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With the latest act of war committed by North Korea–its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island–combined with Sunday’s news that North Korea may have revealed a new uranium processing facility to an American scientist, a short period of quiescence for the totalitarian state has ended.
The terrorizing of Yeonpyeong demands some kind of response, other than mere condemnation. Equally worrisome are the questions surrounding the uranium facility posted online by Stanford scientist Siegfried Hecker. The story signals that the Obama administration and its allies in Asia will have to take seriously the North’s ability to quickly increase its ability to stockpile weapons-grade uranium, should it upgrade this new plant.
As it undoubtedly hopes, North Korea can again not be ignored by Washington. But the real question is whether the U.S., Japan and South Korea have any new ideas for dealing with the fading Kim Jong Il before his youngest and least known son takes over. So far, the answer seems to be in the negative.
While the barrage against Yeonpyeong is rightfully gaining the most attention this week–due to its outrageous violation of all norms of international behavior–the new uranium plant may well be the more significant story. What little is known about it is worrisome. According to Mr. Hecker’s report, the facility contains 2,000 centrifuges, run by an “astonishingly modern” control room. The North Koreans claim the facility is already producing low-enriched uranium for a light-water reactor that Pyongyang vowed earlier this year to build. As Mr. Hecker and other experts noted, the facility could eventually, and likely easily, be converted to produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium.
It was Pyongyang’s claim back in 2003 that it was secretly enriching uranium that opened the latest phase of the North Korean nuclear crisis, leading directly to years of diplomatic horse-trading in the six party talks. Repeated North Korean violations of its commitments during those Talks, beginning with its breaking of the 1994 Agreed Framework pledge not to produce plutonium, resulted in the Bush administration providing numerous negotiating inducements and capitulations to demands by the North Korean government, such as removing it from the blacklist of states sponsoring terrorism. Clearly, the Kim regime now hopes to blackmail Washington, Seoul and Tokyo back to the table in a bid to gain concessions for agreeing to restrict the activities of this new uranium plant.
Since coming to office, the Obama administration has refused to “relitigate” older agreements, balking at giving further concessions to get the North to live up to its earlier promises. This has been the right move, but it has also meant very little activity at all on North Korea. Special envoy Stephen Bosworth has made several trips to the region, including to North Korea, and is back there this week to confer with allies on the new reports. But the six party talks have been in abeyance since the end of the Bush administration.
For many, that’s a good thing. The talks failed to slow Pyongyang’s nuclear program in any meaningful way, and instead became a charity session in which the North walked away with more than it came into the meetings with.
Perhaps because of the absence of six party talks, Kim Jong Il has tried to keep his regime in the news. Pyongyang ramped up its provocations this year, sinking the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March, killing 46 South Korean sailors. This followed another purported nuclear test, in May 2009, and a missile barrage launched in July the same year. Both South Korea and Japan have repeatedly been put on alert by North Korean acts, and relations between Pyongyang and Seoul have been all but on hold since the attack on the Cheonan.
After nearly a decade of the current crisis, the United States and its allies have failed in every approach they have taken to the North. They didn’t put enough pressure on Pyongyang for a long enough period of time to make a difference. And they have failed to impose costs on the North for transgressing declared red lines of conducting nuclear explosions or proliferating nuclear technology. For all the talk of both Republican and Democratic administrations that irreversible denuclearization of the North is their goal, the truth appears to be that Washington is simply trying to wait until the death of Kim Jong Il and hope that whoever succeeds him will prove more amenable to serious negotiations.
That hope is likely to be dashed once the state funeral for Kim Jong Il is over. There is little reason to suppose that Kim’s handpicked successor, third son Kim Jong Eun, will be any more willing to trade away the best leverage the North has, its nuclear capability. He will also need time to consolidate power after Kim senior dies. That means that the diplomats probably should forget about a new round of negotiations making any headway.
There are a few things that the Obama administration and its allies should be doing, however. The first is to agree that they will not enter into negotiations with Kim Jong Eun after he takes power unless North Korea carries out the agreements it has made under Kim senior. That means not sitting down to negotiate for the sake of trying to forge a good relationship with the new leader. Doing so will either give North Korea a blank check to make significant new demands as a way of showing the allies’ “goodwill,” or will raise expectations so high that they can only come crashing down, thereby making it harder to have any type of dialogue with Pyongyang. If Kim Jong Eun wants to change North Korea’s course and make meaningful approaches to its neighbors, we’ll know.
Second, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo should agree that, if they do re-enter negotiations with North Korea, it not only won’t be under the aegis of the six party talks, but they also won’t include China. Beijing has consistently disappointed observers who hoped it would play a responsible role in putting pressure on North Korea.
From its refusal to support meaningful sanctions to its propping up of the North Korean economy, China has proved that it does not share the same goals as the liberal members of the Six Party group. Why continue the charade of expecting Chinese help only to be continuously disappointed?
Finally, the U.S., South Korea and China have to do some serious post-Kim Jong Il planning. Trilateral discussions are not enough and will leave all three capitals scrambling to respond the day after Kim’s death. Working groups should be set up to sketch out military, political, economic and humanitarian plans. The most likely contingencies, including strife arising from internal jockeying over power, a leadership collapse and refugee exodus, should all be planned for.
This week’s revelations about yet another nuclear program should not blind us to the long-term challenges of maintaining stability in a post-Kim world and reconstructing North Korea. Common sense will be the best guide to whether a new era in Korean history has arrived, or whether we should simply refuse to be baited. In any case, Washington and its partners should finally find the resolve to hold North Korea accountable for its actions.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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