Verifiable, Irreversible, Cooperative Dismantlement of the DPRK’s Nuclear Weapons Program

by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein

June 15, 2004

Prepared for the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management (INMM)45th Annual Meeting
Orlando, FL

Verifiable, Irreversible, Cooperative Dismantlement of the
DPRK’s Nuclear Weapons Program

Prepared for the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management (INMM)45th Annual Meeting
Orlando, FL

The verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and nuclear weaponization program is likely to be a key issue in reaching a peaceful solution to the current crisis. If North Korea were to disavow nuclear weapons as part of a broader negotiated agreement, it will have to take significant steps to assure the international community of its commitment. The process of verifiable dismantlement of a nuclear weaponization program has some precedent in the experience of Iraq and South Africa. In addition, the North Korean case presents specific obstacles. The inspection body will have to make decisions on the amount of information that North Korea needs to provide, in particular, how much information do the inspectors need about the design of the nuclear weapon itself; research, testing, and development activities; and production activities. The verification tasks will also include methods to verify both the correctness and completeness of a declaration, the role of procurement information in verifying the dismantlement of a program, the amount and type of access to sites and facilities, and procedures for interviewing officials and scientists in the nuclear weapons program. It will be critically important to identify steps aimed at ensuring irreversibility.


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) may have several nuclear weapons. At least, it has been implying that it does through its official statements. As a result, any plan to verifiably dismantle DPRK’s nuclear weapons program must include a component focused on nuclear warheads and the means to produce them, sometimes called a nuclear weaponization program.

This task raises a special challenge. Unlike most US/Russian verified warhead dismantlement proposals or inspection arrangements in non-nuclear weapon states, a plan to dismantle DPRK nuclear weapons would likely entail direct inspector access to sensitive nuclear weapons information, including nuclear weapons designs and weapons components. As a result, members of the acknowledged nuclear weapon states may need to lead the inspections whether the inspections are conducted by a specially created verification organization or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The verified dismantling of any nuclear weapons and associated production activities is only one of several tasks that must be accomplished to ensure that the DPRK does not have a nuclear weapons program and is in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The other tasks required for the verifiable, irreversible, cooperative dismantlement of the DPRK’S nuclear weapons program focus on eliminating the plutonium and any uranium enrichment programs and implementing measures such as IAEA safeguards to ensure the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.

Overview of Future Disarmament Tasks in North Korea

The complete dismantling of the DPRK’s nuclear program will involve several tasks:

  1. The plutonium production program. This task includes plutonium production, separation, storage, and waste processing facilities. The principal aim will be to verifiably, irreversibly halt plutonium production and separation activities. The verification organization will need to verify DPRK statements about its plutonium production and separation activities. The DPRK will need to allow the removal of plutonium and irradiated fuel. This task will also involve dismantling key sites and implementing long-term monitoring of any remaining activities in this program.
  2. The uranium enrichment program. This task focuses on the dismantlement of any uranium enrichment activities and the facilities to research, develop, test, and make enrichment equipment, such as gas centrifuges. It would involve the irreversible verified dismantlement of uranium enrichment programs, the conversion of certain activities, and the on-going, long-term monitoring of non-banned, continuing activities.
  3. The nuclear weaponization program. This task focuses on any nuclear weapons and the means to research, develop, test, and manufacture them. It involves the verified dismantlement of any nuclear weapons, and the irreversible, verifiable dismantlement of the set of facilities involved in researching, developing, testing, and manufacturing nuclear weapons. It would likely involve the conversion of certain activities and on-going monitoring of non-banned activities. This task is the focus of this paper.
  4. Implementing the DPRK/IAEA safeguards agreement and bringing the DPRK into compliance with the NPT. The IAEA will likely conclude that the DPRK will need to implement the advanced safeguards protocol in order for the IAEA to verify that the DPRK comes into compliance with the NPT and remains in compliance.

Despite being interrelated, these tasks can be accomplished in parallel or in any order. In reality, a negotiation process will determine the exact tasks and their order of implementation.

