?

Despite there being four tunnels in total, the destruction of only three of these (#2, 3 and 4) was shown in the ceremony. The exact condition of the #1 tunnel is still unknown. The #2 tunnel was used in the fifth nuclear test and was already presumed to have collapsed and rendered mostly unusable, and the #3 and 4 tunnels were brand-new without any information about their depth or other details available.

Without more information there is no way to determine the extent of the destruction of these tunnels. For example, if the tunnel was a kilometer long, but they only set the explosives 100 meters back, it would be easy to later drill into the tunnel past the rubble and continue using it.     

Q. I assume you’ve seen the aftermath photos of the site, was there anything particularly remarkable?

The external appearance of the site was already well documented by satellite images beforehand, so there wasn’t much new there. However, it’s very unfortunate that we weren’t able to figure out more about the different buildings and what purposes they served at the site. Not all of the buildings there were probably even real. There would have been fake buildings constructed along with the operational buildings.

If we had the chance to send inspectors in beforehand, we could have potentially learned a lot about the development of North Korea’s nuclear program. Although the act of destroying the site itself carries great significance and meaning, it is regrettable that we were unable to learn more.

Q. Can you explain the difference between closing and dismantlement of a test site?

There seems to be a little confusion about the difference between the ‘closing’ and ‘dismantlement’ of a test site. Closing a test site involves simply locking the doors and keeping people from entering, while dismantlement is its complete destruction which also includes the prevention of restoration efforts.

Closing, disabling, and dismantlement are all respective parts of the denuclearization process. Since denuclearization is a multi-step process that doesn’t refer to a single event, North Korea initiating the beginning stages of this process is proof that it is undergoing denuclearization.

Q. Are verification and inspection part of the denuclearization process?

Verification and inspection are a part of the complete denuclearization process. Inspection is often the precursor to the suspension of nuclear tests, considered by many to be the starting point for denuclearization. If that is the case, has North Korea really entered into the ‘shutdown’ process of denuclearization? Although they have announced the suspension of tests and shown the world the destruction of a nuclear test site, if you look at the problem from a technical/technology perspective, all of that becomes rather meaningless. However, it holds great symbolic significance.

On the path towards nuclearization, the two most important things are the test site and the nuclear tests themselves. North Korea has shown us that it is getting rid of both of these. If you look at it from a symbolic point of view, if inspectors were to have come into North Korea and overseen the destruction of the test site, then the meaning of the event would be overshadowed by their presence and lose its figurative importance.

Q. Do you believe North Korea is sincere in its desire for denuclearization?

At first glance, yes. As I said earlier, denuclearization isn’t a single event, it’s a process. Although it’s difficult to reach a definite conclusion that North Korea will end up undergoing denuclearization, I am hoping for the best. The important thing to consider here is that the train heading towards denuclearization has left the station. It arrived at the station where they stopped the tests, and is moving on its way toward disarmament.

The fact that the train is already well on its way needs to be acknowledged. Whether we will arrive where we need to be is another matter. Will North Korea be able to make this journey by itself? I don’t think so. There may be a collapsed bridge or tunnel, or even breaks in the tracks ahead towards denuclearization. Although we are all hoping that North Korea arrives at the finish line, it seems we are currently telling North Korea to solve all of the problems that happen along the way and make the journey by itself.

Q. So you’re saying that we also have a role to play in making sure North Korea succeeds in denuclearization?

We need to ask ourselves why North Korea had nuclear weapons in the first place. It was a matter of survival, rooted in a logical fear for their own security. The way to solve this problem is by making the rails and supports needed to bridge this issue. Who would even start on a journey without these types of guarantees at the end? South Korea needs to act as a guarantor to the United States and the international community that North Korea is on the track.

On the other hand, South Korea also needs to act as a guarantor towards North Korea for the promises that are made by the United States and the international community as well. I believe that after the South-North Korea summit, South Korea has started down the right track, transcending the role of an intermediary and serving as a guide instead. I believe that South Korea is in the middle of the situation, trying to act as a guarantor and holding the trust of both sides.  

Q. What do you think is the essence of the United States’ definition of ‘complete denuclearization’?

An easier way of looking at this would be what Trump will recognize and what Trump will be satisfied with. The most important part of this is Trump being able to convince the American public, experts, and politicians that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. Accordingly, Trump needs a definite resolution before his term ends in 2020. In order to achieve this, he is looking at an accelerated timeline that includes stopping the reprocessing of plutonium and the enrichment of uranium.

