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As Bolton Says North Korea Could Disarm in a Year, Reality Lags Promises

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As Bolton Says North Korea Could Disarm in a Year, Reality Lags Promises

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, with President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, during a meeting in Singapore last month. Mr. Pompeo will visit North Korea this week to try to work out more details of a disarmament plan.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
  • July 1, 2018

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s national security adviser said on Sunday that North Korea could dismantle all of its nuclear weapons, threatening missiles and biological weapons “in a year,” a far more aggressive schedule than the one Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined for Congress recently, reflecting a strain inside the administration over how to match promises with realism.

The statements by John R. Bolton, the national security adviser and historically a deep skeptic that North Korea will ever fully disarm, came as Mr. Pompeo prepares to make his third trip to North Korea late this week.

Mr. Pompeo will arrive in Pyongyang with a proposed schedule for disarmament that would begin with a declaration by North Korea of all its weapons, production facilities and missiles. The declaration will be the first real test of the North’s candor, amid increasing concern that it may be trying to conceal parts of its nuclear program. But Mr. Bolton, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said Sunday that, nearly three weeks after the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Trump met in Singapore, no such declaration has arrived.

Advisers to Mr. Pompeo, both outside the government and inside the C.I.A., which he used to direct, have cautioned him that North Korea will not give up its arsenal of 20 to 60 weapons until the last stages of any disarmament plan — if it gives them up at all. Many of the plans they have given him call for the North to halt production of nuclear fuel — at a moment that there are signs of increased production — but do not insist on dismantling weapons until Mr. Kim gains confidence that economic benefits are beginning to flow and that the United States and its allies will not seek to overthrow him.

It is an approach fraught with risk, and runs contrary to what Mr. Bolton, before entering the government, and Mr. Trump had said the North must do: dismantle everything first, and ship its bombs and fuel out of the country. If the North is permitted to keep its weapons until the last stages of disarmament, it would remain a nuclear state for a long while, perhaps years.

The effort to put North Korea on a schedule is particularly urgent because there is no evidence the Singapore summit meeting has produced tangible results, despite Mr. Trump’s tweeted proclamation that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Even Mr. Bolton seemed to distance himself from that assertion on Sunday.

Worrisome signs about North Korea’s commitment to disarmament have been accumulating. In Singapore, Mr. Trump said the North was destroying a major missile-engine test site, but the known sites are still standing, untouched, according to satellite photographs. Work is proceeding on a new nuclear reactor that would dramatically increase the North’s ability to produce plutonium, a potent fuel for an atom bomb.

And C.I.A. officials are watching to see whether the North reveals in the declaration a covert plant suspected of enriching uranium, the other main fuel for nuclear arms.

The plant is known as Kangsong, according to a report on the secretive facility by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington group that tracks the spread of nuclear arms. The fact that the United States knew about the plant was a closely guarded secret until a few months ago, one former government official with access to the intelligence said. The official predicted that the North would have to admit having the plant, or watch negotiations fall apart.

The Kangsong plant is suspected of housing many thousands of centrifuges — tall machines that spin at supersonic speeds to concentrate the rare form of uranium used in bombs. It has been running for years, and the group noted that it “could have made a substantial amount of weapon-grade uranium, complicating further efforts to dismantle and verify denuclearization.”

In his television appearance, Mr. Bolton set out a schedule that intelligence officials have already warned is unrealistic. Mr. Pompeo, he said, “will be discussing this with the North Koreans in the near future, about, really, how to dismantle all of their W.M.D. and ballistic missile programs in a year.”

He added, “If they have the strategic decision already made to do that and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly.” Mr. Pompeo told Congress recently that he would like to see complete disarmament within two and a half years, or around the time Mr. Trump’s first term would end. Few analysts believe it can happen that fast, if at all.

