In the history of nuclear weapons there has been only one country that voluntarily gave up its weapons and the program that produced them, and that is South Africa. That should tell us something about how hard it will be to persuade North Korea to dismantle its large and very sophisticated weapons program.
The South African program was unusual in several ways. It used a method of enriching uranium that had never been tried on an industrial scale, injecting hexafluoride gas at very high velocity into a tube to separate out the fissile bomb-making isotope, uranium 235. What’s more, only white Afrikaners — no mixed-race or black or Asian South Africans — were allowed to work on the program.
South Africa had managed to manufacture six bombs and had one under construction when, in 1989, it turned its entire weapons program over to the International Atomic Energy Agency for a variety of reasons, including a desire to end its international isolation. None of these devices were ever tested.
Three former Soviet republics — Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine — also gave up nuclear arms in the 1990s. But those countries had not produced the weapons: They were made by the Soviet Union and simply stored in the republics. So they were not abandoning actual nuclear weapons programs.
Libya is often cited as having given up its nuclear program. But it was an entirely different case. In the late 1990s, Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, began looking on the black market for nuclear weapons technology. Unlike South Africa, Libya had an extremely limited technological infrastructure. Colonel Qaddafi bought a very expensive package of material from the Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who ran an illicit nuclear proliferation network.
The Iranians at about the same time bought what is likely to have been the same package, which would have given them enough information and equipment to build their centrifuge program for enriching bomb-grade uranium. The Libyans also bought the design for a rocket-borne nuclear weapon that the Chinese had tested.
But although they pursued centrifuge technology, the Libyans never really created a full-fledged weapons-making program. What they mainly turned over to the C.I.A. in 2004 was their bomb-making knowledge, not actual bombs. Some have argued that because Colonel Qaddafi renounced his program he weakened himself and his country. But this is absurd.
This brings us to North Korea, which probably has produced dozens of weapons — some of which have been tested with success. The latest test, in September, possibly involved a device that produced a yield of at least 10 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Thus when the United States asks the North Koreans to hand over or somehow lock up their nuclear weapons and the means for constructing them, we are looking at an industrial enterprise far more vast than anything the Libyans or even the South Africans ever had.
The North Koreans have plutonium-producing reactors and a very sophisticated centrifuge program. They were producing so much lithium 6 used in fusion devices that they were selling the excess. Even handing over their existing devices would be a major initiative that would involve many inspectors, compared to the handful that sufficed in South Africa.
None of this is to say that the United States should not try to get North Korea to abandon its program. But given the size and sophistication of the North Korean program, it seems insufficient to say simply that the West wants North Korea to “denuclearize.” What does this mean? Are the reactors and the centrifuges to be rendered inoperable? And how will that be monitored? More important, the North Korean scientists’ knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon cannot be erased. How can that knowledge be contained?
What I have yet to see is a clear statement of what the end game might look like. And whatever it will be, it will be far more complicated than simply saying, “North Korea must give up its weapons.
Jeremy Bernstein, a theoretical physicist, is the author of Nuclear Iran.