Who verifies the actual dismantlement of nuclear programs is a negotiable topic. Different models for the verification organization may be needed to accomplish different tasks. There are many candidates for the verification organization, including:

  • A specific organization created by the United States, other acknowledged nuclear weapon states (NWS), and other states in the region.
  • “IAEA Plus,” which would involve the IAEA safeguards department supplemented by assistance from key member states. Variants of this model have been used in South Africa, Iran, and Libya.
  • A bilateral or regional inspection agency.

In the case of verifiably dismantling any nuclear weapons and the weaponization program, nuclear weapon experts from the NWS will be expected to play a critical role. The verification organization will need to assess sensitive nuclear weapons information and equipment. These experts could be formed into a separate organization or assigned to the IAEA safeguards department. The latter step was followed in the case of South Africa after it declared in 1993 that it had had a nuclear weapons program.

No matter what group verifies the dismantlement process, the IAEA is responsible for verifying that the DPRK is in compliance with the NPT. Assistance from member states will be critical to accomplish this goal.

There are many prerequisites on the DPRK’s side for the successful verification of the dismantlement of nuclear programs. It will need to give the verification organization a series of rights, including:

  • A policy of full transparency and cooperation;
  • Permitting broad access;
  • Providing detailed declarations;
  • Allowing access to records, including program documents, procurement data, and possibly personnel records;
  • Allowing interviews with program staff and officials; and
  • Permitting environmental sampling at declared sites and elsewhere.

In addition, the DPRK will need to allow inspectors access to military sites. Procedures will need to be developed that permit the DPRK to protect sensitive, non-nuclear items without compromising the effectiveness of an inspection.

Other states will need to assist the verification organization. In particular, member states will need to provide the verification organization with relevant procurement information. Of particular importance will be any procurement information learned through investigating the network led by Abdul Qadeer Khan and his associates that aided Iran, Libya, and North Korea. In addition, a range of states will need to provide expertise, assistance with equipment, and analysis of information and samples.

Cooperative Verified Dismantlement of Nuclear Weapons and a Nuclear Weaponization Program

The purpose of this task is to verifiably eliminate nuclear weapons and the means to research, develop, test, and manufacture them. The dismantlement must occur in an irreversible manner, which requires the destruction of any nuclear weapons, key components, and certain equipment, and the conversion and monitoring of other equipment and facilities.

Any fissile material assigned to the nuclear weaponization program requires special care and accounting. At a minimum, the verification organization will need to carefully verify that all the fissile material assigned to the nuclear weapons program has been accounted for. The bulk of the effort to verify that the DPRK has declared all its fissile material will occur in the tasks focused on the DPRK’s plutonium and uranium programs.

There are two options to dismantle nuclear weapons in North Korea. The first is concurrent dismantlement and verification. This strategy has been extensively researched in the context of US/Russian nuclear arms control agreements. Its implementation in the DPRK should be straightforward. The second option is one in which dismantlement occurs before verification. This strategy was followed by South Africa when it dismantled its nuclear weapons. The success of this strategy will depend on the DPRK creating extensive, verifiable records of its dismantlement of any weapons.

Key to any verification task will be access to sensitive information. The preferred option is that the verification organization has access to detailed nuclear weapon design information. If the DPRK does not want to allow the verification organization access to such information, the verification process will be much more difficult. However, such an approach can be successful.

The verification organization will need to implement steps to reduce the likelihood or ease of reconstituting a nuclear weapons program. Vital to this effort is to ensure that on-going monitoring is established and effective.

Weaponization dismantlement alone is unlikely to provide adequate assurance of the absence of hidden weapons or nuclear weapon sites. However, adequate assurance can be obtained in conjunction with the other tasks aimed at full, irreversible dismantlement of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. The problem of the potential existence of undeclared sites shows the need to dismantle all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium programs and implement robust, on-going IAEA inspections that have as their basis the Model Protocol and the full support of member states.

Step-by-Step Plan for Concurrent Dismantlement and Verification of a Nuclear Weapons Program

The following section outlines a series of steps involved in verifiably dismantling a nuclear weaponization program and the nuclear weapons produced by the program. These steps describe such a process, although the actual steps may differ in practice. Many details of these steps need to be developed before they could be implemented in an actual situation.

