Pyongyang revealed a covert facility for enriching uranium to a visiting U.S. scientist last week. Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, stated he was shown a vast plant containing “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges—North Korea claimed 2,000—controlled by an “ultra modern control room.”
The discovery affirms a U.N. report released earlier this month that North Korea continues to “use a number of masking techniques in order to circumvent the Security Council measures” to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. Although the United States has long asserted that North Korea was pursing a uranium-based nuclear weapons program, the direct observation by Dr. Hecker provides direct, tangible evidence of Pyongyang’s ongoing efforts for parallel uranium- and plutonium-based paths to a nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s revealing of the covert uranium enrichment facility was intended to force Presidents Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to the negotiating table and raise the price of any future agreement. The Obama Administration is now faced with a new North Korean crisis that risks undermining support for its “strategic patience” strategy toward Pyongyang. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth’s abruptly scheduled visit to Asia this weekend will be to discuss a unified allied response to the new discovery, which may have been unknown by U.S. intelligence agencies.
North Korea’s ability to expand its nuclear weapons programs despite international sanctions—though often lackadaisically enforced—will resurrect debate over the efficacy of sanctions or negotiations to achieve North Korean denuclearization. Advocates of engagement will claim that the risk posed by a second North Korea nuclear weapons program necessitates abandoning all current economic sanctions in favor of a rapid return to negotiations without precondition.
But the Obama Administration should resist a return to such failed policies of the past. Over-reliance on concessionary tactics and vaguely worded agreements for the sake of illusory progress did not achieve North Korean denuclearization. The U.S. and its allies should maintain and augment ongoing international efforts to achieve North Korean compliance through a two-track policy of pressure tactics and conditional diplomatic outreach.
The likelihood that Pyongyang received foreign assistance on the uranium program shows that it is past time to target both ends of the proliferation pipeline rather than restricting sanctions to only North Korean violators. U.N. and U.S. reluctance to target Iranian, Syrian, Burmese, and other government and private entities has hindered international efforts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Washington should also press China to more aggressively combat North Korean proliferation as well as be more assertive in pressuring Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. China’s expansion of both official and private sector economic dealings with North Korea has undermined the impact of U.N. sanctions and removed the incentive for Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks, where economic benefits are conditioned on progress in denuclearization.