The last time Americans were allowed into North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center — the facility 60 miles north of Pyongyang where scientists produce the raw material used to make nuclear bombs — was on November 12, 2010. What they found was alarming.
Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear weapons expert at Stanford University, was shown something totally unexpected: 2,000 gleaming new centrifuges used to enrich uranium for use in bombs. It had been built entirely in secret.
“It was just stunning,” Hecker, who had visited the facility on multiple occasions on behalf of the U.S. government, told VICE News. “They showed me this modern facility.”
The nuclear capabilities that Hecker witnessed will dominate two highly anticipated upcoming events scheduled as part of North Korea’s recent diplomatic blitzkrieg: Kim Jong Un's historic visit to South Korea later this month, and a planned summit between Kim and President Donald Trump. And though Pyongyang has reportedly indicated that Kim is “willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” experts like Hecker know from experience that disarmament will be virtually impossible to achieve — let alone verify.
A History of Broken Promises
Hecker's last visit at Yongbyon in 2010 is a cautionary tale. Two years before, in a gesture of good faith, North Korea had demolished a 60-foot cooling tower at Yongbyon that was the most prominent symbol of its plutonium production. At the time North Korea was only known to have access to plutonium, one of two paths to building a nuke. Plutonium production is relatively easy to track from afar, since nuclear reactors generate heat that can picked up by satellites.
Yet by the time Hecker arrived, the cooling tower was no longer needed because North Korea had built the centrifuges, meaning they had developed an alternative way to build a nuclear bomb without the U.S. finding out.
“When a centrifuge facility operates, you know nothing,” said Hecker, who was previously the director the Los Alamos National Lab, where the U.S. built and designed the bombs used in World War II. “It’s inside of a building, you can't see it, you don’t know where it is. Nobody knew they had this type of centrifuge facility in that building. They showed me they had the second path to the bomb.”
Recent signs from Yongbyon already indicate that North Korea might be continuing to actively develop its arsenal. At 38 North, a website affiliated with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, analyst Joe Bermudez recently published satellite photos that show a flurry of construction around the experimental light water reactor, which can be used to produce plutonium. Bermudez also monitors the remote Punggye-ri site, where North Korean soldiers have been spotted playing volleyball in the lead-up to underground nuclear tests. There’s been little activity over the winter, he said, but excavation activity at site’s the tunnels suggests “it’s likely that if North Korea wants to they could test at any time.”
This history of broken promises and bad-faith gestures make it all the more difficult for Trump and the 33-year-old supreme leader he calls “Little Rocket Man” to reach any sort of meaningful agreement, experts warn.
Aside from a history of swapping insults, the men have given little indication to trust one another. Trump’s newly-installed national security adviser John Bolton argued for a pre-emptive attack to disarm North Korea as recently as February, while Kim has staked his young legacy on building a nuke-tipped missile that puts Mar-a-Lago and the White House squarely within range.
If somehow a deal to “denuclearize” is reached — and that agreement includes a vow from North Korea to get rid of some nukes — the U.S. will then face the challenge of confirming that North Korea is holding up its end of the bargain. That’s when things get tricky: Experts who study this regularly can only guess at how many bombs the North Koreans have actually built, how they are stored, and where they might be hidden.
As Hecker put it, “If we don’t know where they are, how would you ever know whether they’re not there, whether they have indeed disarmed?”
“What we’re talking about are dozens of sites, hundreds of buildings, and many thousands of people with knowledge [of the weapons program],” he said. “What does denuclearization mean? You get rid of all that?”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California, says the word “denuclearization” allows for wiggle room on both sides, and “could help the world avoid nuclear war.”
Lewis is fairly certain it doesn’t mean Kim relinquishing his weapons, but it could involve a promise to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Both Kim’s grandfather and father publicly signed on to denuclearization deals in 1992, 2000, and 2005 in exchange for aid and economic incentives.
Yet the landscape has changed since then, with North Korea conducting six nuclear tests, each larger than the last. Kim’s stockpile is between a dozen and 60 or more bombs, each perhaps equal in size to the ones the U.S. dropped in World War II, according to various estimates from nongovernmental experts and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
In essence, any deal between Trump and Kim comes down to three questions: Can Trump come to terms with Kim continuing to have nukes? If not, can Kim at least convince Trump that he’d be willing to eventually disarm? And what’s to stop Kim from stashing away a few bombs and missiles or covertly building more on the side?
Could North Korea Get Away With Hiding Its Nukes?
The last question offers no easy answers.
Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who specializes in verification and monitoring of nuclear arms, said that even if Kim offered to surrender or destroy some bombs to pacify Trump, that would still leave a large arsenal unaccounted for. And depending on the circumstances, there could be no telling whether the ones they got rid of were real or fake.
“We don’t know how they're fabricated, how they’re configured, if they’re mated with missiles or separate, we don’t know what kind of safety and security mechanisms they use,” she said. “We can make a few guesses on where they would keep them based on how we think they’d fight a nuclear war, but they’d be guesses at best. If we make a deal, we’d have to trust that they told us about all of them in the first place and that they weren’t dummies or duds.”
The solution would be to demand access similar to what Hecker was granted in the 2000s, but even then, Hanham noted, there’s no telling whether North Korea would pull back the curtain entirely. “North Korea may say ‘Our military secrets are sacrosanct and we can’t do this,’” she said. “At which point the U.S. has to decide: Do we walk away?”
At the moment, Kim has little incentive to cooperate. Hanham pointed out that he has undoubtedly taken notice of what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, two leaders who disarmed and were later overthrown and killed. Experts also point to Trump's stated desire to pull out of the Iran deal as likely to color any future denuclearization deal between the U.S. and Pyongyang.
In the case of North Korea, Hecker warns “You’re not going to get denuclearization overnight.” He has urged the U.S. government to pursue a strategy that would call for Kim to “reduce, rollback, and eventually eliminate” his nuclear arms. That process would likely include a testing freeze and renewed inspections of Yongbyon, which could reveal whether the recent activity around the reactor is related to electricity production or something nefarious.
Hecker said the North Koreans were always “courteous and professional” on his visits. But he also realized that he was only being shown things that were intended to convey a message. On his first visit to Yongbyon in 2004, two years after President George W. Bush put North Korea in his “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran, the North Koreans told Hecker they had started reprocessing plutonium fuel rods that had been used to generate electricity into material suitable for use in a bomb.
“They said ‘Do you want to see our product?’” Hecker recalled. “I was a little bit skeptical. I said ‘Sure, I’ve seen a lot of plutonium in my lifetime’ They actually brought the plutonium out into the conference room in a couple glass jars, which were sealed.”
Hecker’s conclusion: “They wanted to show as much as possible so I would go home and tell the Bush administration they had the bomb.” But since his most recent visit in 2010, nobody has been able to accurately gauge how much plutonium and enriched uranium the North Koreans have produced, let alone how many bombs they have built.
“That’s easy to hide,” Hecker said. “We’ll never know.”