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Dismantling North Korea’s Nuclear Program is Also About Dismantling Its Supply Network


By Troy Stangarone

In announcing that the June 12 summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un is back on, President Donald Trump suggested that he was no longer looking for a process where the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs would happen rapidly. Instead, he conceded to North Korea’s position that it should be a process, saying that “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we walked out and everything was settled all of a sudden from sitting down for a couple of hours? No, I don’t see that happening. But I see over a period of time. And frankly, I said, ‘Take your time.’”

With estimates that it could take upwards of 15 years to dismantle North Korea’s weapons programs and facilities, a slower process may be prudent. Dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program will be highly technical and tedious work. Dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, however, is not only about dismantling North Korea’s facilities, but also about dismantling the networks behind the programs. True complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will be extremely difficult to achieve, but each step that makes the quick reconstitution of North Korea’s nuclear program more difficult moves the process closer to being irreversible.

As part of any dismantlement program the United States will push for North Korea to return to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), as well as to sign onto the NPT’s Additional Protocol.  Under the Additional Protocol North Korea will need to provide a declaration detailing the constituent components of its nuclear program and its nuclear materials to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even if North Korea resists signing up for the Additional Protocol, a thorough description of its nuclear programs will be necessary to verify and dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.

While a detailed declaration on the locations, facilities, processes, and materials of North Korea’s nuclear program will be critical for its dismantlement, ensuring that North Korea will not be able to easily reconstitute its program in the future will require a deeper knowledge of North Korea’s program. As North Korea’s nuclear program has developed, Pyongyang has learned how to domestically produce some of the required components. However, as the UN Panel of Experts investigation into Unha-3 launch in December 2012 demonstrated, North Korea needs to foreign source parts as well as produce them domestically for its weapons programs. Gaining greater insight into what parts North Korea has mastered production of and which ones it still needs to source from abroad will help in monitoring the program’s dismantlement and preventing relapses.

A detailed declaration on the supply networks utilized and the shell companies created to facilitate this trade would assist in dismantling North Korea’s supply network. While North Korea may be reluctant to give up these sources and details on its programs, working with the international community to unravel the networks behind its programs would go a long way to demonstrating that it is serious about dismantling its weapons programs and will be a key component if the international community is to attempt to make North Korea’s dismantlement irreversible.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo of the agreement on the application of comprehensive safeguards between the IAEA and North Korea signed on 30 January 1992. Image from the IAEA Imagebank’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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