Dismantling North Korea’s Weapons Program

Former Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim meets with the North Korean delegation in Singapore (U.S. State Department via Flickr)

by Robert Kelley

President Donald Trump has stated that he believes that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is committed to the total and complete denuclearization of it nuclear programs. This strikes many people as a radical, even unlikely event. But if Kim Jong Un is serious and ready to cooperate there is plenty of expertise in the Pentagon and Department of Energy to do the initial task quickly and irreversibly.

Such success, however, would be dependent on total and transparent cooperation by DPRK. Furthermore, intelligence resources would be constantly reviewing the process for completeness and any sign that DPRK was withholding any weapons or materials. The president believes that when 20% of a plan is executed there is no going back for DPRK. Analysis suggests he is correct, and the main threat can be neutralized in a few weeks or months.


In the first task, the DPRK makes a declaration of critical facilities for nuclear weapons production, holdings of fissile materials: highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Also declared are location of fissile materials, numbers and locations of assembled weapons, and the amount of material in each. Material being processed and weapons in production must also be declared.

Other facilities such as high-explosive fabrication, electronics for weapons, and ancillary materials such as tritium and lithium need be declared as well, but they are of secondary priority.

The US will already have intelligence estimates of what nuclear materials it expects DPRK to declare. Within a few days there will be the first determination of whether the declarations are within expectations. This is consistent with what was done in Iraq in 1991. Iraq was highly uncooperative at that time, but the UN Iraq Action Team, consisting of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) personnel and American experts, was able to make an estimate of Iraqi nuclear-material holdings in less than three months despite obstruction. If the DPRK turns over records on day one, the process can go quickly.


Whether or not the declarations are matching, a team of US engineers and scientists will proceed to the weapons dismantlement site. This can occur in the first week. The DPRK will bring all weapons—deployed, stockpiled, or in the process of manufacturing—to an industrial location designed for warhead assembly and disassembly. The US team will use basic radiation detection instruments to survey the weapons and determine the approximate amount of plutonium and HEU in each warhead or bomb. The US will assess the data to determine if the objects are, in fact, nuclear devices. Appropriate US shipping containers for the types and amounts of nuclear materials will be brought in from the US to arrange for shipping fissile material out of the country expeditiously.

DPRK technicians will then disassemble each weapon under the immediate observation of American experts. The most important step is to remove the high explosives from implosion stages. There are other hazardous materials that may be present such as pyrotechnics, high-pressure tritium reservoirs, and special high-voltage power sources. Once these hazards are removed, the plutonium and uranium components can be quickly extracted. More precise radiation measurements will give quantities of material to a degree of certainty that will aid in the reconciliation of inventories and data for safe shipping containers and military aircraft loads. Simple diagnostics like radiography of “pits” can improve confidence that the materials are weapons parts and are safe for transport.

The personnel observing dismantlement will come from the Joint Technical Ordnance Team of the Energy Department and the Pentagon. They are mainly Explosive Ordnance Destruct (EOD) experts and scientists from the Energy Department labs that produce US nuclear weapons.

The experience for this task already exists in the EOD as well as the Energy Department’s 40-year-old NEST program, which has evolved into the weapons search and neutralization group called JTOT. Included in the mix are the talents and equipment of the Accident Response Group (ARG). Inside the Energy Department, ARG can deal with weapons in an unknown condition following any kind of an accident, popularly known as “Broken Arrow.” ARG team members are also integrated with NEST and share many capabilities.

The packaging and shipping expertise also comes from the Energy Department. A team from Oak Ridge in 1994 conducted an operation called project Sapphire that removed about 600 kilograms of HEU from Kazakhstan in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. This daring project, conducted in great secrecy, was completely successful. Prior to the actual enterprise there was little knowledge of the form and state of the HEU to be packaged. Nevertheless, it took only about four weeks to package large quantities of HEU and fly it out in US military airlift to the US.

The dismantlement task ends when all fissile material from weapons, whether deployed or in production, has been recovered and shipped out of the DPRK. This process can proceed as quickly as the technicians can disassemble the warheads. It is not unreasonable to expect that one warhead can be disassembled each day. Given estimates of a DPRK stockpile of 20-60 warheads, the entire DPRK could be irretrievably disabled in that number of days and the material removed to the United States. This milestone is nearly adequate to declare total neutralization of the DPRK nuclear threat with some follow-on activities.

