SEOUL – If the international community’s main goal is to push North Korea toward denuclearization, does the fact that Pyongyang is racing in precisely the opposite direction suggest a fundamental policy failure?
The question has taken on added urgency after a succession of monthly warnings sounded by satellite imagery analysis that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is gathering momentum.
In August, images suggested it had doubled the uranium enrichment capacity of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. In September, satellite photos indicated the North had re-started the plutonium reactor that provided fissile material for at least two of its three nuclear tests, and just last week they pointed to preparatory work for another detonation at the country’s nuclear test site.
“Pyongyang is moving ahead on all nuclear fronts,” said U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a leading expert on North Korea’s weapons drive.
Since coming to power in late 2011 after the death of his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has overseen a successful long-range rocket launch and the country’s third — and largest — nuclear test.
If there is clear agreement on where the North is heading, there is little consensus on how best to stop it from getting there. The key question for the global community is the same as it has always been — whether to engage with Pyongyang or not.
Both North Korea and its main ally, China, want a return to six-party talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula that also include South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States. Washington and Seoul are adamant that Pyongyang must first demonstrate a commitment to scrapping its nuclear program, which it has repeatedly stated it has no intention of abandoning.
The result is an almost total impasse at a time when North Korea is making possibly its greatest strides toward achieving a credible nuclear threat.
“There is no diplomatic mechanism in place today that offers any prospect for slowing or stopping the North’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs,” former senior U.S. State Department official Evans Revere said in a paper published this month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “The road to further development of these programs by North Korea is now wide open, and Pyongyang is taking it.”
Supporters of the principle of no substantive dialogue without prior progress on denuclearization argue that to do otherwise would be tantamount to accepting the North’s recent progress toward nuclear statehood.
“Returning to talks now . . . would allow North Korea to have reset the table for negotiations in a way that undercuts the goals of North Korean nuclear disarmament,” said Paul Haenle, a former U.S. representative at the six-party talks.
At the same time, Haenle, now director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, noted that dialogue with Pyongyang in the past at least had the merit of slowing down its weaponization program.
The brakes have clearly been taken off since the last six-party talks in December 2008, with the North conducting two nuclear tests, revealing a uranium enrichment facility and putting a satellite in orbit via a launch widely seen as a ballistic missile test.
International sanctions have been expanded, yet despite increased cooperation from China they still lack the intensity to present North Korea with a choice between nuclear weapons and economic survival.
Barring a sudden implosion of the regime, Revere believes talks are the only real option — and at the very highest level. “If the goal is to convince North Korea to implement its denuclearization commitments, nothing short of a dialogue with the North’s leader or his inner circle is likely to achieve this,” he said.
Nearly two years after taking power, the youthful Kim remains something of a mystery, although most experts agree he has successfully negotiated the tricky transition.
Initial hopes that he had a reformist bent have since withered, but Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea watcher and a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, believes Kim will have to take risks spurned by his father, Kim Jong Il, if he wants to stay in power.
Kim Jong Il was nearly 60 by the time he had consolidated his leadership after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. The North’s economy was already in dire straits, but reform carried risks for stability and Lankov argued that Kim Jong Il gambled on the system outlasting him even if he did nothing.
“Dying a natural death was Kim Jong Il’s major strategic goal, and he achieved it,” said Lankov.
By contrast, the latest heir in the Kim dynasty, whose exact age is disputed, will have to gamble on some economic reforms if he wants to remain in power into his old age. But reforming such a tightly controlled economy risks destabilizing the Kim dynasty’s hold on power and coul/d usher in a period of national vulnerability that the regime believes is best negotiated with a nuclear deterrent.
“The bad news is that a reforming North Korea will remain nuclear,” Lankov told a recent conference on the North held in Seoul. “The North Korean regime believes nukes are important precisely because reforms make them less stable.”