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A Comprehensive History of North Korea’s Nuclear Program: 2018 Update

Siegfried S. Hecker, Robert L. Carlin, and Elliot A. Serbin

Understanding Developments in 2018

The comprehensive history of North Korea's nuclear program, originally released in May 2018, charts the evolution of North Korea's nuclear program and the relationship between various political and technical developments. The study has been updated to account for developments in 2018.

  • A new color chart provides a visual interpretation of year-by-year diplomatic, technical, and economic developments through 2018 (Download: 2018 Color Chart PDF). 
  • A new written narrative explains the key diplomatic, technical, and economic developments in 2018 (Download: 2018 Narrative PDF).
The color chart and key takeaways below summarize the 2018 assessment. On the chart, three shades of red denote negative effects and three shades of green denote positive effects. A list of the coding criteria is available here.

Key Takeaways for 2018

Dramatic reductions in tension create space and time for diplomacy

Rapid North/South rapprochement and the Singapore Summit in 2018 dramatically lowered tensions and the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula – creating space and time to pursue diplomatic solutions. 

 

Singapore summit pledges normalization and denuclearization

Washington and Pyongyang pledged to work toward normalization and denuclearization at the summit. Expectations for progress were high, yet negotiations failed to gain traction in 2018, partly due to the US fixation on denuclearization without commensurate steps to reduce its “maximum pressure and sanctions” policy. Nevertheless, both sides left all avenues open for progress in 2019.

 

The North halts and rolls back part of its nuclear program 

The North took significant steps to halt and roll back key parts of its nuclear program even in the absence of formal negotiations. In 2018, Kim took the extraordinary step of ending nuclear tests and missile tests, not just declaring a moratorium. These actions, taken at a time during which North Korea had been rapidly increasing the sophistication of its nuclear weapons and missiles and their destructive power and reach, not only halted that rapid advance but also rolled back the threat we judged the North’s nuclear and missile programs to pose in 2017. 

 

In absence of negotiations, North Korea maintained nuclear and missile sites and produced fissile materials 

Although the North took some steps to disable or dismantle a few nuclear and missile facilities (such as exploding nuclear test tunnel entrances), absent a negotiated agreement, North Korea unsurprisingly continued to operate and, in some cases, expand the nuclear weapons complex infrastructure. It continued to operate its nuclear facilities to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium that may allow it to increase the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal from roughly 30 in 2017 to 35-37. 

 

A risk-based framework for a phased approach to rolling back and eventually eliminating the nuclear weapon program 

A “halt, roll back, and eliminate” phased approach that will stretch over a decade or so will be required to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons and weapons program because of the enormity of its nuclear weapon enterprise and the huge trust deficit between Washington and Pyongyang. We suggest that North Korea, South Korea, and the US explore cooperative efforts to demilitarize North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and convert them to civilian nuclear and space programs. Such cooperation will, in the long term and in conjunction with IAEA monitoring and safeguards implementation, make adequate verification much more likely and possibly accelerate the denuclearization timeline.

 

Download: 2018 Key Takeaways

 

Updated Framework for Denuclearization

In May 2018, we proposed a phased risk management approach to denuclearization by identifying those assets and activities that must be eliminated and those that can be managed. The chart helps focus on the most immediate and pressing risks while the phased approach provides an effective way to build trust and interdependence. Last year, we we identified the most important initial steps toward denuclearization to be:

  • no nuclear tests
  • no intermediate or long-range missile tests
  • no more production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium
  • no export of nuclear weapons, materials, or technologies
  • front-end loading as much of the denuclearization process as possible

This year, we have updated the risk management framework to account for progress last year and to highlight the potential benefits of a military-to-civilian conversion of North Korea's nuclear program (Download: Updated 2019 Denuclearization Framework).

In the chart below, we suggest specific steps that can be phased in over three time horizons that take into account the manageable risks (shown in yellow) and the risks that must be eliminated (shown in red). We also indicate those areas in which North Korea has already taken positive actions toward denuclearization (shown in blue). The chart also captures the continued non-operation status of the ELWR and IRT-2000 from prior years (shown in light blue). Lastly, the chart below accounts for the prospect of cooperative conversion, which would permit North Korean to retain certain civilian and space programs in an effort to shrink the time scale for elimination of the nuclear weapons program and allow for adequate verification (shown in green).

 

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the late Stanford University Professor John Wilson Lewis for the motivation and inspiration for this study. We thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York for their support and encouragement for this work. We also thank the following for comments and suggestions on the 2018 update, although any criticism of its contents should be directed solely at the authors: Andray Abrahamian, Chaim Braun, Michael Elleman, Ruediger Frank, Katy Gabel, Nick Hansen, Allison Puccioni.