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What Would The Denuclearization Of North Korea Look Like?


It's well-understood that Washington and Pyongyang don't see eye to eye on what it means to dismantle their nuclear program. To better understand the dueling expectations, we've called Melissa Hanham. She's a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, Calif. Welcome to the program.

MELISSA HANHAM: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So we'll get to the U.S. in a moment. But what does denuclearization mean to North Korea?

HANHAM: That means everybody's got to give up their nuclear weapons. That means that they - if they give up their nuclear weapons, they also have to have the threat of nuclear weapons used upon them removed as well.

CORNISH: Now, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said he wants, quote, "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement." And I'm going to start with, I guess, complete - right? - the inventory. What's in North Korea's nuclear arsenal that we already know about?

HANHAM: So North Korea has the capability of the entire fuel cycle - everything from mining uranium, fabricating the fuel, all the way up to actually making warheads. And there is a big margin of our guess on how many warheads they have, but between a few dozen and up to perhaps 72 is the guess.

CORNISH: What about verification? Inspectors have gone in before. What was that process like? What did it reveal?

HANHAM: So we've had international organizations who have worked in North Korea in previous dismantlement efforts, and those are from the International Atomic Energy Agency. North Korea in the past has agreed to verification mechanisms. But after a period of time, they've changed their mind and kicked out the inspectors. So we would need to focus not just on the nuclear testing site, where they've partially dismantled the tunnels, but the facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere that actually produce the fissile material for warheads and the warheads themselves. And the warhead dismantlement has actually never been done in a treaty or an agreement internationally before.

CORNISH: We've heard that this could be a long process - a minimum of a decade. How would we know? What would indicate that North Korea is actually taking steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons?

HANHAM: So South Korea and North Korea generally talk about a phased approach, and that's not enormously favored by the U.S. because they would like to have a quick process that's irreversible. But this is technologically quite challenging and logistically even more challenging. So we're talking about dozens of facilities all around North Korea. You would need to decide whether you're dismantling from the get-go or, much more likely, capping the number of warheads they have and freezing the production of fissile material. So there would be a monitoring phase at those facilities that would involve seals and tags and cameras, satellite imagery and human inspectors.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, what do you think is going to be the biggest sticking point when it comes to this differing in expectations?

HANHAM: The biggest problem is political will. North Korea has to agree to this. The more intrusive the United States makes this, the less likely North Korea will be to accept it. So the goal will be to have a kind of trust-building process where each party gets what they want and increasingly starts to trust each other to remove the desire and the need to have the weapons in the first place.

CORNISH: Melissa Hanham, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HANHAM: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Melissa Hanham is a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.