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The deeper problem with pressuring North Korea versus Iran: tunnels

North Korean commuters ride up and down a deep tunnel into a subway station in Pyongyang, North Korea in this Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008 photo.
AP Photo/David Guttenfelder
North Korea knows how to bore.
  • Steve Mollman
By Steve Mollman

Weekend editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Donald Trump essentially tore up the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday (May 8), as he promised he would. Many experts warned the move would complicate his planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who they argue will now have less reason to trust any agreement with the US. Trump seems to think the Iran move will give him more, not less, leverage over Kim, because it shows he’s serious about his willingness to walk away from any deal he deems inadequate.

But there’s a deeper problem with North Korea: tunnels. The mountainous country is probably the most-tunneled nation in the world. The Kim regime has had well over half a century to build extensive mazes of underground passageways and facilities. And because the 1950-53 war never concluded with a peace treaty, it’s had plenty of reason to do so.

That means if North Korea wants to hide weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, biological—or related facilities it no doubt can. North Korea has long been one of the most secretive nations in the world, making intelligence gathering a difficult task. Combine that with its network of tunnels, and the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (sometimes referred to as “CVID”) that Trump demands becomes exceedingly difficult to, well, verify. It’s unclear how many nuclear warheads North Korea possesses, with estimates varying (paywall) even among US agencies—the Defense Intelligence Agency puts it at about 60, the CIA 20.

One of Trump’s chief complaints with the Iran nuclear deal is that it makes verification difficult. In agreeing to the deal, Iran allowed international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions; Trump said Tuesday that the deal’s “inspection provisions lack adequate mechanisms to prevent, detect, and punish cheating, and don’t even have the unqualified right to inspect many important locations, including military facilities.”

In the case of North Korea, even knowing about the existence of facilities and weapons is an issue. Iran has built tunnels, too—helped along by experts sent by Pyongyang—but nowhere near what the Kim family regime has long had at its disposal.

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