If Trump can achieve this, then North Korea becomes a cat with no claws. Of course, there is always the ever-present threat of intercontinental missiles and biological weapons that can be attached to warheads, but the main focus of the Trump administration is stopping the reprocessing of plutonium and the enrichment of uranium.  

Plutonium doesn’t appear out of thin air. You need nuclear power plants and reactors. The only thing that needs to be verified for plutonium is North Korea’s nuclear power plants. Similarly, you can’t just dig uranium out of the ground and attach it to a warhead. There are two types of uranium, 238 and 235, with the latter being the important one. Only .07% of uranium 235 can be extracted, and in order to do this you have to carry out centrifugal separation with 238 and 235 to enrich uranium beyond the 90% point needed for a weapon.

Q. So ultimately the most important thing is to make it so North Korea can’t arm a missile with a plutonium or uranium warhead.

From the United States’ point of view, anything else is inconsequential. If they can just stop the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium, North Korea loses its bite. If North Korea opens itself up to full inspections, it is incredibly easy to determine exactly how much plutonium North Korea currently has. You can check how many times the reactors have been turned, how much was used in the nuclear tests, and more importantly how much is remaining.

Also, plutonium reprocessing facilities are too large to hide, making inspections incredibly helpful. The problem lies with uranium. It is near-impossible to determine how many centrifuges there are, from how long ago they have been used, or even where they are. You can’t hide plutonium, but you can hide uranium. Centrifuges take up so little space that one could even be installed in my own laboratory.   

Q. Do you think that North Korean will publicize everything?

If North Korea decides to make everything 100% public, there won’t be a problem, but I am worried that we will run into another situation like South Africa where we find that nuclear material was hidden under a park somewhere. Even at somewhere as small as a school playground or gymnasium you could install up to maybe 2000 centrifuges. However, if something like this were to happen, I want to believe that we would be able to find out.

While I personally believe that North Korea won’t try to hide its nuclear program, there is no way to guarantee that it won’t, and the United States won’t believe it either way. Consequently, we need something more than just being able to investigate places for which there are reports about nuclear activity. There is a need for inspectors to be able to perform random and aggressive inspections outside of reported areas. However, this causes a problem because of the political environment in North Korea. For example, it could be abused to spy on military facilities.

Q. It seems like North Korea won’t be very open to these types of inspections.

Even still, you can’t just do inspections of only facilities for which there are reports. Which is why I think that there was a compromise struck between the United States and North Korea. The biggest difference between the Libya model and models from the past such as South Africa and Ukraine is with the inspections. In South Africa and Ukraine only the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) conducted inspections, whereas with Libya, the IAEA, the US and Great Britain were all jointly involved. In this respect, the part of the Libyan approach that can be applied to North Korea is the rate of implementation and the promptness of verification.

Q. Is the difference in opinion in how to handle inspections the reason that North Korea heavily criticized National Security advisor John Bolton after he suggested using the Libya model?

John Bolton suggested a Libya-style approach to the issue that requires complete denuclearization before compensation. Due to the United States still not being able to trust North Korea, there really isn’t any other option besides going with the denuclearization first, compensation later approach. With the odds of reaching an agreement such as this being unrealistic, President Trump suggested meeting with North Korea and coming up with a ‘package deal’. A package deal involves both parties meeting and putting everything they want onto the negotiating table. Both parties then negotiate, adding and subtracting things from the deal until they are eventually left with a comprehensive agreement that both sides can be satisfied with.

The key takeaway is that if there are objections from either side, then there can’t be an agreement. You can’t get around that. To address this, the negotiations may take a turn towards a package deal that makes a concession on the denuclearization-first approach and instead pursues a simultaneous, step by step reward-based arrangement. This is to say that it is no longer conditional–i.e. North Korea must give up something and then the U.S. will follow suit. Both sides will commit to different things but at the same time there is acceptance on both sides.

Q. Isn’t the United States still asking for a step by step, successive rewards model?

I believe that both countries need to find middle ground between a successive and simultaneous approach. This and the nature of inspections able to be performed in North Korea are going to be the two biggest issues that will need to be discussed in talks between the two countries. In reality, the Libya model wasn’t truly a denuclearization-first, compensation-later model.

