North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Gambit Signals Trouble Ahead and the Need for Active U.S Engagement with Pyongyang

By Daryl G. Kimball

Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama is learning the hard way that the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea has violated nearly every nonproliferation rule on the books and then some. ACA’s October 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Report Card gave North Korea a grade of “F,” but as we cautioned, Washington and other capitals need to resume the stalled Six-Party denuclearization process to prevent the North Korean situation from worsening still further.

Indeed, with former Los Alamos Lab Director Siegfried Hecker now reporting that he was shown a new North Korean pilot uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, the stakes in the slow-moving crisis are higher. Not only might North Korea resume the separation of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for weapons, but there is now the prospect it could build nuclear weapons via the uranium route in the years ahead.

The situation demands that the United States and China must actively and directly reengage North Korea in talks aimed at containing and verifiably freezing the North’s bomb program.

We’ve seen this behavior before. In each of the past three major nuclear-related crises in 1994, 2002, and 2006, North Korea has raised the stakes with provocative actions. Each time, U.S.-led diplomacy, backed by sanctions, has led to agreements involving food aid, fuel, and offers of normalized relations in exchange for verifiable constraints on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.  (See  a chronology of U.S.-DPRK nuclear and missile diplomacy.)

Since there is no viable or prudent pre-emptive strike option and punitive sanctions alone cannot stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile buildup, the latest crisis requires a renewed diplomatic push, led by Washington, combined with the implementation of more effective economic, military, and political sanctions that have the full support of North Korea’s main trading partner, China.

Containing combined North Korean plutonium AND uranium enrichment programs will likely be even more difficult this time around. North Korea’s leadership is difficult to deal with for sure. But it is imperative that U.S. leads talks aimed at freezing and then verifiably dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program without further delay.

For now, North Korea possesses fissile material for fewer than a dozen bombs. It is not yet capable of delivering working nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles. It would take several years of uranium enrichment activity and still more testing to develop deliverable nuclear devices utilizing enriched uranium. Such a threat is still deterrable without the United States or other countries resorting to military threats.

But if left unchecked, North Korea can and will separate more plutonium (at a rate of about one bomb per year) and conduct more nuclear tests. With a pilot enrichment facility, it could theoretically produce small amounts of enriched uranium, perhaps to bomb-grade levels, perhaps within the next couple of years.

To date, the Obama administration has not done enough to re-engage Pyongyang following the 2008 impasse over the verification of North Korea’s denuclearization.

As Leon Sigal writes in the current issue of Arms Control Today, “instead of moving to resume talks, the administration sustained the suspension of promised energy aid by South Korea that President George W. Bush endorsed just before he stepped down. It has now matched the Bush record of holding just one high-level meeting with Pyongyang in its first 21 months in office, and it still speaks of ‘strategic patience’ as if the pressure of sanctions and isolation will somehow make North Korea relent. Nothing of the sort has transpired.”

In response, the North stopped disabling its plutonium facilities at Yongbyon and conducted a missile and in May 2009 a second nuclear test, then reprocessed the spent fuel removed from its reactor during the disabling to extract another bomb’s worth of plutonium. And as we now know, it has built a pilot uranium centrifuge facility.

Now, U.S. diplomats have again been deployed to reassure allies in the region. International condemnation will surely be strong, swift, and universal. The UN Security Council will likely call for enhancing the implementation of the existing set of North Korea sanctions.

But history shows that punitive sanctions and stern lectures will not by themselves halt North Korea’s nuclear activities or force the collapse of the already-isolated regime.

As he has done with his policy toward Iran, Obama must reject the false ideology that dialogue with adversaries is a reward for bad behavior. Rather than waiting in vain for North Korea to return to the Six-Party negotiating table while it improves its nuclear and missile capabilities, Obama should authorize official and non-official direct talks with senior North Korean officials to gather facts, and resolve differences regarding the implementation of the Six-Party agreement.

Most importantly, such talks are needed not only to clarify the costs of further defiance, but also to highlight the benefits of cooperation. The United States must outline, again and in detail, the security assurances, trade benefits, and energy support that the U.S. and other regional allies would be prepared to provide if North Korea once again halted its nuclear and missile programs, ended its proliferation behavior, and dismantled its nuclear complex.

China must also step up and exert its diplomatic and economic influence to rein in the North’s provocative behavior.

Without bold U.S. and Chinese diplomatic leadership to contain proliferation in North Korea as well as steps that would strengthen the global nonproliferation system Pyongyang’s latest nuclear gambit may, in the years ahead, become another nuclear proliferation tipping point.

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One Response to North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Gambit Signals Trouble Ahead and the Need for Active U.S Engagement with Pyongyang

  1. Pingback: Surprise! North Korea Unveils a Huge New Uranium Plant [Updated] | Danger Room | Wired

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