Since my first visit to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2004, I have witnessed the country’s nuclear weapons program grow from a handful of primitive bombs to a formidable nuclear arsenal that represents one of America’s greatest security threats. After decades of broken policies toward Pyongyang, talking to the North Koreans is the best option for the Trump administration at this late date to limit the growing threat.
North Korea broke out to build the bomb because President George W. Bush was determined to kill President Bill Clinton’s 1994 “Agreed Framework,” a bilateral agreement with the North to freeze and eventually dismantle the North’s nuclear program. Hard-liners in the Bush administration viewed it as appeasement. Mr. Bush labeled the North, along with Iran and Iraq, part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002.
At the first bilateral meeting with Kim Jong-il’s regime in Pyongyang in October 2002, Bush administration officials accused North Korea of violating the Clinton pact by clandestinely pursuing the uranium path to the bomb. Washington had already detected this effort in the late 1990s, but it was deemed an insufficient threat not worthy of jeopardizing the gains made by the plutonium freeze.
For the Bush administration, the clandestine uranium effort was all it needed to walk away from the Agreed Framework. Yet Mr. Bush’s team proved unprepared for the consequences and stood by as North Korea resumed its plutonium program and built the bomb.
During six visits between 2004 and 2009, I watched the North continue to try to engage Washington, while the Bush administration preferred the six-party talks led by China, believing that the North would have greater difficulty cheating in the context of multilateral diplomacy. In a 2004 visit, I was even allowed to hold a piece of plutonium — in a sealed glass jar — to convince me and Washington that North Korea had the bomb.
In September 2005, China orchestrated a six-party joint statement calling for a nuclear-weapon-free Korean Peninsula. When the Bush administration concurrently slapped financial sanctions on Pyongyang, the North Koreans walked out of the six-party talks and responded with their first nuclear test in October 2006.
I was in Pyongyang three weeks later and found that although the test was only partly successful, it marked a turning point in the North’s nuclear program. North Korea became a nuclear weapon state and insisted that all future negotiations proceed from that reality. Mr. Bush left office with the North most likely possessing up to five plutonium-fueled nuclear weapons and an expanding uranium program.
North Korea greeted the Obama administration with a long-range rocket launch, followed by a second nuclear test in May 2009 — this one, successful. Unlike the Bush administration, which faced the prospect of the North’s violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Obama administration faced the North’s steady march to an expanding arsenal.
Mr. Obama was also unwilling to engage directly with Pyongyang, insisting instead that the North denuclearize before starting talks. It appears the Obama administration also viewed the regimes of Kim Jong-il and his son and successor, Kim Jong-un, as repugnant and hoped for their collapse, while also staying in step with two conservative South Korean administrations. Mr. Obama’s preferred path has been to tighten United Nations and United States sanctions and to pressure Beijing to reign in Pyongyang. Neither strategy has stopped the Kim regime from expanding its nuclear program.
Pyongyang upped the ante on its nuclear program with a remarkable revelation during my seventh and last visit in November 2010: the existence of a modern uranium centrifuge facility in Yongbyon. That facility served notice that the North was now capable of pursuing the second path to the bomb. No outsiders are known to have been in Yongbyon since my 2010 visit.
Satellite imagery of the Yongbyon complex combined with official North Korean propaganda photos and three additional successful nuclear tests point to a robust and rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal. My best estimate, admittedly highly uncertain, is that North Korea has sufficient plutonium and highly enriched uranium to build 20 to 25 nuclear weapons.
The North also launched some two dozen missiles in 2016, including partly successful road-mobile and submarine-based missiles that could potentially carry nuclear warheads.
President-elect Donald J. Trump faces a much graver threat from the North than his two predecessors. Pyongyang can most likely already reach all of South Korea, Japan and possibly even some United States targets in the Pacific.
The crisis is here. The nuclear clock keeps ticking. Every six to seven weeks North Korea may be able to add another nuclear weapon to its arsenal. All in the hands of Kim Jong-un, a young leader about whom we know little, and a military about which we know less. Both are potentially prone to overconfidence and miscalculations.
These sensitive nuclear issues require focused discussions in a small, closed setting. This cannot be achieved at a multilateral negotiating table, such as the six-party talks.
Mr. Trump should send a presidential envoy to North Korea. Talking is not a reward or a concession to Pyongyang and should not be construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Talking is a necessary step to re-establishing critical links of communication to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.
Mr. Trump has little to lose by talking. He can risk the domestic political downside of appearing to appease the North. He would most likely get China’s support, which is crucial because Beijing prefers talking to more sanctions. He would also probably get support for bilateral talks from Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow.
By talking, and especially by listening, the Trump administration may learn more about the North’s security concerns. It would allow Washington to signal the strength of its resolve to protect its allies and express its concerns about human rights abuses, as well as to demonstrate its openness to pragmatic, balanced progress.
Talking will help inform a better negotiating strategy that may eventually convince the young leader that his country and his regime are better off without nuclear weapons.
Siegfried S. Hecker, emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.