How Long Would It Take To *Cough* End North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program?

Observe how gracefully I avoided the unclear word denuclearization by saying what I mean. Another area of disagreement is in how long it would take to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and eliminate or repurpose the facilities that develop and build them. And we don’t know what North Korea thinks about that.

John Bolton estimated that it would take a year. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates 30 months. A study by Siegfried Hecker, Robert Carlin, and Elliot Serbin at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation estimates as long as 15 years.

Why the big differences?

North Korea’s nuclear weapons complex is made up of many buildings containing complex equipment. We don’t know where all those buildings are. We don’t know how many nuclear weapons they have built, nor how many missiles, nor how many of the two have been assembled together, nor where they are stored.

Removing or disabling all that would first require a declaration from North Korea of what and where it all is. From that could be developed an understanding of what the end state should be.  Then plans would be made for removing material, perhaps taking it out of the country, disassembling weapons and equipment, and finding other work for the scientists and engineers to pursue. All that would have to be verified, preferably by a neutral party like the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The administration started out talking about complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and has “softened” that to final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD). They have not gotten agreement on any definitions with North Korea on what those phrases mean, and they contain that contested word.

Bolton has given no specifics to back up his estimate of a year or less.

The Institute for Science and International Security says that their estimate comes out of a 100-page confidential study, from which they have permission to release a summary presentation. They assume complete cooperation by North Korea. Producing a declaration, they say, would take six months, with concurrent action to disable some of the program. That declaration would be verified over the next 12 months, and the remaining buildings and equipment would be dismantled through a total of 30 months.

The Stanford study is much more detailed and is based on a history of what we know of North Korea’s program. It is summarized in a presentation. Facilities would be ranked by risk, and the schedule devised to eliminate those most essential to producing weapons first.

Bolton may be thinking of how Libya gave up its nuclear program. Most of Libya’s nuclear equipment was in packing crates and had not been assembled into working factories, much less did they have nuclear weapons. All they had to do was transfer the packing crates onto American planes.

Assuming complete cooperation by North Korea is highly optimistic. For the purpose of this post, I’ve ignored that question. Given that North Korea is currently expanding its nuclear weapons production program and has kept most of it concealed, one might expect them to hold back some of their program, as Bashar al-Assad did with his chemical weapons program.

Negotiating a declaration, access, and verification will take time. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action required two years once Iran decided to cooperate. There is no reason to expect that six months would be enough for a much more developed program in North Korea.

The Stanford group has experience negotiating with North Korea and with somewhat similar activities to secure nuclear weapons and materials in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter was analogous in the need for agreements on access and activities. Even if North Korea is ready to cooperate fully, there will be sensitive areas that must be negotiated.

The cooperative activities with Russia took about fifteen years, and a few continue today.

What adds complexity to the Libyan, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian examples is that a program for North Korea would include dealing with their nuclear weapons. From the photos they have released, those weapons are reasonably compact. A half-dozen could easily fit in the basement of an American house. Handling and dismantling them will be a major issue. Another of the many unknowns is the design(s) of the weapons. How safe are they to handle? Dismantling would best be done by the North Koreans, who know how they were assembled.

The North Koreans will have concerns about allowing others to learn their secrets, even in a cooperative environment. Another factor is how other countries in the region would feel about the program and whether other countries would help in the effort. All of the examples I’ve cited included multiple countries.

The Stanford estimate comes closest to reality. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meetings in North Korea are barely a beginning.


Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.


34 replies
  1. 1
  2. 2
    A Ghost To Most says:

    Facts don’t matter to fascists.

  3. 3
    Another Scott says:

    Thanks for this.

    At least they aren’t saying “Irreversible” any more and aren’t talking about removing all their nuclear scientists from the country any more. Those were such ridiculous demands – no country would ever agree to that (in any verifiable way). Once it has been demonstrated that something is possible, the knowledge doesn’t just go away…

    Of course, it would take years to end the program. With lots of intrusive inspections if it is to be verifiable. Anyone who thinks about it more than about 30 seconds would realize that. Of course, Donnie doesn’t think and only cares about how he can spin things on TV and Twitter.


    Still, as you have said, it’s better for them to be talking than to be threatening nuclear war.


  4. 4
    Tom Levenson says:

    IOW: Any realistic end to DPRK’s nuclear weapons program comes after any conceivable end to Trump’s presidency, including the Cthulu-scale disaster of a second term.

    IOW, take 2: Nahgonnahappen.

  5. 5
    piratedan says:

    Will NK’s political triumph/coup over what used to be the most formidable power on the planet cause them to try their shell game again and thereby open themselves up to be insidiously brought down by the evils of J-Pop?

    We have more likelihood of the regime crumbling from the inside due to cultural pressure than by anything done by our current administration imho.

    Our guys are seriously pissing into the wind with shorts on.

  6. 6
    takebakawashi says:

    …Bashad al-Assar…

    kind of a funny little typo here

  7. 7
    Yarrow says:

    Bolton has given no specifics to back up his estimate of a year or less.

    Of course he didn’t. He wants to make it look easy for his audience of Trump and Fox News. In an administration that lies about everything he’s just one more liar on the list.

