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Signs of Progress on North Korean Nuclear Problem

Arms Control NOW

North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex (AP).

By Daryl G. Kimball

Today, the U.S. State Department announced that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has agreed to implement a moratorium on nuclear weapon test explosions, long-range missile launches and other nuclear activities, including enrichment at its Yongbyon nuclear complex and to allow U.N. nuclear watchdog inspectors in to ensure compliance.

The State Department also said that the United States had agreed to finalize details of a proposed food aid package and to take other steps to improve bilateral ties. According to the State Department statement, the United States reaffirmed that the United States "... does not have hostile intent toward the DPRK and is prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality."

"The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today's announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these," said the Department's spokesperson Victoria Nuland in the Feb. 29 statement.

Concerns still remain, but the news, which follows a Feb. 23-24 round of exploratory U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks in Beijing, is clearly a very welcome and important development.

As I wrote in my column "Next Moves on North Korea" in Arms Control Today last month, "... 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."

Republicans and Democrats interested in protecting U.S. and international security have an obligation to put election-year politics aside and support the steps announced by the State Department today.

For Washington and its allies in Asia, it is essential that North Korea's nuclear program remain as limited as possible. As I noted in Arms Control Today:

  • "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."
  • "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."

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.

Today's announcement is an important step toward a verifiable freeze of the most worrisome North Korean nuclear activities. President Barack Obama and Amb. Glyn Davies--the U.S. point-man on the DPRK--need to maintain the momentum in the weeks and months ahead.