The warheads — at least 20 in number, and perhaps as many as 60 — remain for now in their bunkers, somewhere in the rugged hills north of Pyongyang. Until today, there has been no public pledge from North Korea to dismantle them, or to allow inspectors to see them, or even to disclose where they are kept.
Work continues daily in the country’s radiochemistry lab near Yongbyon, where plutonium for new bombs is extracted from spent fuel rods. Just across a small river from the lab, testing continues on a 20-megawatt reactor capable of producing nuclear fuel for scores of additional bombs.
The facilities are among hundreds that exist across a North Korean weapons complex that has shown itself capable not only of making sophisticated nuclear and chemical weapons, but also of expertly hiding them from public view. It is why weapons experts around the world expressed astonishment Wednesday at President Trump’s claim that the danger posed by Pyongyang’s decades-long weapons buildup had been effectively eliminated — that there was, as Trump wrote in a Twitter posting, “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
“North Korea’s capabilities today are no different than they were a week ago,” said Robert Einhorn, a Brookings Institution scholar and formerly a State Department arms-control official under Republican and Democratic administrations. Einhorn, who sat across the table from North Korean negotiators during previous talks on restraining the country’s missile program, said the elimination of the North Korean nuclear threat had occurred so far only within a “parallel universe” inside the president’s mind.
After Tuesday’s summit, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said the country would “abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action” during talks aimed at achieving “peace, stability and denuclearization” of the entire Korean Peninsula. But the statement made no specific pledges about the destruction of existing weapons or the dismantling of the sprawling network of factories and laboratories for making new ones.
Among veteran North Korea watchers, there remains deep skepticism that Kim will ever consent to giving up his entire nuclear arsenal, the singular asset that compelled a U.S. president to travel halfway around the world to meet the leader of one of the world’s most repressive and economically backward states.
“The hesitation you hear in the voices of experts is, there’s a small chance that this time is different,” said Wolfsthal, now director of the Washington-based Nuclear Crisis Group. “On the other hand, we’ve been doing this dance with North Korea for 25 to 30 years. They’ve achieved a lot because of their nuclear program. It could be possible that they’re going to give some of it up, but it’s not going to happen in the blink of an eye.”