The first step involves the initial meetings of the DPRK and the verification organization. This involves a series of high-level technical discussions between state officials and the verification organization. At the meetings, officials would discuss the joint process of verifiable dismantlement and seek agreement on a schedule and a set of general procedures to carry out the dismantlement process. The meetings should also seek to identify problems requiring additional political decisions.

The next step is a joint tour of main facilities in the nuclear weaponization complex, including those containing nuclear weapons. The goal of a tour is to familiarize experts from the verification organization with DPRK’s nuclear weaponization program. There would be visits to the main weaponization sites, including the research and development facilities, component manufacturing sites, high explosive test sites, nuclear weapon assembly facilities, nuclear weapon storage vaults, and underground test sites. In addition, sites associated with the program in the past or related to the program will also need to be visited. During these visits, the verification organization’s experts would gain a familiarity with the DPRK’s program for researching, developing, testing, and producing nuclear weapons. It would also gain knowledge of the total number and all the types of nuclear weapons produced by the program.

After these initial steps, the DPRK would produce a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear weaponization program, reflecting initial discussions with the verification organization and tours of the facilities. The declaration should include details of nuclear weapon development, production, and deployment. It needs to include a history of the program, including a chronology of major political and technical milestones of the program, and the strategy for deploying and using nuclear weapons. It should also include planned future goals and timelines.

Next, the verification organization must develop a coherent technical understanding of the nuclear weaponization program in close consultation with the state. The verification organization needs to understand the origin, scope, accomplishments, and timing of the program. This understanding should be based on a detailed study of the declaration, a review of documents, and discussions with program officials, scientists, and technicians. The verification organization will also need to incorporate information learned elsewhere that may supplement or contradict DPRK statements. Any discrepancies in the DPRK’s declaration would need to be addressed in this step.

The DPRK will then need to develop a plan for dismantlement. The government may form a senior experts’ committee to investigate methods to dismantle the program and draw up a schedule. It should develop its plans in consultation with the verification organization.

Separately, the verification organization must develop its own plan to verify the dismantlement of the program. It must identify actions necessary to take in order to achieve effective and timely verification of the dismantlement. For example, the verification organization needs to ensure that all laboratory, development, testing, and manufacturing facilities involved in the program are been fully decommissioned and abandoned or converted to a permitted use. The verification organization should develop its plans in consultation with the DPRK. The DPRK and verification organization will agree on a plan to verifiably dismantle the program that incorporates the above plans and concerns of each party. Key agreements would include the exact items subject to destruction, conversion, or on-going monitoring. Careful records of dismantlement activities would be developed and maintained by both parties.

Based on the joint plan, the state would dismantle the program and convert equipment and materials to other, non-proscribed uses. Items that could not be converted to non-proscribed uses would need to be destroyed, rendered harmless, or removed from the DPRK. In this model, buildings or facilities would not, in general, be subject to destruction.

DPRK’s nuclear weapons contain plutonium or highly enriched uranium and possibly other nuclear materials such as natural uranium or depleted uranium. These materials, particularly any plutonium or highly enriched uranium, should be converted into non-weapons usable shapes and carefully subjected to materials protection, control, and accounting procedures. The fate of the other nuclear materials should also be carefully tracked by the verification organization.

Included in the destruction plan would be major non-nuclear weapon components. Destruction is accomplished by smashing, cutting, burning, or other methods to disable the item against future use.

Certain manufacturing and testing equipment may be rendered unusable for future use in a nuclear weapons program. Rendering a machine tool unusable may involve destroying special fixtures or computer programs produced to enable the machine to make weapons components. Some dual-use equipment may need to remain subject to monitoring.

Designs, documents, and blueprints will need to be destroyed or removed from the DPRK. The destruction method may involve burning. Because documents are easily reproduced, this step must be viewed as largely symbolic by the verification organization. However, it remains important as a future benchmark of cooperation and compliance.

Facilities and remaining equipment or materials would be converted to alternative, allowed uses. The purpose would be to continue to employ program personnel in productive work, and a priority would be placed on creating economically viable programs or joint ventures. For example, clean-room facilities could be converted to other, allowed high technology uses, and machine tools could be assigned other industrial uses.

On-going monitoring of certain non-nuclear activities may be necessary for a long time. Nuclear material will certainly require on-going monitoring until it is removed from the DPRK. Because the verification organization conducting the dismantlement may be granted extraordinary rights during the dismantlement process, it may not be the best organization to conduct this monitoring. The IAEA may be better suited and more politically acceptable for a long-term presence.

At the end of the agreed process, the verification organization would reach and announce a conclusion that the nuclear weapons program has been dismantled according to the agreed plan. The organization would also state that the program has been dismantled and on-going monitoring has been successfully implemented.

Funding of the verified dismantlement effort is an issue which will have to be addressed in the negotiation process. Dismantlement will require funds to destroy items or render them unusable items, and conversion activities will also require funds. Conversion funding may greatly exceed funding for dismantlement. Funding may come from other concerned states, which may also continue to fund and participate in converted or new enterprises.

The entire verified dismantlement effort can be accomplished in about one year. Another year or two may be required to develop assurance about the absence of any undeclared activities or items.

The above steps outline a process for the concurrent dismantlement and verification of a nuclear weapons program. Special considerations by the DPRK will be necessary if they pursue dismantlement before verification, as South Africa did. In such a case, the DPRK should conduct the dismantlement with the ultimate verification goal in mind. It should keep careful records of the dismantlement of the weapons and weaponization complex. Although verification can occur successfully after dismantlement, this effort is more difficult and might take much longer to accomplish. In particular, the verification organization may need significantly longer to reach a conclusion that the program was completely dismantled and accounted for.

Special Considerations in Dismantling Nuclear Weapons

Special procedures will be needed to dismantle the nuclear weapons themselves. Weapons experts from the verification organization will likely need access to sensitive information about DPRK’s nuclear weapons.

Some key steps will be to inventory parts of nuclear weapons; develop procedures to implement the dismantlement of the weapons; decide the fate of nuclear materials, such as converting plutonium weapon components into non-weapons usable metal billets; decide the fate of non-nuclear components, i.e. which to destroy, scrap, or reuse; and create a set of detailed records of the dismantlement process.

The DPRK will create an inventory of all parts in weapons, underground test devices, cold devices, component or weapon testing programs, and in the weapons testing, development, and production pipeline. The individual components can be organized into various categories, including nuclear components, electrical and electronic parts, explosives components, mechanical parts, and support equipment for the weapons. The DPRK and the verification organization will need to reach agreement on which non-nuclear components to destroy, scrap, or use for other purposes. In general, the state would be expected to want to retain more components for future use than the verification organization would accept. These negotiations should occur as soon as possible.

For the actual dismantlement of nuclear weapons, the state will need to select a dismantlement site and create necessary infrastructure. An existing nuclear weapon assembly site is a logical choice. The DPRK and the verification organization will develop detailed procedures to conduct and oversee the dismantlement process, including careful material control and accounting procedures for nuclear materials and careful records of the origin and destination of the various non-nuclear parts. Figure 1 is a chart of how dismantlement of non-nuclear components could be organized. It is based on procedures followed by South Africa in dismantling its nuclear weapons.


The set of steps necessary to verifiably dismantle DPRK’s nuclear weapons and the means to make them is complicated but attainable in a reasonable time frame. Acquiring adequate assurance that all the weapons and associated activities are dismantled will require additional steps, however. In fact, the entire set of dismantlement tasks outlined above, including on-going IAEA safeguards with the Protocol, will likely be needed to provide adequate assurance that the DPRK has dismantled its nuclear weapons program and come into compliance with the NPT.

Success will ultimately depend on North Korea’s cooperation and its belief that its vital interests are served by these verification arrangements. Other interested states will need to settle on realistic verification arrangements and not insist on overly demanding verification requirements.

Figure 1: Disposition of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons subject to verifiable dismantlement.

For an overview of the tasks involved in the verifiable dismantlement of DPRK’s nuclear weapons program see A paper on the verified dismantlement of a gas centrifuge enrichment program was presented by the authors at the 2003 INMM annual conference.

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