U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Tuesday that he’s open to talks with North Korea, and that he’s been chatting with China about how to deal with possible threats in the region – including how to secure North Korea’s arsenal in the event of regime collapse.
“The most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons that they have already developed and ensuring that nothing falls into the hands of people who we would not want to have it. We’ve had conversations with the Chinese about how that might be done,” Tillerson said. The White House on Wednesday also noted that it disagreed with Tillerson and would set some conditions on any talks with North Korea.
But talks aside, securing North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a regime collapse could be a tall order, according to some experts.
The problem, according to Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is that no one really knows exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea has or where exactly they are.
“I kind of suspect that only Kim Jong Un and a few of his close advisers know that answer,” he said.
But there are estimates.
How big is the arsenal?
North Korea has produced enough fissile material for 20 nuclear weapons, according to a September 2017 estimate of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which estimates worldwide nuclear stockpiles and produces the “Doomsday Clock” among other activities. Other guesses are higher.
READ MORE: How did North Korea get nuclear weapons?
“I think right now, the current ballpark figure is between 30 and 60 nuclear weapons,” said Cotton. North Korea experts arrive at these estimates because they have some idea of how much plutonium North Korea can make at its nuclear plants and how much it takes to make a weapon. They don’t really know how much uranium North Korea can produce though.
One U.S. government estimate earlier this year suggested that the country might be producing enough nuclear material each year to build 12 additional nuclear weapons, according to media reports.
WATCH: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed on Dec. 12 to develop more nuclear weapons during a massive military munitions conference in Pyongyang.
Hunting for nukes
Finding them is tricky too.
To begin with, nuclear weapons aren’t very big. The ones that have featured in North Korean propaganda are small enough to fit on a dinner table, said Cotton.
“The warheads themselves are quite small and could potentially be very hard to find,” he said.
Some are likely at missile bases, he thinks. These are spread around the country, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ research. Some are near enough to the Chinese border that the Chinese army could in theory get there quickly.
Other weapons might be on mobile missile platforms, which are designed to move around undetected and hide in caves and other such places. These would be tougher to find.
“Maybe we could get lucky and someone high up in the military who was in charge of these weapons and knows where they all are might come over to our side,” he said.
Paul Meyer, a former Canadian diplomat and a fellow in international security at Simon Fraser University, agrees that this would be the best possible outcome.
“Without that sort of insider help, it would be extremely hard,” he said. “The North Koreans are famous for their tunnelling ability and they’ve been able to secure their missile programs pretty successfully. I think the same might be said for any nuclear weapons that they’ve developed.”
Although he believes that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is closer to a dozen weapons, “These are tremendously devastating weapons and no power is going to want to have them out there unaccounted for and unsecured.”
Any attempt to secure the weapons would also have to try to secure nuclear plants, production facilities, and especially, all fissile material, said Cotton. “We don’t know how much is sitting in some North Korean nuclear weapons fabrication facility, maybe waiting to go into a nuclear weapon.”
This material is harder to keep track of and even more portable than a weapon – a couple of kilograms of enriched uranium might be “a block probably about the size of an iPhone or so” – and so could be easily smuggled or sold to unsavoury people, who could turn it into a bomb.
Meyer believes that this scenario is very far away, as the North Korean regime is unlikely to fall anytime soon. To him, Tillerson’s remarks were more about reassuring China than about serious planning for North Korea’s collapse.
“Clearly, there’s an intention to reassure China that they would not be strategically disadvantaged or threatened by U.S. military action in North Korea,” he said.
Cotton thinks that it’s important to plan though. If the regime fell, he would be concerned about army units running around with nukes, perhaps trying to take over, or just as bad – selling them to other countries or to terrorist groups.
Since there’s a high possibility that any unsecured nuclear weapons might get into China, it just makes sense to involve the Chinese in contingency planning, he said. “The Chinese don’t want these nuclear weapons loose, any more than we do.”
“They’re very destructive weapons. We don’t even like North Korea having them.”
— With files from the Associated Press