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Why North Korea may give up nuclear crown jewel at Trump summit

Moon Chung-in, a special adviser for foreign affairs and national security to South Korea President Moon Jae-in, speaks during an interview in Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 15, 2019. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The dismantlement of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center has emerged in recent months as a potential outcome from a second summit between the leaders planned for Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korea’s president, told Bloomberg last week that Kim had agreed to close the plant and allow inspectors — possibly giving the US valuable insights into Kim’s weapons programs.

A deal to shutter Yongbyon would represent Trump’s first tangible victory toward reducing Kim’s nuclear capacity since he granted an unprecedented meeting last June — even though North Korea has made similar promises before. The move could potentially deprive Kim of enough plutonium to make roughly one atomic bomb a year, and possibly other materials needed to make smaller, more powerful nuclear weapons.


Still, that would fall far short of the “final, fully verified denuclearization” that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and other Trump administration officials have demanded. Even if he closes Yongbyon, arms control experts say Kim probably has at least one other secret plant that can produce enough uranium to make as many as six nuclear bombs a year.

Chun Yungwoo, a former South Korean nuclear envoy who helped broker one of the deals to shut Yongbyon, said the regime has shifted its focus to building better warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the U.S. North Korea probably has enough fissile material to continue most of its nuclear weapons program, even if it closed all its other fuel-production facilities, Chun said.

“Ten years ago, that was our main concern,” he said. “The relative value of Yongbyon and the enrichment plants outside of Yongbyon is now negligible.”

Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that he was in “ no rush whatsoever” to reach a deal with Kim because he has a strong relationship with the North Korean leader and that sanctions against the country remained in place while the two sides talk. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was traveling to Hanoi to prepare for the summit, the State Department said.

Yongbyon, located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital, carries symbolic value as the long-time crown jewel of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. First constructed in 1979, its reactor has produced little electricity, but supplied the plutonium and research facilities needed for North Korea to test its first atomic bomb in 2006.

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Kim Jong Un put Yongbyon back on the table in a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September, when he expressed a willingness to accept the “permanent dismantlement” of the plant in exchange for “corresponding measures” by the U.S. Moon Chung-in, the president’s adviser, said Kim also agreed during that meeting to “accept verification” of its demolition.