Because Libya started the process of denuclearization first before an agreement was reached on compensation, the words step by step and successive don’t really fit the situation. When Kim Jong Un went to China he stated a desire for a step by step simultaneous approach. If steps toward denuclearization are started, then plans for compensation start to solidify as well. In that case, regardless of the starting point, negotiations are going to end in one way, convincing the opposing party to trust you, and receiving benefits.

Q. Do you think that North Korea and the United states will be able to find a middle ground?

The best outcome is both countries coming to terms on an agreement. 2020 needs to become the endpoint for any agreement, but Kim Jong Un doesn’t care about 2020; to him, 2018 is more important. Did Kim Jong Un not publicly declare his intentions to simultaneously pursue denuclearization and economic reform in North Korea? North Korea has changed quite a bit. How is Kim Jong Un supposed to control a population that now has over five million cell phones and five hundred general markets?

I don’t know if the reason North Korea pursued being a nuclear power was because it was afraid of the United States or not, but I can say that it is pursuing denuclearization now because it is afraid of its people. You could even go as far to say that nuclear weapons were made for the purpose of later being given up. Until now, North Korea has been continually pressured by outside threats and the issue of survival to become a nuclear power, but has now reached a point in time where it needs to give them up. 2018 will be the transition period that determines if North Korea will be able to improve quality of life for it citizens or not.   

North Korea is also on a timeline, looking ahead towards the third year of its five year economic plan. North Korea needs to be able to show its people results and paint a new picture of becoming a developed country at the upcoming 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea

Q. What do you think North Korea really wants?

North Korea wants two things, a guarantee of safety for the regime and a resolution of military tensions on the Peninsula. Lowering of military tensions can be achieved by a formal declaration to end the Korean War. An end to the war literally means the end to the threat of hostilities between the two nations. Even though it is a political event, there needs to be something tangible to show both sides that there is no longer a military threat. The second problem, safety for the regime, can be summarized into an economic issue revolving around sanctions. However, lifting the sanctions on North Korea is beyond the power of what Trump can decide on himself. It will be very difficult to accomplish a complete removal of sanctions because it involves the efforts of both the United States Congress and the UN.     

If that is the case, then not only will Trump’s end goal for 2020 be included in the denuclearization deal, but Kim Jong Un’s plans for the start of the deal in 2018 will also be incorporated.

Measures to enact irreversible nuclear disablement could likely bring breathing space for sanctions, a formal end to the Korean War, and allow inspectors into the country – all by 2020 as part of this package deal.

Q. When do you think North Korea and the United States will establish official diplomatic relations?

I believe that it is very likely that official ties will be established after denuclearization. If this happens, then the sanctions problems will be resolved, opening up the doors for resources and aid to pour into North Korea on a large scale. In order for private resources and global capital to go into North Korea, it will have to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF). American private companies won’t enter into the North Korean market without the insurance offered by it being a member of the IMF. I believe it will take North Korea around 3 years (2021) to enter the IMF, at which point in time North Korea will be counting on American investment, preceded by investment from China and South Korea.    

If globalization is to take place, reformation needs to happen first. If you open up North Korea before you unite the people through reform, then the political system will be unable keep up with the rapid change, resulting in growing discontent and a high risk of the government collapsing. Therefore, reform first and then globalization will happen. First on a small scale, so that North Korea can regulate and maintain its stability. This will eventually lead to entering the IMF, completing the picture of a globalized North Korea.    

Q. Do you think denuclearization in North Korea is actually feasible?

I believe that North Korea will be forthcoming in reporting on and not hiding its nuclear program. However, because of a complicated past, there is quite a lot of doubt about whether North Korea will follow through with denuclearization or not. From Trump’s perspective, he may want to believe in North Korea, but he needs something concrete to avoid any potential political backlash that may prevent him from running as the Republican candidate in the 2020 presidential election.

I think it is foolish to make a conclusion on whether or not we can realize our goal of denuclearization in North Korea. Instead, we need to do whatever it takes to make sure that North Korea succeeds in that goal. The most important thing to do is simply acknowledge the fact that North Korea has left the station toward denuclearization and is well along on its journey. It is our job to work together with the international community and North Korea to help the train reach its final destination. We need to keep a positive frame of mind as we continue to move forward.  


*Translated by Brian Boyle