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Reaching a deal on Korean Peninsula will require a scarce commodity: trust


That will not be easy.

The North Koreans, like expert magicians, have shown themselves adept at making the world think their nuclear programme is disappearing, when it is actually just hiding backstage. Kim’s test-site performance feels all too familiar to a stunt his father, Kim Jong-il, pulled a decade ago.

Back then, Pyongyang blew up the cooling tower at the country’s main nuclear reactor, with CNN cameras dutifully broadcasting it to Washington. That, too, was supposed to be a symbolic act to show Pyongyang’s commitment to giving up its nuclear programme. A year later, Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test.

The verification problem was one key reason why the first major attempt at denuclearisation failed, too.

In 1994, the Clinton Administration struck a deal with Pyongyang under which the US would build two nuclear reactors for North Korea (which could not easily produce the material necessary to make bombs) in return for the closure of its existing facilities (which could) and an end to its weapons development.

The deal broke apart in the early 2000s amid mutual recriminations. The causes of the collapse were complex, but at its core was uncertainty over whether North Korea was abiding by its agreement. Washington had become convinced Pyongyang was cheating by secretly continuing its nuclear weapons programme. Making matters worse, the North Koreans bred suspicion by being uncooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was tasked with monitoring aspects of Pyongyang’s compliance.

To make any new deal work, Kim will have to pull the curtain away from his entire nuclear programme. Inspectors will have to be allowed into every nook and cranny. There is no guarantee Pyongyang is going to be willing to allow this — any sovereign state would be troubled by such a prospect. But even if it did, being certain — absolutely certain — Kim is not hiding something in an unknown, undisclosed facility somewhere would be extremely difficult.

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