  8. 8
    PeakVT says:

    Very nice summary.

    So, who’s fooling who here? The North Korean regime is conning the Trumpolini regime, the Trumpolini regime is fooling self, factions with Trumpolini regime are conning each other? (Trumpolini is conning the rubes. That’s a given.) Or all of them, Katie?

  9. 9
  10. 10

    @PeakVT: All of them, Katie!

  11. 11
    Origuy says:

    Not only does Kim have nukes, he has an orb like the Saudis. I bet he let Trump touch it.

  12. 12
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Given, as Adam has often pointed out, we know next to nothing about the inner workings of North Korea, it’s impossible to make any sort of realistic estimate, which of course will not discourage a warmongering asswipe like John Bolton from confidently making a prediction.

    There’s also the annoying problem of what “denuclearization” means to both sides.

  13. 13
    Calouste says:

    @Another Scott: “Irreversible” sounds like a pretty stupid term to me. They’ve done it from scratch once, why would they not be able to do it from scratch again? Unless they are really relying on other countries for essential knowledge/parts/materials, and there would be a worldwide ban on selling those to North Korea.

  14. 14
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Calouste: Well, one of the countries is Russia, which has an agent placed in the highest position in the US government.

  15. 15
    jeffreyw says:

    Since getting sacked from my job I’ve started a dating site for chickens.

    I’ve stopped it though as I was struggling to make hens meet.


  16. 16
    Mike in DC says:

    Honestly, every nuclear power should either denuclearize, or reduce their arsenals to about 100 warheads each, of no more than 100kt yield. You don’t need to annihilate the whole population to end a nation state as a viable socioeconomic entity going forward.

  17. 17
    A Ghost To Most says:

    Start a dating website for neo-nazis, since they have trouble finding like-minded alt-humans.

  18. 18
    Eolirin says:

    @A Ghost To Most: Isn’t that what Reddit is there for?

  19. 19
    Doug R says:


    Not only does Kim have nukes, he has an orb like the Saudis. I bet he let Trump touch it.


  20. 20
    danielx says:



  21. 21
    chris says:

    @Eolirin: Yup, just like the FNYT they only do one thing at Reddit.

  22. 22
    Procopius says:


    Our guys are seriously pissing into the wind with shorts on.

    While I agree with this, I strongly disagree with you that North Korea had some kind of triumph out of this. Big fucking deal, they had a meeting with the stupidest president we’ve had since Harding. Neoconservatives are trying to turn that into an existential threat, but in fact it’s trivial. I don’t even believe the military exercises are going to be cancelled next year.

  23. 23
    NotMax says:

    Cheryl, a question.

    Different situation altogether but does the case of South Africa dismantling its nuclear weapons program provide any protocols or procedures directly applicable to the case of DPRK? Can’t offhand remember in the case of South Africa what happened regarding enrichment facilities (which used, IIRC, a non-centrifuge method).

  24. 24
    CliosFanboy says:

    @Origuy: my lawyer will be contacting you about a bill for the brain bleach your comment required me to buy… thank you.

  25. 25
    brantl says:

    @Procopius: Since Harding? Since anybody.

  26. 26
    kindness says:

    Really my issue is that I have no confidence in the professional capacity/capabilities of Bolton of any of the DOS staff under Trump. They are all quacks.

  27. 27

    @NotMax: South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons and facilities before they told the world that they had had nuclear weapons and invited the inspectors in. They kept their enriched uranium and placed it under safeguards. They have shut down their enrichment facilities. One lesson is that nations don’t like to share their secrets in such things.

    Yes, they used an ingenious aerodynamic method whose principle is similar to the principle of the gas centrifuges, but doesn’t require so many moving parts.

  28. 28
    Gelfling 545 says:

    It will take a few seconds. Kim will say they did it. Trump will say “Ok, look at me being a statesman.” That wll be all.

  29. 29
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: That method (a variant of the Hilsch tube cooler/heater) is horribly inefficient in terms of energy requirements and produces uranium of insufficiently high enrichment for a missile warhead weapon design, absent a lot more work.

  30. 30
    NotMax says:

    @Cheryl Rofer

    Thank you.

  31. 31
    Gelfling 545 says:

    A bit of rueful amusement seen on FB today:
    A racist, a fascist and a pervert walk into a bat.
    The bartender says “What’ll you have, Mr Trump?”

  32. 32
    BroD says:

    Gee, who to believe: Bolton or Stanford experts?

  33. 33
    Procopius says:

    @kindness: Bolton can be described as a quack. I prefer to call him a lunatic. But I was interested to see people explain, after his appointment, exactly why he is still in positions of power. Although he holds insane ideas, he is smart. He prepares carefully; does his homework, has facts at his fingertips. He understands how the system works and makes use of the rules to win. Evidently, despite his bluster and aggressiveness, he is charming, in the same way Saddam Hussein or Stalin were charming. Those people don’t rise through the ranks to the position of dictator because people are terrified of them. At least not everybody. The soldiers who guarded Saddam Hussein in prison came to think of him as a friend and mentor, and brought him little luxuries to make his life a little less terrible. Evidently Bolton is like that.

  34. 34
    Skepticat says:

    @Tom Levenson:



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