WASHINGTON – Preoccupied with domestic woes and high-stakes Mideast diplomacy, the Obama administration has little time these days to focus on the ominous signs that its enemy North Korea is advancing its nuclear weapons program.
Within the past two months the secretive nation has restarted a reactor that can produce plutonium for bombs. Recent satellite photos also appear to indicate new tunneling at its underground nuclear test site and major construction at its main missile launch site.
The Obama administration, like Congress, is deeply skeptical about negotiating with the North, which says it wants to restart aid-for-disarmament talks. The U.S. has opted to tighten sanctions on Kim Jong Un’s regime, while also pressing China to exert more pressure on its troublesome ally.
But Stephen Bosworth, the administration’s own first appointee as envoy to North Korea, and former Clinton administration negotiator Robert Gallucci, said the U.S. government has not had direct contact with a senior North Korean official for more than a year and that the current diplomatic impasse only buys time for Pyongyang to develop its nuclear program further.
The former envoys said that in informal talks last month, North Korean officials told them they are willing to negotiate about their nuclear weapons program. “Whatever risks might be associated with new talks, they are less than those that come with doing nothing,” Bosworth and Gallucci wrote Monday in the International New York Times.
Coming from Bosworth in particular, that is pointed criticism. On his watch, the administration’s engagement with Pyongyang was very cautious — a policy dubbed “strategic patience” — and actually drew criticism from then Sen. John Kerry who favored more active efforts to talk with the reclusive regime.
But the United States appears unlikely to re-enter talks with North Korea anytime soon, although Kerry, now secretary of state, has kept that possibility open if Pyongyang takes concrete steps to show it is serious about denuclearization.
For one thing, the administration has its hands full. On foreign policy, it is embroiled in diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war — adopting moderate stances that have rankled some of its allies in the Mideast. It is also fending off anger from allies in the West, such as Germany, France and Spain over spying allegations.
On the domestic front, President Barack Obama has lurched from a budget-standoff that led to a 16-day partial shutdown.
That leaves little time, or perhaps political appetite, to chance the administration’s arm at another round of diplomacy with Kim, whose government spoiled the last round in spring 2012 by launching a rocket into space — what the U.S. regarded as a test of ballistic missile technology that could potentially threaten America. Then this February, the North conducted an atomic test and later threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the U.S. when it led the international effort to tighten sanctions.
Now North Korea says it wants to restart multination nuclear talks, but is resisting any preconditions and is asking for the U.S. during those talks to conclude a peace treaty to replace the temporary armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
Bosworth and Gallucci are urging the administration to relax its requirement that “North Korea meet its demands before any dialogue begins.”
But they also say the North should take its own steps to build confidence: first by releasing Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen held in a North Korean prison for whom the administration has been willing to seek a pardon. Then they propose the North declare a moratorium on its nuclear tests, suspend operations at its main nuclear facility and allow international inspectors in.
The North, however, is moving in the opposite direction.
Around late August it is believed to have restarted a mothballed reactor that can produce enough plutonium in a year to make one bomb. Recent satellite imagery also appears to show it has expanded its uranium enrichment complex and has made preparations for future explosions at its remote nuclear test site. According to the latest imagery analyzed by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the North has also conducted major construction at its main missile launch site, including possible work on a new launch pad for mobile missiles.
That could all strengthen North Korea’s bargaining position, but make Washington even more unwilling to sit down and talk.