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How Long Will The U.S. Live With a Nuclear North Korea?

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“Any process of [North Korean] denuclearization is going to be more complex than has ever been done in the nuclear field,” George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has communicated with Biegun about his Carnegie team’s phase-by-phase approach, told me shortly before the Vietnam summit. “Nobody has ever built an arsenal like North Korea has with nuclear weapons, the fissile material, the delivery systems … and then relinquished it. It’s very difficult to relinquish quickly even if one wanted to, which they’re not going to want to.” The road map he has in mind, he explained, is essentially “arms control to facilitate movement towards eventual disarmament.”

If the United States can take the North Korean program “from something that’s expanding quantitatively and qualitatively to something that is capped” with an aspirational commitment to denuclearization, it would be a good outcome, Perkovich explained.

Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist whose team at Stanford is in touch with Biegun as well, has developed another step-by-step framework for North Korean denuclearization that could stretch for at least a decade. “Will [the North Koreans] eventually eliminate nuclear weapons? I don’t know,” Hecker told me earlier this week. “But it’s time we take steps to find out. Quite frankly, Kim Jong Un may not know for sure either. It will depend on how we respond to his actions.”

For now, the Trump administration has to set their sights on more modest matters like simply reviving talks. “We’ll each need to regroup a little bit,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “There has to be a reason for the conversations.”

That it has come to this point isn’t necessarily a sign that the Trump administration has caved in its dealings with Kim. Instead, it’s an indication that it is reckoning with the reality of what it inherited: a North Korea that already possessed nuclear weapons and was in the midst of fine-tuning its capacity to place the entire world in its crosshairs.

“This is, after all, what nuclear weapons do,” the arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis wrote after the Vietnam summit. “They trap us together with our enemies, like scorpions in a bottle, creating a shared danger that compels us to work together to advance our mutual interest in survival.”

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