US intelligence resources will be dedicated to making sure that the quantities of materials and numbers of weapons are accurate and that DPRK is not withholding anything of strategic value. This is the stage that the president has called irretrievable dismantlement after 20% of the work is done.

The model for this activity is the IAEA experience in South Africa. In 1991, South Africa presented the IAEA with a large quantity of HEU without any explanation of the source. In 1993, it became clear that disassembled weapons were the source. A team went through all of the production records, including pages of handwritten logs, to reach the conclusion that the declared quantities matched the weapons within a reasonable uncertainty.

During this stage, the DPRK technicians would be in charge of the dismantlement process, the safety procedures, and the hands-on procedures. They are the experts. They built the devices, and they are best qualified to dismantle them. If the US tries to impose foreign (US) safety procedures on the DPRK, bottlenecks and conflict could arise. The DPRK needs to be responsible for dismantlement safety on its own turf. US procedures will come into effect only for packaging and military airlift out of the DPRK.

There have been suggestions that complete weapons be removed from the DPRK for subsequent dismantlement in some US facility. This is simple madness. The DPRK has the skills to do the job under direct observation by US personnel. The US observers have the instruments and resources to verify that the objects are weapons and that the material removed is complete. Bringing an unknown weapon to a US location for dismantlement by US personnel is an unacceptable solution and could even introduce an intentional or accidental “Trojan horse.”

Shutting Down the Complex

There should not be a hasty rush to shut down all the DPRK facilities. The reactor at Yongbyon has produced weapons-grade plutonium. There may be targets in the reactor that are partially irradiated and contain plutonium. There will be spent fuel rods containing plutonium, and there may well be material in process at the reprocessing plant.

Removing irradiated fuel from DPRK is dangerous, expensive, and difficult. The DPRK reprocessing plant needs to be kept in operation until all the plutonium has been removed from the irradiated fuel. Waste tanks need to be inspected to see if recoverable amounts of plutonium remain. The reprocessing plant should be kept operational and on standby until all fuel has been accounted for. Plutonium recovered from spent fuel should be packaged and sent to the US. This process may take from one to two years. Then the reprocessing plant should be irreversibly destroyed and decontaminated.

There needs to be a similar effort to remove all enriched uranium that is in-process in the centrifuges. Any material over 20% enriched in U-235 should be a high priority for packaging and removal from DPRK to the US. Identifying and packaging this material will probably take considerably longer than dismantling the weapons.

There is a negative precedent that should be a warning against any hasty shutdown of facilities. In 1989, the FBI raided the Rocky Flats plutonium plant near Denver. Finding safety violations, it demanded that work stop immediately instead of an orderly shutdown. Unfortunately, this meant that plutonium in process was left in dangerous conditions and safety systems began to decay. By the time the plant was restarted, its processing areas had deteriorated greatly and the decommissioning took longer and was far more expensive than if an orderly shutdown had taken place.

At the end of this stage, the process of completely erasing the threat of nuclear weapons from the DPRK would be truly over.

Obviously intelligence operations would continue indefinitely to look for undeclared activities. But the declared threat to the US and East Asian allies would be 100% disabled as the president has demanded.

Related Activities

Another task, which can be carried out simultaneously with the others, involves the identification and dismantlement of supporting activities that contribute to nuclear weapon development and manufacture. An example might be high-explosives research, development, and manufacturing related to nuclear weapons. Facilities devoted to this task need to be identified, inspected, and neutralized. However, this is a lower priority than dismantling nuclear weapons and removing fissile material from DPRK.

Facilities that need to be identified and converted to non-nuclear use might include, but not be limited to, high explosives, fuel fabrication for the disabled nuclear reactor, tritium production, lithium isotope separation, electronics dedicated to nuclear weapons such as firing sets and fusing, and any R&D facility related to these tasks.

Personnel associated with these tasks need to be retained to carry out the job and simultaneously retrained to use their technical skills elsewhere, for example in civilian industry.

