“Stunning” was how Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, described North Korea’s new uranium-enrichment facility. While more sophisticated and extensive than previously believed, this plant is entirely consistent with 15 years of sustained effort by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to perfect its nuclear weapons program.
Indeed, media reports about a new enrichment plant surfaced as early as February 2009. Moreover, just a week before Hecker’s announcement, North Korea confirmed it was building a larger nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Pyongyang’s prior effort (in Syria) to replace its existing but aged reactor was frustrated when Israel bombed it in September 2007.
Seoul’s minister of defense is so concerned, he has suggested deploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea for the first time in two decades. The size and scope of the North’s just-revealed facilities will not, however, surprise anyone except those still entranced by the myth that North Korea will voluntarily negotiate away its nuclear weapons. Though our intelligence is imperfect, Pyongang almost certainly embarked on illicit uranium enrichment even before the ink dried on the Clinton administration’s prized 1994 Agreed Framework. That deal was one of several North Korean pledges to denuclearize, in exchange for tangible benefits from the outside world — every one of which Pyongyang has violated.
The North may once again be testing America’s strategic patience. We must avoid repeating our recent errors. After U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously concluded in mid-2002 that Pyongyang was preparing an industrial-scope enrichment program, the Bush administration decided to confront the North. At a key meeting in October 2002, the North defiantly admitted it was engaged in enrichment. Unfortunately, the U.S. response was to launch the hapless negotiations known as the six-party talks, providing cover for the North’s continued progress on nuclear weapons.
Worse, in President George W. Bush’s second term, an assertive group of deniers in the State Department and the intelligence community claimed or implied that North Korea did not have a substantial or ongoing uranium-enrichment program. They denied that the North Koreans had conceded as much in 2002 and that there was sufficient evidence of a continuing program. The intelligence community downgraded its confidence level in its earlier conclusion, not because of contradictory information but because it had not subsequently acquired significant new data. State Department negotiators scorned the idea that the North had a serious enrichment capability.
All of this was done to support a passion for negotiation, hoping Pyongyang would yet again pledge to denuclearize. But denying and minimizing the threat of enrichment for most of the last decade was well wide of reality. When the North announced after its second nuclear detonation in May 2009 that it was “beginning” an enrichment program, Pyongyang was simply bringing into the open activity almost certainly begun 15 years before. The North had once again successfully played Washington for a fool.
We must avoid these grievous errors going forward, not only regarding North Korea but also Iran, whose involvement with Pyongang on ballistic missiles and probably nuclear weapons is long-standing. There is substantial reason for concern that Tehran’s capabilities and its penchant for cooperating with the North exceed U.S. intelligence estimates. Moreover, the spinning of North Korea-related intelligence in recent years bears an uneasy similarity to the famously distorted 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such politicization of intelligence provides a clear basis for high-priority investigations by the incoming Congress.
Moreover, North Korea’s newly evident capabilities should give the Senate pause before it succumbs to President Obama’s pressure to ratify the New START arms control treaty this year. New START is myopic in focusing only on parity with Russia, because Washington has far broader global responsibilities for friends and allies under our nuclear umbrella that Moscow does. Equally dangerous are China’s growing strategic nuclear capabilities. Add to that list the inevitable Middle East proliferation if Iran gets nuclear weapons and outliers like Venezuela and Myanmar potentially embarking on nuclear weapons programs. This is hardly the time to limit the U.S. nuclear arsenal, let alone in a binding treaty like New START.
The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.
John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations.”