The DPRK may have greater nuclear capabilities than previously thought.
North Korea is nothing if not predictable. It has unveiled a new nuclear enrichment plant. The U.S. and its allies are now scrambling to respond.
Surely the latest development in the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea surprises no one.
If the issue weren’t so serious, it would be a comedy routine. The Obama administration came into office hoping to put the North on the back policy burner. Last year Pyongyang staged another nuclear test to remind America that it was still around.
The Republic of Korea’s conservative government reversed the “Sunshine Policy” of its predecessors, cutting off most subsidies for the DPRK. In March the North sank a South Korean warship. Supposedly tough-minded ROK President Lee Myung-bak did little more than whine. Rather than closing the Kaesong industrial development, which provides North Korea with much-needed hard currency, Seoul demanded an apology.
Apparently unable to resist the Sirens’ call for negotiations, President Lee recently announced that an apology was no longer necessary. All Pyongyang had to do was “show sincerity toward the Republic of Korea and to assume responsibility” for the sinking.
After sending an aircraft carrier to demonstrate its solidarity with the South, the Obama administration also began pressing for resumption of the Six-Party Talks, the so-far spectacularly unsuccessful nuclear negotiations. President Barack Obama said all that was necessary was for the DPRK to demonstrate “seriousness of purpose.”
Well, seriousness of purpose was demonstrated by Pyongyang, only the wrong kind.
The North recently began construction on a new light water nuclear reactor, apparently to replace the one previously decommissioned at Yongbyon. That was bad news, but remained only a future threat. More ominously, however, it now appears that North Korea is engaged in uranium enrichment.
The North invited Stanford University Professor Siegfried S. Hecker to visit its newest uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon. Hecker found a modern operation with 2000 centrifuges, apparently ready for business. He said the plant looked to be directed at nuclear power, but “the uranium enrichment facilities could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) bomb fuel.”
While the project’s capabilities may not meet the North Koreans’ claims, the facility was built quickly, since April 2009, when inspectors were last on site, and kept secret. This suggests that the DPRK may have greater nuclear capabilities than previously thought.
The Obama administration reacted with ill-disguised shock. An administration spokesman stated that the North’s behavior is “yet another provocative act of defiance.” Who would have imagined? The North Koreans defiant! So the State Department deployed its heaviest diplomatic artillery, sending a delegation to Asia to “begin to coordinate on a response to this news.” Undoubtedly “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is hiding in his underground bunker, fearful for his life.
The latest crisis is merely the latest rerun of an earlier show. The North has trashed previous agreements. The regime has never demonstrated a serious commitment to abandon weapons which have taken so much effort and expense to develop. And the West has never offered the North benefits anywhere close to the obvious gains for the North from becoming a nuclear state.
First is defense against any attempt at regime change. Pyongyang surely has noticed that the U.S. routinely bombs and invades non-nuclear powers, such as Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Washington does not similarly treat nuclear powers.
Second, no one would pay the slightest attention to North Korea absent its nuclear program. The country is an impoverished wreck; its people suffer persistent malnutrition and sometimes starve, often to death. North Koreans are better at trading drugs and counterfeiting dollars than at engaging in commerce. Kim Jong-il ends up on the front pages of the world’s newspapers only when he makes nuclear threats.
Third, nuclear threats are about all he has to try to extort money from his neighbors. He blusters at the South and rages against Japan. The People’s Republic of China he warns of collapse and chaos, followed by reunification with America’s ally, South Korea. Regional worries about an implosion of the DPRK are magnified by Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons.
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