North Korea Might Consider Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament

Today’s Global Security Newswire reported: “Former U.S. President Carter on Wednesday said North Korea would not consider shuttering its nuclear program without a security pledge from the United States.” While, on the surface, that sounds different from this post’s headline, rephrasing it produces a much more hopeful perspective: “Former U.S. President Carter on Wednesday said North Korea might consider shuttering its nuclear program if it could obtain a security pledge from the United States.”

Surprisingly, that is not new information, though it would sound like it based on the mainstream media’s coverage. In a May 2010 posting here, I described what I had learned from former Director of Los Alamos and now Stanford Professor Siegfried Hecker who has made seven trips to North Korea and probably has more first-hand information on their nuclear program than anyone else in the West:

In a recent paper, Hecker argues that back in the 1990’s, as Russia and China, the North’s two main benefactors, cozied up to the West, “Kim Il-sung made the strategic decision to engage the United States and even accept U.S. military presence in the South as a hedge against potentially hostile Chinese or Russian influence.”

This resulted in the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea shut down its plutonium production and took other steps that effectively ended its nuclear weapons program. But, Hecker continues, “the Agreed Framework was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning.”

In 2002, President Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil,” torpedoing what was left of the Agreed Framework. North Korea restarted plutonium production and four years later tested its first atomic weapon. Hecker’s paper has other eye-popping revelations and is highly recommended.

Early in 2010, Prof. Hecker gave a guest lecture in my seminar “Nuclear Weapons, Risk and Hope,” that is in basic agreement with the surprising title of this post. Based on what Hekcer told us, one of the students asked, “Are you convinced that if the Bush administration hadn’t broken the agreements with North Korea in 2002 and accused them [of cheating], then they wouldn’t have a bomb now?” To which Hecker replied, “I think there’s a good likelihood that what you just said is true. We still don’t know that for sure because it’s very hard to dig back into the early history of what they did with the reactor.” He then cited intelligence estimates to back up his assessment that, if North Korea had not restarted plutonium production in 2002, it probably would not have the bomb today.

Given that North Korea was willing to close down its nuclear weapons program from 1994 to 2002 – before it had the bomb, and while we did – in return for better relations, it is not unreasonable to hope that they would consider unilaterally giving up their nuclear deterrent. But, given how we reversed course on the 1994 agreement, it will not be easy to convince them that a new security pledge will stand the test of time. We will need to be patient, but as explained in a November 2010 post here, Hecker believes that even now we can get North Korea to agree to other important limitations (no further proliferation, no more bombs and no better bombs) provided we will engage with them and treat them with respect. If we do not do that, they are likely to sell their technology to countries such as Iran, build more bombs, and conduct additional tests so they can mount “better bombs” on ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, domestic American politics makes meaningful engagement with the North impossible, and reporting North Korea’s positions in a negative light (as in the Global Security Newswire article) reinforces that position.

 Martin Hellman

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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