The 21 November revelations by Siegfried Hecker that North Korea is already operating a pilot uranium enrichment plant were instantly characterised by American officials and think-tank pundits as further, decisive evidence of North Korean perfidy. They interpreted the news as an opportunity to redouble efforts to apply UN sanctions and to criticise China for backing North Korea in the face of international pressure. One especially vacuous statement was issued by South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young who stated publicly that South Korea would consider redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons - weapons that have already been withdrawn by the United States (in 1992) and dismantled!
In contrast to these hand-wringing and chest-thumping responses, Hecker concluded his report by arguing that "The only hope appears to be engagement."
"The United States and its partners," he wrote, "should respond to the latest nuclear developments so as to encourage Pyongyang to finally pursue nuclear electricity in lieu of the bomb."
Almost none of the mainstream media coverage noted Hecker's conclusion (a noteworthy exception and exemplar of accurate reporting being Phil Stewart of Reuters) but concentrated instead on the shock value and apparent surprise of officialdom that North Korea had gone down this path, as exemplified in this New York Times article.
As South Korean Professor Moon Chung-in stated of the exclamations of surprise, "Washington and Seoul always fall into the pattern of looking at North Korea from their own negative perceptions. They are blinded by their own stereotypes, prejudices and inertia."
North Korean uranium enrichment aspirations
In reality, North Korea has made no secret of its interest in uranium enrichment over the years. Indeed, on my first trip to North Korea in September 1991, Kim Chol Ki, Director of Science and Technology Bureau, Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry, told me that they were researching uranium enrichment for a planned light water reactor, although at that stage, they intended to export the fuel to the former Soviet Union for enrichment for a reactor that the latter was to have supplied under a 1985 contract with North Korea.
The Soviet reactor was never built. Instead, the United States and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization began to construct a light water reactor on the site intended originally for the Soviet reactor, as a core element of the US-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework. This agreement did not include any ban on North Korean uranium enrichment, but instead focused on plutonium-related fuel cycle activities that the US negotiator at the time, Robert Galluci, believed could be monitored and verified, in contrast to uranium enrichment.
This agreement began to unravel in 1998, and about that time North Korea accelerated its efforts to acquire uranium enrichment technology from other states. The Bush Administration objected to this activity in 2002, leading to the unravelling of the Agreed Framework wherein North Korea's plutonium production capacity was frozen, to a new round of plutonium extraction, and then the 2006 and 2009 North Korean nuclear weapons tests.
In early 2009, North Korea announced that having a strong nuclear weapons capacity was more important to it than using nuclear threat to compel the United States to change its hostile policies towards North Korea. In April 2009, North Korea announced that it would develop its own light water reactor policy and, further, that it had begun and succeeded with experimental uranium enrichment.
This declaration demonstrated that far from forcing North Korea to capitulate to US-led sanctions, even sanctions backed by the UN Security Council, North Korea would proceed down the path of nuclear armament, and was willing and able to pay the price. Distracted by its role in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and by multiple domestic political and economic crises, the White House was unable to lead any realistic attempt to reactivate the moribund Six Party Talks.
At the same time, the new conservative South Korean government abandoned a long list of inter-Korean cooperation agreements and projects. North Korea responded in March 2010 by, in all probability, sinking the South Korean Cheonan warship, which in turn forced the Chinese to clarify their stance towards North Korea and its strategy to become a multi-generational nuclear state. Concerned that the security situation in the Korean Peninsula was spinning out of control, China responded quickly, and accelerated its military, political, and economic support for North Korea, making it clear that the US-led strategy of isolating North Korea and shaming its leadership was not only not working, but was actually counter-productive.
New North Korean strategic goal: expose American powerlessness
Having secured unambiguous Chinese backing, North Korea is now able to patiently test American intention. It appears that North Korea's strategic goal is to systematically expose the United States' inability to bring it to heel now that the radical Republican leadership has taken control of the US House of Representatives, further reducing the White House's options to move beyond the ineffective strategy of nuclear threat and military containment, sanctions, and resolute backing of South Korea's anti-North Korea strategy, whatever the costs.