Now that the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been at least temporarily defused thanks to Kim Jong Un’s announcement that he would wait and see before launching missiles toward Guam—despite ominous North Korean propaganda as the U.S. and South Korea launch their latest joint military exercises—it’s time to step back and ask ourselves the big questions about just how useful our approach to North Korea’s nuclear program has been so far.
My answer: Not very useful at all. During the past 15 years, North Korea first built the bomb and then expanded it to a nuclear arsenal that threatens the region, while Washington has continued to deny reality with its call for complete denuclearization. Which is why it’s time to take a long and serious look at the next option: talking with North Korea.
Although a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Secretaries Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson earlier this month served to lower tensions by stating that the United States was still pursuing peaceful denuclearization, it does not introduce any new elements that could bring the two sides closer to ending the nuclear crisis. The op-ed, which reassured Kim that “the U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,” is a welcome relief from Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” warning to Kim. But this approach is likely to fare no better in compelling Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons than the Obama administration’s “strategic patience.”
So—how can we make real progress?
Washington should drop its preoccupation with North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat. It is misplaced and dangerous. Instead, Trump administration officials should talk with Pyongyang, face to face, without any preconditions, to avert what I consider the greatest North Korean nuclear threat—that of stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, which may lead to hundreds of thousands deaths including thousands of American citizens.
It’s important to understand why Kim is so obsessed with these weapons: to deter the United States from attacking North Korea and what Pyongyang calls “hostile policies.” Striking the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile would be suicide, and there’s no evidence that Kim is suicidal.
What’s more, there’s a lot to indicate that North Korea isn’t close enough to developing ICBM-capable missiles to strike the United States even if it wanted to. The panic over North Korea’s missiles was elevated recently when leaked classified U.S. intelligence estimates were reported to indicate that Pyongyang has already achieved such capabilities, in addition to possessing as many as 60 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. But I don’t concur with those estimates.
Based on my 50 years of experience with nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons, combined with what I saw and learned during my seven visits to North Korea beginning in 2004, I don’t believe Pyongyang has yet mastered the key elements of delivering a nuclear-tipped ICBM to the continental United States. Although North Korea demonstrated significant progress in the missile field with two launches in July, experts have raised serious questions about whether it has demonstrated all the missile and re-entry vehicle technologies that will protect the nuclear warheads during the fiery plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Moreover, the nuclear warhead that must be mounted on the missile is the least developed and least tested part of North Korea’s nuclear ICBM ambitions. It must survive the extreme temperatures and mechanical stresses involved during launch, flight and re-entry into the atmosphere. It must detonate above the target by design, not accidentally explode on launch or burn up during reentry. More missile tests are needed that mirror real ICBM conditions to permit measurements that more accurately define the extreme conditions that the delicate materials such as plutonium, highly enriched uranium and chemical high explosives experience inside the warheads. It is much simpler to detonate a nuclear device in an underground tunnel under controlled conditions than to simulate all of the conditions a warhead experiences on the way to its target.
What makes matters even more challenging for Pyongyang is that it has very little plutonium and highly enriched uranium. I have estimated that North Korea has 20 to 40 kilograms plutonium and 200 to 450 kilograms highly enriched uranium. My analysis is based on what I saw during my visits to the Yongbyon nuclear complex and on extensive discussions with their nuclear experts. These stocks have to serve multiple uses: They must be shared between experiments required to understand the world’s most complex elements, nuclear tests to certify the design of the weapons and stock for the arsenal. My best estimate, albeit with considerable uncertainty, is that the North’s combined inventories of plutonium and highly enriched uranium suffice for perhaps 20 to 25 nuclear weapons, not the 60 reported in the leaked intelligence estimate.
North Korea will need a few more nuclear tests because its experience with either material, plutonium or highly enriched uranium, for warheads is too limited for ICBM use. Nuclear test site preparations appear complete, but Pyongyang is most likely weighing the technical benefits against the political risks of conducting such tests. Whereas I believe North Korea has insufficient test data for ICBM warheads, we must assume it has already learned enough to mount a warhead on its shorter-range missiles that can reach all of South Korea and Japan because these missiles are able to accommodate bigger nuclear warheads and these would experience less stringent operational conditions.
In other words, the North still has a ways to go to pose a serious ICBM threat, but it is clearly working in that direction. The danger is that in his drive to achieve a greater balance with the United States by perfecting a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental U.S., Kim could miscalculate where Trump’s red line actually is, triggering a retaliatory action by Trump that could escalate to a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. Our problem is that we know nothing about Kim and the military leaders who control his nuclear arsenal and drive the missile and nuclear development programs. It’s time to talk and find out.
And we have to talk now, without demanding that North Korea agree to any preconditions, such as those suggested by Mattis and Tillerson – namely, an immediate cessation of its provocative threats, nuclear tests, missile launches and other weapons tests. Pyongyang is not about to make unilateral concessions before talks. One should read Kim’s announcement that he will wait with the missile launches as a positive signal, although he added that the U.S. must stop its “arrogant provocations.”
The diplomatic opening created last week on both sides makes such talks possible. President Trump should send a small team of senior military and diplomatic leaders to talk to Pyongyang. These talks would not be negotiations—not yet. Importantly, these talks would not be a reward or a concession to Pyongyang and should not be construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Talking would, however, be a necessary step toward re-establishing critical links of communication to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. The dialogue should stress the need for mechanisms to avoid misunderstanding, miscalculation or misinterpretation of actions that could quickly bring us over the cliff into a nuclear war.
The talks would provide an opportunity to convey Secretary Tillerson’s message that Washington does not seek regime change face to face in Pyongyang. In simplest terms, the team could underline the message that Washington is deterred from attacking the North, but not from defending the United States and its allies. It should reiterate that any attack on South Korea or Japan, be it with conventional, chemical or nuclear weapons, would bring a devastating retaliatory response upon North Korea.
The team can also impress upon Pyongyang that ensuring the safety and security of nuclear weapons is an awesome responsibility. These two issues are becoming more challenging as North Korea strives to make its nuclear arsenal more combat-ready. A nuclear-weapon accident in the North would be disastrous, as would a struggle to control the North’s nuclear weapons in the case of attempted regime change from within or without. All indications are that such talks would be strongly supported by the North’s two most important neighbors, South Korea and China, particularly if Washington consults them before.
For too long, America’s policy toward North Korea has been based on impractical goals. Complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization was a hallmark of the George W. Bush administration’s approach to North Korea and was also pursued by the Obama administration. Whereas complete and verifiable denuclearization might be realistic long-term goals, irreversible is impossible short of the total loss of human memory. The U.S. Manhattan Project produced the bomb in 27 months more than 70 years ago, and that was without knowing with certainty at the outset that it was even possible.
It was under Bush that North Korea first built the bomb and under Obama that it expanded to a threatening nuclear arsenal. Both presidents failed to address the root cause of Pyongyang’s determined effort to build a nuclear weapons arsenal—assuring the Kim regime’s security. Now, Trump faces a North Korea with the ability to inflict unacceptable damage to U.S. allies and U.S. assets in the region, while it also continues its drive to threaten the continental U.S. Perhaps, much as Dwight Eisenhower talked to Nikita Khrushchev, Richard Nixon to China’s Mao Zedong, and Ronald Reagan to Mikhail Gorbachev, Trump can take the next step with North Korea, and talk now to avert a nuclear catastrophe.