Trust is essential in getting North Korea to denuclearise, says former US secretary of energy

Former United States secretary of energy Ernest Moniz will be in Singapore, South Korea and Japan this week to discuss nuclear and energy issues with government officials. He was an architect of the 2015 deal to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - To get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, trust between all sides needs to be built step by step, with verification at every turn, said former United States secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, an architect of the 2015 deal to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.

"There's got to be a lot of trust all around. We learnt in the Iran negotiations that trust is best built upon solemn agreements and verification," said Dr Moniz, who is now the co-chair and chief executive of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) non-profit group.

North Korea has blamed the US for the deadlock in negotiations, saying that its focus on strict enforcement of sanctions is deepening Pyongyang's mistrust. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this Sunday.

Dr Moniz, who is in Singapore, South Korea and Japan this week to discuss nuclear issues with officials, told The Straits Times in an interview on Tuesday (Oct 2): "What matters is sitting down in the room with the appropriate diplomats and maybe scientists and technologists, and working out a detailed agreement."

Dr Moniz, a nuclear physicist who was energy secretary in the Obama administration from May 2013 to January 2017, reckoned that the next step was for North Korea to stop producing new material for more bombs, whether it is high enriched uranium or plutonium.

"For that we need inspectors. North Korea, step by step, is going to have to provide more and more access, because North Korea already has nuclear weapons and we don't know how many ," he said.

North Korea has to view such verification as being in its own interests, and negotiators will have to address the benefits to North Korea with each step, he said.

While the dismantling of the nuclear programme has to be done by the North Koreans, it can be conducted in collaboration with the international community which can provide financial, technical and human resources, said Dr Moniz.

Such collaboration builds trust and relationships between North Korea and the international community, he said. It also keeps North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers engaged by enlisting them to do the work of denuclearisation.

But the process will take a number of years, "in the double digits", he added.

North Korea, however, is not the only nuclear risk in the world today, said Dr Moniz, whose NTI group aims to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and reduce nuclear risks.

"The risk of a nuclear weapon being used is higher today than any time since the Cuban missile crisis."

Dr Moniz cited two reasons. First, "very bad communication" in three situations has amplified the risks. The situations are that between the US, Europe and Russia; between India and Pakistan; and between North Korea and its neighbours .

Second, new threats like cyber attacks have emerged. "Cyber attacks can become a major destabilising issue if the nuclear weapons command and control systems are not viewed as secure," he said.

Singapore can play an important role in global efforts to strengthen nuclear security despite not having nuclear energy or nuclear weapons, he added.

For instance, Singapore is keen to help Vietnam - which is interested in developing nuclear energy - build up a trained workforce and put in proper regulations, he said.

Another way Singapore can contribute is to speak up for international norms and advance international agreements, said Dr Moniz.

The upcoming 2020 review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which curbs the spread of nuclear weapons, is one such opportunity.

"Singapore has always been a very, very strong supporter of the NPT," he said, adding that it can help facilitate dialogue on the review.

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