Sunday, November 21, 2010

A More Pressing Nuclear Problem

While the Obama Administration is pushing for confirmation of that badly-flawed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, they might want to refocus on a far more pressing proliferation issue: North Korea's plans to expand its nuclear arsenal, or produce more powerful atomic weapons.

According to The New York Times, Pyongyang unveiled a "vast" new uranium enrichment facility during a visit by an American nuclear scientist last week. Built over the past year, the facility will allow North Korea to produce nuclear weapons in far larger quantities, or build bombs that are far more destructive.

The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed, and that were operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.

American officials know that the plant did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country. The speed with which it was built strongly suggests that the impoverished, isolated country, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006, had foreign help and evaded strict newUnited Nations Security Council sanctions imposed to punish its rejection of international controls.

A delegation of American experts that included Dr. Hecker has already reported thatit confirmed satellite photographic evidence of another new advance by the North — a light-water reactor being built on the site of a facility the country had dismantled as part of an agreement with the international community to end its nuclear weapons program.

Dr. Hecker told the Times he was not allowed to take pictures inside the new facility, or verify DPRK claims that the processing plant is already producing low-enriched uranium. He also expressed doubts as to whether North Korea "has the technology" to complete the new light-water reactor at Yongbyon.

Still, the new processing complex and the reactor project represent a significant advance--and deliberate provocation--by Pyongyang. David Sanger, the Times reporter who wrote today's article, suggests the activity might represent a ploy, something North Korea might be willing to give up (in return for U.S. concessions) during future nuclear talks.

With all due respect to Mr. Sanger, the "ploy" scenario represents a very distant possibility--at best. Construction of the enrichment plant and the light-water reactor represent national-level programs for the cash-starved communist state. Even with foreign assistance (most assuredly from Iran), the DPRK had to commit badly-needed resources to the project. Yet, according to the Times--and spin-meisters in the White House--Pyongyang might be willing to give it all up, if Washington will make the right counter-offer.

Call us skeptical. Kim Jong-il and his heir, Kim Jong un, view North Korea's nuclear arsenal as the guarantor of state survival. With the opportunity to build more (or more powerful) nukes--and sell them to client states like Iran--Pyongyang has a powerful disincentive to keep the new facilities off the bargaining table. Or, if North Korea is interested in negotiating, they would demand an extraordinarily high "price" for surrendering those facilities. And, since the last American nukes were withdrawn from South Korea almost 20 years ago, the DPRK might demand a complete withdrawal of U.S. conventional forces from the peninsula, in exchange for shuttering the enrichment plant and the light-water reactor.

But such demands are still a ways down the road. For now, North Korea will focus on getting the facilities operational, and upgrading their nuclear arsenal. It's a stunning reminder that START isn't the most serious nuclear issue facing the U.S.; the "honor" is reserved for states like North Korea that are (now) capable of producing nukes on a much larger scale, and sharing them with allies like Iran. The Obama Administration is currently briefing allies on these latest developments, but the real key is developing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with this problem.

Given today's revelations from the North Korea, it's clear that START can wait. We should devote that "laser-like" focus to Pyongyang's new nuclear facilities and attempts to expand its arsenal.

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