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Former Weapons Inspector Weighs In On What It Would Take To Denuclearize North Korea


Of course, the international community has been trying for decades to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Olli Heinonen has played a key role in the efforts to verify North Korea's promises to denuclearize. He was deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency that's responsible for monitoring nuclear activity worldwide.

Beginning in the 1980s, he visited North Korea more than 20 times to inspect facilities and report his findings. We reached him to discuss the steps involved in verifying and dismantling North Korea's nuclear complex. I began by asking him about his last visit to the country back in 2007 and the job he was there to do.

OLLI HEINONEN: The job was to - simply to monitor that the nuclear installations in North Korea were shut down and they didn't produce any fissile material - very simple task.

CORNISH: Tell us what some of your interactions were like. Were the North Korean officials you dealt with hostile? I mean, how open was this process?

HEINONEN: Actually, that was a very rare case that there were hostility. They were pretty much businesslike. And they follow exceptionally to the letter what had been agreed. And once the agreement was there, you were allowed to implement it, but you were confined to that box where the agreement was. So it's a kind of mixed bag.

CORNISH: We've heard in recent days that - people having some skepticism about whether or not North Korea would accept intrusive monitoring verification system of their nuclear program, even something like what was done in Iran. Based on your experience, do you think that's the case?

HEINONEN: I think that the doubts are warranted. But I think of this at the same time a new start. We need to go with the open mind. And now the most important is to do a much more detailed agreement - what to do, how to do, when to do and who does what.

The first requirement, in my view, should be a full, complete declaration from North Korea - what they have in their nuclear program, what is in civilian program, what is in the military program. Also, to provide a history - when did it start and where their installations, and then complete inventory of nuclear material of those places. This all needs to be on the table. And then we see from that is this now a genuine new start, and they are serious in denuclearization.

CORNISH: How confident are you that any of this will actually happen, based on what you've seen the last few days?

HEINONEN: Well, I think at this point in time, it looks very promising. And, you know, I have been going there for more than two decades. I see that this time, the North Korean attitude is quite different. They talk with a different language. They are much more open. And things like this elimination of the Punggye-ri test site shows that maybe this is a different start. But let's see. The taste is in the pudding, as they say.

CORNISH: What's the last couple of days been like for you? Do you have a sense of deja vu?

HEINONEN: (Laughter) A lot of that, thank you - a lot of that. But, you know, I take it as an open mind. I know that I have a great respect for Mr. Pompeo. I know that he's been working with this more than a - you know, one and half year. He has done these visits to North Korea, some of them in secrecy. So I think that there has been much more preparation and talks what we know in public. So therefore, I think that there's a chance for the new start. But the question is, is North Korea now going to bite the bullet, and will it implement its share - because without North Korea's cooperation, this is not going to be a success.

CORNISH: Olli Heinonen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HEINONEN: Thank you.

CORNISH: Olli Heinonen. He's a former deputy director general for the IAEA. He's currently senior adviser on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUAR BRAHEM'S "SUR L'INFINI BLEU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.