Also in parallel with the other activities, intelligence analysts skilled in the engineering and physics involved in designing nuclear weapons—as well as trade and banking to investigate the processes used by the DPRK to defeat sanctions and trade barriers—will need to reconstruct, historically and forensically, the DPRK’s nuclear program. The results of these studies will provide future analysts information to prevent another DPRK-like proliferation episode. These investigations will likely lead to embarrassment and unintended consequences for entities involved in illegal activities and sanctions busting.

Cleaning up the remains of the DPRK program is not technically part of denuclearization. Once facilities, such as a reactor, are rendered irreversibly useless there is little incentive for the US to clean up the site completely and return it to a pristine “green field site.” There may be other pollutants, for example mercury used in lithium isotope separation. If a denuclearization deal covers all these legacy effects, the process could take years, possibly the 15 years noted by Sig Hecker and others in their denuclearization study. The question will become, what is denuclearization: the removal of fissile materials and the irreversible end to actual weapons threat, or the entire reorientation of a broad range of industrial activities?

Barriers to Successful Completion

The process of dismantling the balance of the DPRK program will take years. It will be intellectually uninteresting and expensive. There will be a tendency after a few years to forget commitments to completely renovating old DPRK facilities, disposing of radioactive waste, and retraining former program personnel. The DPRK, for its part, might seek an escrow fund for dismantlement to ensure that the US stays the course.

The Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) is highly dependent on nuclear power and will be for many years to come. Hence, the ROK will be left with an extensive civil nuclear program. This inequity needs to be resolved. Should DPRK also have a civil nuclear program? This flies in the face of complete “denuclearization.” Some will argue that nuclear activity of any kind in the DPRK is in contravention of the intent of denuclearization. If the president concludes that the DPRK is completely trustworthy, and it has re-joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state, it should be entitled to a peaceful civil nuclear program. Is it up to the United States to make this determination alone? This needs to be resolved quickly.

The case of Iran quickly comes to mind. The US, in departing the Iran agreement, made it clear that Iran was not to be trusted with any nuclear fuel-cycle activities. The US also demanded that any new nuclear constraint agreement with Iran had to be much “tougher” than the one being abrogated. Presumably the DPRK will also submit to a monitoring and verification regime “tougher” than the 2015 UN Security Council agreement. And yet, if DPRK keeps any fuel-cycle activities, such as enrichment or reprocessing, it would break with historical US precedent. The form of the verification procedures of the proposed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula may be a huge stumbling block.

Removing the Teeth of the Tiger

Trump has opined that after 20% of the denuclearization task is complete it would be next to impossible for DPRK to go back to a weapons program. He is correct if the process is well designed. The teeth of the tiger can be removed in a matter of a few weeks if the DPRK is as cooperative as the president believes. Once weapons are dismantled and fissile material in weapons is removed to the US, the threat is largely neutralized.

Furthermore, the United States has standing teams of experts—JTOT, NEST, and ARG—trained to deploy to different but relevant missions. If these teams are deployed with authority to act quickly, the DPRK nuclear threat can be resolved with dispatch.

Standing in the way is the negotiation of a very tough verification regime with the DPRK, tougher than the abrogated Iran agreement. Kim’s intent will quickly be clear if he declares all his weapons, because inventories and weapons quantities must match. The intelligence community must then play a continuing role, possibly for decades to ensure that no hidden materials exist.

Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a licensed professional nuclear and mechanical engineer in California. He spent his career in nuclear weapons development activities such as plutonium metallurgy, survivability of U.S. nuclear warheads in ABM intercepts and isotope separation by gas centrifuge and lasers. He later used these hands-on skills to lead intelligence analysis of foreign nuclear weapons systems for the U.S. government and then as a director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly in weapons related non-proliferation analysis in Iraq, South Africa and Libya. Along the way, he has been a research reactor supervisor, a plutonium facility manager and director of the DOE Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis Air Force Base. He currently writes on non-proliferation for a number of publications and is an associate research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.



  1. “disposing of radioactive waste, and retraining former program personnel. The DPRK, for its part, might seek an escrow fund for dismantlement to ensure that the US stays the course.”

    In the case of JCPOA Iran couldn’t even get the US to release its own frozen assets. How is the US going to commit to a large fund for the clean up the North Korean sites when they can’t even get the oil spills of the Gulf of Mexico ?

  2. That was my point exactly! If Trump got what he wanted at 20% it will be bye-bye!

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