Can the Trump Administration avoid the mistakes and traps of the past when it comes to North Korea?
One thing is for sure: Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile pledges are about as disposable as toilet paper.
Only a solid plan of action—one that tests Chairman Kim Jong Un’s intentions over the course of many months or years—will allow U.S. negotiators to truly know once and for all if Kim will ever give up his weapons.
Considering the administration seems to be crafting such an approach as we speak, what would such a plan look like? How would it be fashioned to ensure that North Korea gives up all its nuclear weapons and missiles that not only pose a threat to the U.S. homeland but protects our allies in East Asia?
Also, how does one ensure that North Korea can’t build an atomic bomb in the future?
Needless to say, the task will be enormous—perhaps one of the greatest non-proliferation challenges of our generation. And yet, there is a very clear path the Trump administration can take to ensure that Pyongyang will deliver on its nuclear promises—or, we will know once and for all if Kim’s words are mere lies.
First, and what will likely be the biggest test of North Korea’s intentions, is America and its partners must be given a full and detailed account of what Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs consists of—and this might be where Kim walks away. But if he doesn’t, the regime would need to declare the size, scope and capabilities of what their program can do.
We would need to know the scale of their nuclear and missile facilities, all buildings and sites associated with the programs, the number of scientists it involves, the amount of nuclear material they have on hand, the number of warheads in their arsenal, amount of radioactive waste and even a full accounting of all their research files.
Now is not the time for months and years of endless talks. Now is the time to find out where North Korea stands—once and for all.
And, of course, we need to know about any possible hidden or underground nuclear reactors or reprocessing facilities. Pyongyang is known to place whole air fields underground, so any hidden facilities are key. We would also need to know if they shared any of their nuclear or missile secrets or sold them to other rogue states—like Iran.
If we get this far, the next step would be the actual surrender of Kim’s atomic warheads and missiles, removing the threat that almost brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Kim might have as many as 60 nuclear bombs and the ability to make a new atomic weapon every few weeks, along with over 1,000 missiles. This is where things will get tough, as we would need to craft a process where we can get them all removed from the country in a safe and timely manner. This would of course mean we need international inspectors on the ground, maybe as many as 1,000 or more—just for removing all of Kim’s nuclear weapons, with missile disassembly likely needing at least another 1,000 specialized experts, if not more. And, in what could be a deal breaker for Kim, we would need to be able inspect anything, anywhere and at any time.
Also, the warheads and missiles would most likely need to be handed over to a third-party, like the IAEA, so North Korea can rest assured we will not gain any military advantage or intelligence from their surrender.
Last, but certainly not least, we would have to take apart all North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure—a task that could take years.
We would need to dismantle Kim’s reactors and missile production facilities, destroy any files and reassign their scientists to other jobs, take apart or destroy all their centrifuge facilities—all the while making sure the task is done safely.
We would also remove any unused nuclear material so they can’t make any more bombs. This might take thousands more people beyond just mere inspectors with a cost in the billions of dollars.
Such a process, as laid out above, would be an intense test of Kim’s commitment to follow through on his promise to denuclearize as the price for joining the international community. It would require very close coordination between Washington and Pyongyang, a willingness of the Kim regime to be honest and forthcoming about its nuclear weapons capabilities, plus – and this is the key point – allowing international inspectors and experts into the country to take apart a massive nuclear and missile infrastructure that has been build up over many, many decades.
All of this would be a spectacular change in North Korea’s global outlook—and one of the greatest transformations in international politics since the end of the Cold War. And if it does happen, President Trump needs to start writing his Nobel Price acceptance speech.
But, if history is any guide, I don’t think any of this comes to pass.
While I hope North Korea has had its come-to-Jesus moment, my gut tells me Pyongyang will never give up its nukes. If I were Kim, I would utilize the old North Korean nuclear diplomacy playbook: declare your intention to give up your weapons but stall, lie and do whatever you can to make negotiations around the terms of such an enterprise bog down for years. All the while, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities continue to be perfected.
No matter what road the Trump administration takes, they must remember their own words: time is running out on North Korea. Soon, the Kim regime will have the capability to hit the U.S. with a nuclear warhead. When that happens, our options to deal with problem will go from bad to possibly apocalyptic.
Now is not the time for months and years of endless talks. Now is the time to find out where North Korea stands—once and for all. And the above might be the ultimate way to do it.