Twice in a month Pyongyang has used provocations in an attempt to leverage the United States and South Korea away from their pressure tactics, including U.N. sanctions, against North Korea. This week, the North Korean regime dangerously escalated tensions by attacking a South Korean island in the first artillery strike since the Korean War.
Earlier this month, Pyongyang disclosed an extensive uranium enrichment facility to undermine support for international sanctions on the North Korean regime by raising fears of a nuclear breakout. Critics of U.N. sanctions will use both provocations to advocate for a hasty return to the six-party talks to prevent an expanded North Korea nuclear arsenal.
The Obama Administration should resist such advice and maintain the current two-track policy of pressure and conditional engagement toward North Korea. The US should, however, press the international community to redress shortfalls in the current sanctions program to raise the cost to Pyongyang for yet another violation of U.N. resolutions.
Artillery attack another unprovoked act of war
The situation on the Korean Peninsula following the North’s artillery attack is tense but unlikely to lead to war. Seoul will be constrained by all the same factors that hindered a strong South Korean response to North Korea’s March 26 attack on the Cheonan naval ship.
South Korea fears that even a limited retaliatory attack could degenerate into an all-out conflagration. As with the attack on a South Korean ship earlier this year, Seoul and Washington realize how limited their military options are and how little leverage they have on North Korea.
Disclosure Validates Earlier US Assertions
During a visit to the Yongbyon nuclear facility, Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, was shown an extensive array of 2,000 centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium. The US scientist commented that he was stunned by the size and sophistication of the facility, which exceeded all predictions of North Korean progress on a uranium program.
Successive US Administrations have asserted that North Korea began a uranium-based nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. Indeed, in both 1999 and 2000, the Clinton Administration was unable to certify to Congress that North Korea was not pursuing uranium-enrichment capability. The US intelligence community was unanimous in its 2002 assessment that North Korea had an active program to acquire materials for enriching sufficient uranium to develop weapons.
However, critics charged that the US intelligence assessments were merely partisan fabrications of the Bush Administration. Dr. Hecker’s direct observations of the uranium enrichment facility provide irrefutable evidence of Pyongyang’s continuing efforts to develop parallel uranium- and plutonium-based paths to a nuclear arsenal.
Uranium facility heightens proliferation risks
Dr. Hecker concluded that the centrifuges could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Lee Un-chul, a nuclear scientist at Seoul National University, estimated that Pyongyang could produce one to two uranium weapons per year using 2,000 centrifuges. Capability would be even greater if North Korea has other undetected uranium enrichment facilities.
The newly identified uranium facility at Yongbyon not only provides North Korea with greater capabilities for increasing its nuclear weapons arsenal but also increases the risk of proliferating fissile material and nuclear technology. A U.N. task force concluded earlier this year that North Korea has continued to provide missiles, components, and technology to Iran and Syria since the imposition of U.N. sanctions.
Continued need for pressure tactics
North Korea’s ability to expand its nuclear weapons programs despite international pressure will resurrect debate over the efficacy of sanctions. This debate is usually depicted in binary fashion—i.e., whether the US should use pressure or engagement. The reality, of course, is that sanctions and engagement—along with economic assistance, military deterrence, alliances, and public diplomacy—are all diplomatic tools to influence the negotiating behavior of the other side.
This article was first published byu the Heritage Foundation on November 24, 2010.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
10 posts so far.