SINGAPORE: The chief weapons inspector who led the previous attempt to denuclearise North Korea warns that this time round the international community must ensure that no nuclear materials are left, not even for supposed civilian purposes.
“This is already the fourth time we’re trying to (denuclearise North Korea). We better get it right this time,” says Dr Olli Heinonen, former chief inspector of the international nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Dr Heinonen headed the inspection team in 2007 that went to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to monitor the Yongbyon facility, a key nuclear plant about 100 kilometres from the capital Pyongyang.
The inspections were part of a proposed peace deal under the Six-Party Talks, which comprised China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The agreement fell apart by 2008, however, and Pyongyang kicked out the weapons inspectors.
In a recent report, the nuclear watchdog warned that the Yongbyon facility is not only still operating, but has also been expanded and is likely to have provided fissile material for North Korea’s bombs.
And Dr Heinonen, who has been to the country over 20 times, says: “Better that plutonium and uranium are actually removed from North Korea – not only the weapons, but all the raw materials as well.”
Furthermore, he warns that the US’ goal of a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula must include disclosure by North Korea about its proliferation activities.
“We know that they most likely exported uranium hexafluoride to Libya, most likely to Pakistan as well, and then they had this project in Syria. So all these need to be put together,” he says.
Uranium hexafluoride is a key compound used in the process for enriching uranium, which in turn is used in nuclear weapons and reactors.
Dr Heinonen adds: “I know it’s going to be painful. These other countries probably wouldn’t like to hear about it, and North Korea might have difficulty in explaining, but it needs to be done.”
WHAT HE’D TELL TRUMP AND KIM
His comments come against the backdrop of a proposed second meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un this month.
The two met last year at a historic summit in Singapore, which was the first time a sitting US President had met a North Korean leader face to face.
Some commentators, however, have criticised that summit for being more for show than for content – that the US has fallen short of its denuclearisation goal, and so it must get tough on Pyongyang in this second meeting.
READ: Real progress needed at second Trump-Kim summit: Analysts
Asked by Channel NewsAsia what he would say to Mr Trump going into this summit, Dr Heinonen said: “I don’t think I’d be the right guy to advise him, but I think that one has to (hold) your line – set up clear objectives (for) what you want to accomplish.
“Tell your counterpart why you want to do it, justify it and tell them at the same time what you’re going to do in helping them to meet their obligations. So it has to be both ways. That’s how deals are done.”
And what would he say to Chairman Kim?
“I’d say that this is now the fourth time that we’re trying to solve this ... denuclearisation and nuclear problem. We’d better get it right this time. And you’re the key to helping this to happen.”
Dr Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards, is now a senior adviser on science and non-proliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a research institute based in Washington, D.C.
Watch the full exclusive interview on Channel NewsAsia’s Conversation With, on Friday, Feb 1, at 9pm (SIN/HK).