Mr. Pompeo has sought out nonproliferation experts for detailed proposals about how to proceed, and he has turned to a tight team, many drawn from his days at the C.I.A., to draw up a plan. One of the most detailed proposals emerged from the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which has advocated beginning with what it calls a “freeze plus reduction in readiness” for the North Korean nuclear program.

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John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has historically been a deep skeptic that North Korea will ever fully disarm.CreditPool photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko

The first step would be a rigorous program to get the North to separate nuclear warheads from missiles; to remove from the weapons a key element called the “pit,” without which it is impossible to detonate them; and to halt the production of most nuclear material.

“The idea is that they cannot be moved, they cannot be touched, and all facilities and locations are to be declared,” Ariel Levite, a former senior official of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission who, with George Perkovich, drew up the plan sought by Mr. Pompeo. All nuclear enrichment activity would have to be limited to one major site, Yongbyon, where international inspectors lived before being evicted from the North many years ago. “This means that any activity detected outside of Yongbyon is cheating,” Mr. Levite said in an interview, “and you say, ‘If we catch you, the whole thing collapses.’”

The idea is to establish multiple tests of the North’s willingness to carry through on Mr. Kim’s vague commitment to Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, the freeze on new material — including tritium, an element necessary for the North to make advanced atom bombs as well as the far more powerful hydrogen bombs — would mean that the program would slowly decay.

But under that proposal, and others presented to Mr. Pompeo, the dismantling of existing nuclear weapons would come last. “The idea is to say we have been putting up with your nuclear weapons for a while,” Mr. Levite said, “and we are willing to put up with it a while longer, provided you make tangible progress on a number of fronts in rapid succession.”

Mr. Bolton, officials say, does not support any proposals that leave the North in possession of weapons for more than a year. And not all experts buy the bombs-last approach. Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and former Iraq inspector now at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, recently argued that American teams and the North’s weapon dismantlers could meet “in the first week” and quickly set to work on atomic disassembly.

“Of course,” he noted, “this only works if” Mr. Kim is as deeply committed to the North’s denuclearization as Mr. Trump seems to believe — an extraordinarily large “if,” in many nuclear analysts’ view.

Another plan given to Mr. Pompeo was devised by David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security. His first steps centered on Pyongyang turning over a comprehensive inventory of facilities, sites, materials and officials.

“We really don’t know much about their nuclear program from a verification point of view,” Mr. Albright said recently. “It really is a bit of a black box.”

The disclosure of the program’s secretive workings, Mr. Albright said, would allow Western officials and nuclear experts to begin visiting the facilities and making preparations for a wide range of deactivations and dismantlements.

Only near the end of his public presentation did Mr. Albright turn to dismantling the nuclear arms. That would start with comprehensive disclosures of weapons, component parts and how the North’s specialists went about their development. Only then, he added, would the teams turn to nuclear disassembly and destruction.

After his presentation, as prominent experts estimated that the denuclearization job could take a decade or more, Mr. Albright’s group argued that many of the phases should occur in parallel. The atomic unwinding, the institute declared, “should not be structured in a way that invites North Korea to go slowly.”

One of the most authoritative plans was put forward by a Stanford University team led by Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico and now a professor at the university. A co-author was Robert L. Carlin, a former C.I.A. analyst and State Department intelligence official who has traveled to North Korea more than 30 times.

The team in late May unveiled a phased denuclearization plan that also left weapon disassembly for last — beginning six years after the plan’s start and extending through the 10th year. At the end, international inspectors were to be routinely patrolling the North to verify its status.

At the plan’s start, the team argued, North Korea and the United States had to find ways to build trust and interdependence, calling that a prerequisite for long-term denuclearization. It argued that North Korea will probably want to keep some parts of its nuclear program as a hedge should any potential agreement fall apart, but called that risk manageable.

The secret to dismantling the program, Dr. Hecker said in an interview, had less to do with delineating the phases and specifics of dismantlement than establishing “a different relationship with North Korea where its security rests on something other than nuclear weapons.”

David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and William J. Broad from New York.

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