A More Effective Approach to North Korea’s Nuclear Program

North Korea appears to have conducted its third nuclear test today, with a New York Times article stating, “a magnitude 3.9 magnitude earthquake and a magnitude 4.5 earthquake were detected in the North’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. South Korean, U.S. and Japanese seismic monitoring agencies put the magnitude of Tuesday’s quake between 4.9 and 5.2.”

Since each increase of 1.0 corresponds to 31.6 times as much yield and estimates of the 2009 test ranged from 2.4 kton to 20 kton, today’s test seems to have yielded between 15 and 100 kton. While a dangerous and highly regrettable event, this third North Korean nuclear test was an accident waiting to happen – and one which might well have been averted if the US had adopted a more effective approach to the North’s nuclear program. 

My colleague, and former Los Alamos Director Sig Hecker has said for years that we should temporarily put aside our current requirement that the North agree to give up its nuclear weapons before we will talk with them, noting that otherwise they will almost certainly do more testing, which will allow them to mount their warheads on a missile, something they could not do based on the two tests prior to this.

Hecker summarizes his suggested approach as “three no’s for one yes.” The “one yes” is for us to address Korea’s insecurity (e.g., stop acting as if we would encourage regime change in North Korea, should that seem possible). In return, Hecker believes we can get three no’s:

• No more bombs 

• No better bombs (no more tests)

• No export

Hecker has stated this repeatedly, including in his PowerPoint slides from a November 2010 presentation (search on No more). Other examples of Hecker’s encouraging a more effective US policy toward North Korea’s nuclear program include:

In a May 2009 interview Hecker said, “North Korea is saying, ‘Look, we need to protect ourselves against you, particularly against the United States.'”

In a 2010 article in Daedalus, Hecker wrote:

Many observers now look at the last two decades as a dismal diplomatic failure because Pyongyang’s nuclear program was not eliminated. Let’s take a closer look at what Pyongyang actually achieved technically–or, perhaps more importantly, what it did not achieve. …. With the capabilities it already had or was soon to complete by the early 1990s, Pyongyang today could have an arsenal of a hundred or more nuclear weapons. Instead [because of the negotiated 1994 Agreed Framework], it has enough plutonium for four to eight weapons and currently is not producing more. … Security concerns have been the central driver of the North Korean ruling regime since the birth of the nation after World War II. … 

 By the early 1990s, Pyongyang’s security environment deteriorated dramatically. … Pyongyang was devastated by these changes [Russia and China improving relations with South Korea, and the loss of financial support from the former Soviet bloc] and began seriously to explore accommodation with the West, especially with the United States. Carlin and Lewis believe that 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. …

However, reconciliation between Washington and Pyongyang proved difficult, as Washington saw the Agreed Framework primarily as a nonproliferation agreement. … 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. … The Agreed Framework, which began as a process of interaction and cooperation, quickly turned into accusations of non-compliance by both parties. … 

What can we learn from how and why North Korea built the bomb? North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear arsenal anytime soon because it has become crucial to how the regime assures its security. Nuclear weapons also play a supportive role domestically and provide diplomatic leverage. Pyongyang views its security concerns as existential. …

The Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by covertly pursuing uranium enrichment. Doing so traded a potential threat that would have taken years to turn into bombs for one that took months, dramatically changing the diplomatic landscape in Pyongyang’s favor. …

The United States plays an indispensable role in proliferation prevention, but it can’t go it alone. It cannot afford to sit at the sidelines as it has done with Iran. We found that Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened. …

The more divided we are at home, the more we yield advantage to the adversary. Political divisions in Washington in recent years resulted in our inability to negotiate the nuclear crisis effectively. American diplomats lament that it has been more difficult to negotiate in Washington than at the six-party table. 

In a 2010 trip report, in which Hecker was shown a North Korean uranium enrichment facility, he wrote:

Pyongyang has clearly stated that it will retain its nuclear weapons as a deterrent so long as U.S. hostile policies persist. North Korean officials with whom we met on this trip made it abundantly clear that there will be no denuclearization without a fundamental change in U.S. – North Korean relations. … It is clear that waiting patiently for Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party talks on terms acceptable to the United States and its allies will exacerbate the problem. A military attack is out of the question. Tightening sanctions further is likewise a dead end, particularly given the advances made in their nuclear program and the economic improvements we saw in general in Pyongyang. The only hope appears to be engagement. The United States and its partners should respond to the latest nuclear developments [primarily the enrichment facility] so as to encourage Pyongyang to finally pursue nuclear electricity in lieu of the bomb. That will require addressing North Korea’s underlying insecurity. 

There is one positive aspect of today’s test which should be noted: it used up one more bomb’s worth of fuel. Since the North was estimated to have enough plutonium for approximately six bombs, each test makes a significant dent in their bomb fuel stockpile. Of course, if nothing changes, they are likely to take steps to replenish that stockpile – all the more reason to adopt a less hostile, more effective approach to negotiations.

Martin Hellman

After this was posted, Prof. Hecker gave an interview in which he outlined his assessment of this third North Korean nuclear test.

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About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. 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. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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