SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — US nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth faced the challenge today of coming up with a formula acceptable to both South Korea and Japan for getting North Korea to back down from what appears to be a major escalation of its nuclear program.
Mr. Bosworth, stopping off in Seoul for talks with South Korea‘s new foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, and veteran nuclear negotiator Wi Sun-lac, said “this is not a crisis,” but talked as if it were. Accusing North Korea of committing “another in a series of provocative moves,” he confirmed that North Korea was building “a facility” at its main nuclear complex “to produce enriched uranium.”
The revelation of the project at the Yongbyon complex, revealed by US nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker after a visit there, means that North Korea is nearing the stage at which it can produce enriched uranium for either electrical energy or warheads.
North Koreans told Mr. Hecker and Charles “Jack” Pritchard, a former US nuclear envoy who also visited the facility, that it was the lightwater kind, solely to produce energy, but analysts doubt that claim in view of North Korea’s record of producing materiel for nuclear warheads with plutonium at their core at the same complex.
North Korea’s evident success so far in the uranium project means that it will soon have a second reactor that’s capable of making warheads quite rapidly once North Korean scientists and engineers have perfected the technology. They’re believed to be using components acquired from outside the country despite UN sanctions imposed after the North’s second underground nuclear test in May 2009.
Bosworth sought during his visit here to convince leaders that the US would act firmly to try to bring North Korea to terms. He had essentially the same mission in Japan but faces difficulties when he goes to Beijing Tuesday. Chinese officials are not expected to be nearly as sympathetic with his mission – and may not be inclined to try to pressure North Korea into pulling back on its program.
Bosworth, who served as US ambassador to South Korea during the presidency of the late Kim Dae-Jung, the architect of South Korea’s failed Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North, arrived here Sunday on a hastily arranged mission.
Asked whether he believed six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, were dead, he said, “My crystal ball is foggy,” but “I would never say the process is dead.” Rather, he said, “I would hope we would be able to resuscitate it.”
South Korean officials, however, responded with expressions of despair over the North’s latest nuclear escalation – and hinted at significant increase of defenses.
What happened to a ‘nuclear-free’ Korean peninsula?
South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said he would discuss the option of the US installing tactical nuclear weapons here at a meeting next month of a joint US-South Korean “deterrence policy committee” formed last month with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
That response suggested South Korea’s desire for a reversal of the policy initiated in the 1980s. The US during the presidency of George H.W. Bush is believed to have removed all its nuclear warheads from Korean soil before the signing of an agreement with North Korea in 1990 that purported to guarantee a “nuclear-free” Korean peninsula.
Mr. Kim made talked about US tactical nuclear weapons after a defense ministry spokesman said the report of the North’s nuclear project was of “serious concern” and a foreign ministry spokesman called it ”very grave.”
Bosworth, however, gave no hint of military escalation. Instead, he said the news of the North Korean project was “a disappointment” and “not helpful” in view of previous agreements. That was a reference to the statement that emerged from six-party talks in 2005 for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and two agreements reached in 2007, after the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, for the North to abide by a carefully defined timetable for getting rid of its entire nuclear program.
“I don’t believe our policy is a failure,” said Bosworth, but it was necessary to “coordinate with the countries of the region.”
Asked whether the US might now be willing to return to six-party talks, as North Korea has indicated it is willing to do, he said, “I do not believe in engagement for the sake of engagement.” Rather, he said, “We have to make progress.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, talked in somewhat tougher terms Sunday, saying North Korea’s nuclear project was “consistent with belligerent behavior” – an attempt to create instability “in a part of the world that is very dangerous.”
Analysts here saw the North’s decision to show Siegfried Hecker around the nuclear facility as a carefully contrived plan to bring the US back to six-party talks on the North’s terms.
“They want visitors to take back the news of what they’re doing, to start the negotiations,” says Robert Collins, a former intelligence analyst with the US military command here. “They use people to come in and show them something.” The thinking goes, he says, “If Siegfried Hecker is impressed, the rest of us should be impressed.”
Mr. Collins and other analysts believe construction of the plant basically “confirms what everyone knew” – that North Korea has a uranium enrichment program entirely separate from the aging five-megawatt reactor that intelligence analysts believe has made enough material, with plutonium at its core, for a dozen nuclear warheads.
After the uranium program was first revealed in October 2002 by a senior North Korean official to a visiting team of American negotiators, North Korea strongly denied anything to do with enriched uranium. North Korea had reversed this strategy and acknowledged the uranium program before inviting Hecker and Pritchard to the Yongbyon complex. Hecker said over the weekend the uranium reactor already has 2,000 centrifuges and described it as “stunning.”
‘We have been undervaluing their progress’
“We have been undervaluing their progress in uranium enrichment,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of North Korea Open Radio, which gets information by cellphone from contacts in North Korea. “They are trying to prepare for the third nuclear experiment. They are hinting there’s a third nuclear test coming up.”
Mr. Ha says North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il believes, “If they just have a few nuclear devices, it will make them a good nuclear negotiator.” Then, when they get to six-party talks, they will divert the discussion, he says, from abandoning nuclear warheads to “demilitarization” – meaning withdrawal of the remaining 27,000 US troops, including the Seventh Air Force, from South Korea.
Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, says North Korea, by building a second reactor, was “legitimizing their enrichment, using it as a tool which can legitimize their activities. “
He notes that the new reactor was on the same site where North Korean scientists blew up a cooling tower in June 2008 in a display carried live around the world on television networks as evidence the North was giving up its nuclear program. The cooling tower is assumed to have been outmoded and already useless.
Mr. Kim is pessimistic about getting China to persuade North Korea to back down from its nuclear activities. “China is getting stronger and tougher,” he says. “North Korea by increasing its capability is bringing all kinds of side effects to South Korea. They want to increase their leverage.”