Tribune Opinion: The real nuclear headache of North Korea
Denuclearization? It is a big word, and so is the challenge facing President Donald Trump as he heads toward a summit with Kim Jong Un centered on reducing or eliminating the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile systems. There's no easy, snap-your-fingers recipe, and there are big traps. How do we know? Because it was tried after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which produced a host of good lessons.
A summit that results in headline-grabbing commitments may be a first and necessary step. But agreements will have no meaning if they don't lead to verifiable and lasting results. The experience of the Nunn-Lugar program, named for then-Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who sponsored it at the end of the Cold War, shows that denuclearization is complex. It demands a whole chain of actions and cooperation between suspicious and hostile actors.
For an example, consider the case of Semipalatinsk, the Soviet nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan. After the Cold War, many of the test tunnels were plugged. Mission accomplished? No. It was later discovered that discarded equipment that included high-purity plutonium had been abandoned at a location known as Degelen Mountain. The material and other nuclear materials were eventually cleaned up in a 17-year, $150 million effort by the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan.
The point is not to give North Korea endless time. But reversing an arms buildup is a serious industrial headache. It is fantasy to think that the North's nuclear weapons can just be loaded onto a cargo plane and flown away. They need to be dismantled with help from the people who built them. As amply documented recently by Siegfried Hecker, Robert Carlin and Elliot Serbin of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, denuclearization requires a mega-sized production: eliminating the sizable manufacturing process involved in creating the uranium, plutonium and tritium used in weapons, as well as factories making parts for the bombs; the delicate task of disassembly of warheads and securing the remaining fissile material; liquidating forever the weapons testing complexes; eliminating the missile programs; and making sure not to overlook the design bureaus and laboratories where it was all conceived, including somehow accommodating the scientists and engineers.
The Cold War cleanup shows that full disclosure is critical. Trump must demand that North Korea come clean about all its nuclear programs, as well as chemical and biological weapons research and development. For a secretive police state, this is sure to be painful. Mr. Trump must also pay attention to the people. It is not possible to wipe out the knowledge and experience gained by engineers and scientists; extra attention should be given to making sure they do not spread the know-how, or resume the work in secret. And absolutely essential are ironclad verification methods, so there is no forgotten plutonium discovered in a mountain later on.