North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il may be gone, but the dangers posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs persist. Although the long-term future of the regime under the new young ruler, Kim Jong Un, remains uncertain, it is clearly in the United States’ interest to get the much-delayed denuclearization process back on track.
A third round of U.S.-North Korean bilateral talks was to have been held in December but was delayed as news of the elder Kim’s demise broke. Those talks were expected to lead to U.S. food assistance to the impoverished North and the renewal of six-party negotiations addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Now, as the symbolically important 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung approaches, it is vital that President Barack Obama re-engage the North Korean regime and re-establish a verifiable freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs before they take yet another turn for the worse. Pyongyang has publicly and privately said it would be willing to impose such a freeze in return for resuming the six-party talks.
Given that further international sanctions and isolation will not alter the North’s behavior or precipitate “regime change,” Republicans and Democrats interested in protecting U.S. and international security have an obligation to put election-year politics aside and support the administration’s efforts to restart the nuclear talks.
Although North Korea’s leaders may not be willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapons program altogether, they still appear to be willing to abandon portions of it in exchange for improved relations with the United States and the possibility of much-needed investment from South Korea. For Washington and its allies in Asia, it is essential that North Korea’s nuclear program remain as limited as possible.
For now, North Korea possesses enough plutonium for fewer than a dozen bombs, but if left unchecked, it could soon amass a larger and more deadly arsenal. A successful, third nuclear weapons test explosion could allow North Korea to prove a miniaturized warhead design that might be used to arm short- or medium-range ballistic missiles.
Although North Korea has a substantial arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles, its two intercontinental-range Taepo Dong-2 tests ended in failure. Further tests of North Korean long-range ballistic missiles, if successful, would likely expand Pyongyang’s nuclear reach.
As part of the six-party denuclearization process, North Korea shut down its plutonium-production facility at Yongbyon in July 2007, but it has built centrifuge arrays that could be improved and expanded to enable it to generate enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one to two bombs per year.
Siegfreid Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was shown “astonishingly modern” uranium-enrichment facilities during his November 2010 tour of the Yongbyon complex. Hecker believes the centrifuges are probably configured to make low-enriched uranium for a light-water power reactor now under construction. These centrifuges, however, could be converted to produce HEU fuel, and North Korea probably has additional centrifuges at other locations.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have not visited Yongbyon since 2009, when North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks. It is essential that the agency be allowed to return to verify that North Korea is not enriching uranium to weapons grade at Yongbyon and to learn more about Pyongyang’s enrichment work.
For these reasons and others, Obama should seize—or create—the opportunity to resume talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. To start, the goal should be to persuade North Korea to agree to steps it previously has taken: halting plutonium production and uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, refraining from further nuclear test explosions and medium- and long-range ballistic missile flight tests, and allowing IAEA inspectors back into the country.
Once these steps are in place, Washington should press for wider IAEA inspections, guarantees that North Korea has suspended all nuclear and missile exports, and its return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state.
North Korea will likely seek fuel and food supplies and the normalization of relations in exchange for nuclear restraint. If so, that is a bargain worth making, given the risks.
It also is likely that Pyongyang’s leaders will revive their request for outside assistance for the construction of a nuclear power reactor. This would be politically risky and unwise for the United States to agree to do, but is something that China or Russia might provide as a further inducement for North Korean denuclearization.
As South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Jan. 2, the Korean peninsula is “at a turning point.” Doing nothing in the face of the risk of new and more dangerous North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities is not an option. The only option that has succeeded in limiting North Korea’s nuclear and missile potential over the years has been U.S.-led disarmament diplomacy. Now is the time to act. ACT