Advisers to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo 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.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s national-security adviser said Sunday that North Korea could dismantle all 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 Bolton, the national-security adviser and historically a deep skeptic that North Korea will ever fully disarm, came as Pompeo prepares to make his third trip to North Korea late this week.
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 Bolton, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said Sunday that, nearly three weeks after the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and Trump met in Singapore, no such declaration has arrived.
Advisers to Pompeo, both outside the government and inside the CIA, 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 Kim gains confidence that economic benefits are beginning to flow and that the United States and its allies will not seek to overthrow him.
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It is an approach fraught with risk, and runs contrary to what Bolton, before entering the government, and 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 Trump’s proclamation on Twitter that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Even Bolton seemed to distance himself from that assertion Sunday.
Worrisome signs about North Korea’s commitment to disarmament have been accumulating. In Singapore, 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 atomic bomb.
And CIA 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.
In his television appearance, Bolton set out a schedule that intelligence officials have already warned is unrealistic. Pompeo, he said, “will be discussing this with the North Koreans in the near future, about, really, how to dismantle all of their WMD 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.” Pompeo told Congress recently that he would like to see complete disarmament within 2 1/2 years, or around the time Trump’s first term would end. Few analysts believe it can happen that fast, if at all.
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 CIA, 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.
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 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,” Levite said, “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 Kim’s vague commitment to Trump. Meanwhile, the freeze on new material — including tritium, an element necessary for the North to make advanced atomic 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 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,” 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.”