VIENNA (Reuters) – At a summit in Singapore in early June with US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un pledged to "work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula".
Further talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials are due to take place, and Trump said last week, "There will be a total denuclearization that has already begun."
Assuming that the denuclearization of North Korea is taking place, what would it look like and how much would it cost?
WHAT DOES DENLEEARIZATION MEAN?
This is far from clear and can have different meanings for each page.
The exact form of denuclearization will depend on negotiations. North Korea could try to continue some nuclear activities with possible civilian uses, such as uranium enrichment, as Iran can do with its major powers.
For Washington, however, denuclearization means at least eliminating the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons. This requires the removal or disassembly of existing weapons, the shutdown of the program that produces them, and the limitation or elimination of Pyongyang's ability to enrich uranium and produce plutonium, another important component of nuclear bombs.
It would most likely require a restriction or elimination of North Korean missile programs.
KNOWN AND UNKNOWN UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS
To further complicate the matter, much is still unknown about North Korea's nuclear activities, weapons program, and ballistic missile capabilities. These are among the most secretive activities in a highly secretive state that foreign intelligence agencies have tried to penetrate.
North Korea has conducted six ever-expanding nuclear tests since 2006 and surprised foreign governments with a series of missile tests that showed rapidly improving technology and increasing range.
Pyongyang tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in December, which governments and experts said would bring all of the continental United States within reach, although many believe that they are not yet complete the reentry vehicle into which the warhead returns to Earth has developed atmosphere as it approaches its destination.
Historically, the Yongbyon complex north of Pyongyang has been at the heart of the North Korean nuclear program. It houses a reactor that produces spent fuel from which plutonium is reprocessed and an experimental reactor analysts observe that satellite imagery is nearing completion.
Yongbyon is widely believed to host a uranium enrichment facility, although many experts say that one or more major enrichment sites exist outside of Yongbyon.
North Korea has developed plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment to trace the fissile material for nuclear weapons.
While Yongbyon is being watched by satellites and overseen by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors before being expelled in 2009, much less is known about facilities in other parts of the country.
Nuclear analyst David Albright of the Institute of Science and International Security has quoted an anonymous "official source" stating that about half of North Korea's nuclear facilities are located outside of Yongbyon and the site where nuclear tests were conducted.
There are few cases where a country voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons. Those who have done so under certain circumstances and provide imperfect analogies.
South Africa discontinued its nuclear weapons program and dismantled its weapons shortly before the end of apartheid. Several former Soviet republics gave up their weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Of these, Ukraine had the most, about 5,000, and it lasted the longest.
South Africa kept its nuclear weapons program secret until it disassembled its six atomic bombs and destroyed many of the related documents, meaning that the costs are unknown. The weapons were dismantled in just a few months.
In Ukraine, which had ground-based strategic weapons with about 1,250 nuclear warheads, a Defense Department official said the United States had paid around $ 350 million to dismantle the silos that were launching these missiles.
At its peak, Ukraine's nuclear arsenal was the third largest in the world. North Korea is much smaller – its exact size is unknown, but several analysts estimate that there are about 30 weapons.
SO, HOW MUCH?
Given the associated uncertainties, most analysts are reluctant to be more specific than predicting billions in denuclearization costs.
"I think it would be fair to say that mining and cleaning up a significant portion of the North Korean nuclear complex (not even considering the rocket complex) would cost billions and take about 10 years," said Siegfried Hecker. a nuclear scientist and Stanford University professor who visited Yongbyon in 2010.
The Congress budget office in 2008 estimated the cost of disassembling the reactor at Yongbyon and two nearby facilities producing fuel rods and separate plutonium from spent fuel at $ 575 million. In addition, the spent fuel must be taken out of the country and reprocessed. It was said that should take four years.
North Korea's nuclear activities and inventories have increased significantly since 2008. There is now a second reactor in Yongbyon, which is nearing completion, and the CBO estimate did not include uranium enrichment, weapons, missile technology, or sites like uranium mines.
For the whole process to work, Washington must be convinced that North Korea has declared all relevant locations and activities. The verification is likely to play an important role.
Any doubts as to whether North Korea has declared all its activities could lead to a quarrel like that of Iraq, which had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of that country. A balance must exist between transparency and intrusiveness.
According to a confidential IAEA report by Reuters, the cost of IAEA security measures for Iran, where the agency oversees the 2015 nuclear treaty, amounted to 15.8 million euros (18.42 million dollars) last year.
But the IAEA already inspected Iran's declared nuclear facilities before the agreement was reached. Starting in North Korea from scratch will be much more expensive.
"If you take over the annual IAEA verification and monitoring costs in Iran and multiply them by about three or more, you may get a rough estimate of the annual cost to North Korea following a denuclearization agreement," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"North Korea's nuclear program is more secretive than Iran and far advanced in nuclear weapons."
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Coverage of Francois Murphy in Vienna, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, Joyce Lee, Joori Roh and Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Letter from Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich