Much of the US press continues to portray recent developments on the Korean Peninsula as a “crisis” that, in the words of today’s Washington Post, “has presented the United States with a massive strategic challenge.”
The situation is serious, of course, as the two Koreas line up on opposite sides of the most militarized border in the world. Artillery exchanges between the two are no light matter. But the US and South Korea are basically in accord that further escalation must be prevented. Seoul quickly put a stop to clumsy, inaccurate talk from the defense ministry of reintroducing US nuclear weapons to the South. There have been no further military exchanges since the flurry of Tuesday afternoon, which began when North Korean artillery shells hit the sparsely-populated island of Yeonpyeong.
The danger of miscalculation is always present when dealing with the roguish brinksmanship of the North Korean regime, and Washington and Seoul are as much on alert to prevent that as they are to monitor North Korean activities.
The Obama administration on Tuesday naturally had to put its immediate attention on the military situation on the Peninsula. The aircraft carrier USS George Washington has left its home port in Japan for the area, and the US and South Korea announced plans for new joint military exercises.
But the principle concern about North Korea remains its nuclear weapons program, especially the potential for serial proliferation of fissile materials, and machinery or components used in their manufacture.
Those concerns have grown in the wake of revelations last Saturday by Stanford University’s top nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker that North Korea’s ability to enrich uranium for potential weapons use is far more advanced than previously thought.
In the coming days and weeks, attention will increasingly focus on North Korea’s secretive relationship with Iran, where the government has largely spurned international worries that it is pursuing nuclear weapons development under the cloak of a civilian nuclear energy program.
The North’s motivation
In the meantime, US intelligence officials say there are no indications North Korea is in a war mode. The country’s elite continues to carry on with fairly mundane, everyday activities.
South Korean intelligence and political analysts seem in considerable agreement that the artillery shelling was a planned provocation, coming as it did in broad daylight, shortly after South Korea had finished a militarily-innocuous live-fire artillery exercise that sent shells harmlessly into the sea. The artillery shells fired by North Korean forces over a 50-minute period were apparently aimed largely at a South Korean marine base on Yeonpyeong.
Like the sinking by North Korea last March of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong represents an attack in the area of the disputed maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea. However chilling the shelling was for its wanton, ice-in-the-veins disregard for human life, it is not accurate to say, as the Washington Post does today, that the Yeonpyeong shelling “marked the first time in years that North Korea has trained the firepower of its 1.1 million-strong military on South Korea’s civilian population.”
However scripted, and calculated to achieve certain objectives, a brief, limited attack such as that on Tuesday is inherently dangerous and destabilizing. There is considerable discussion in Seoul as to what Pyongyang hoped to achieve, and why the regime acted now.
Chosun Ilbo and others have mentioned some likely possibilities.
One: As part of the power transfer from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un, the regime is trying to use military provocations and the country’s enriched uranium program to rally the military behind the son;
Two: The regime is using brinksmanship and the threat of calculated escalation to wrestle the US back to the negotiating table, in hopes of achieving a peace treaty that wins economic aid and leaves its nuclear weapons program intact;
Three: Pyongyang is trying to rally public opinion in democratic South Korea against the government of President Lee Myung-bak, who has adopted a relatively tough line toward the North;
Four: The North’s usual calculated brinksmanship has crossed a line into irrational, reckless actions, indicating a possible power struggle within the elite.
US intelligence specialists have known for years that North Korea was working on a uranium enrichment program, which can be used for both nuclear energy purposes and potentially for nuclear weapons. The program comes on top of the plutonium-based program that has already yielded North Korea a small number of nuclear weapons.
The Clinton administration upon leaving office passed along to Bush administration successors the available intelligence on the North’s uranium enrichment program. Bush officials, in July 2002, uncovered reportedly incontrovertible evidence that the North was trying to advance the uranium enrichment program, and confronted officials in Pyongyang in October of that year.
All along, however, the consensus in Washington was that Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program was only in a pilot stage, and that policy priority should be placed on curtailing the more advanced and therefore more dangerous plutonium-based program.
Siegfried Hecker, the Stanford scientist who revealed the North’s surprising advances in uranium enrichment capabilities, had long argued for a plutonium containment policy toward Pyongyang, based on a demand for what he calls the “three no’s”: no proliferation of nuclear technology, no production of additional nuclear bombs, and no upgrading of existing bombs. Until his recent visit to Yongbyon, Hecker believed North Korea was not very advanced in uranium enrichment technology.
As late as 2008, the then-chief US negotiator with North Korea, Ambassador Chris Hill, told members of Congress that Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program was not seriously advanced.
Clearly the North Koreans did not develop this sophisticated uranium enrichment capability overnight. As recently as last year, visitors to the facility that now houses the advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges saw no evidence there of the current program. The machinery now present was evidently built at some other location, and later reassembled at Yongbyon.
Work on the new facility proceeded undetected by US intelligence agencies, even though Yongbyon is arguably the site in the world most intensively monitored by America’s highly-sensitive reconnaissance satellites.
Unbeknownst to the world, North Korea could very well have more uranium enrichment sites. At this point, there is simply no way to know, in large part because uranium enrichment is not detectable by the sensitive scientific instruments that make it relatively easy to identify the reprocessing of plutonium into weapons grade material.
North Korea has proven so adept at dishonesty and deceit, no nuclear nonproliferation verification regime established in the country will have much validity with the current regime in power.
The Iran connection
This, in turn, greatly intensifies concerns about proliferation of nuclear materials and technology from North Korea, either to Iran or to non-state terrorist organizations.
Moreover, it remains disturbingly unclear how North Korea advanced this far. Intelligence experts have known for years that North Korea benefited from technical and material assistance from specialists in Pakistan.
And North Korea has developed over the years extensive military technology cooperation with Iran. A nuclear reactor under construction in Syria by North Koreans and destroyed by an Israeli raid in 2007, was mostly-likely aimed at assisting Iran.
It remains unclear what, if anything, of a nuclear nature Iran provided to North Korea.
Identifying which countries assisted North Korea is critical for future efforts to block such aid, and to refine assessments of the current uranium enrichment capabilities possessed by Pyongyang.
US policy options
Options for the United States and its allies are limited.
Advocates of engagement have long argued that economic aid and security guarantees could entice Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons, and that inconsistency of US engagement efforts have convinced North Korea that Washington was not sincere. The problem with this argument is that North Korea has shown a desire for both economic aid and to be accepted as a nuclear power.
Advocates of ‘regime change’ in North Korea have long argued that engagement only prolongs the life of the Pyongyang regime and facilitates the nuclear program. The problem with this argument is that China has proven unwilling to use its enormous leverage to force change in Pyongyang, and the regime has otherwise proven capable of surviving terribly dire economic catastrophes. UN sanctions have hurt, but not enough.
The Obama administration, fully aware of the honest but ultimately fruitless arguments between these two camps, adopted a policy of “strategic patience,” which amounts to waiting for more internal pressure for change to build up inside of North Korea. The problem with this argument is that North Korea has now demonstrated a sophisticated ability to enrich uranium, and seems willing to launch targeted strikes against South Korean targets, all with the expectation of winning economic aid, security guarantees, and acceptance as a nuclear power.
Professor Hecker and others argue that attempting to “roll back” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has not worked, and that the time has come, in essence, to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, and to limit the damage by putting in place a tough nonproliferation verification regime.
But this argument has lost much of its zing due to the recent revelations of North Korea’s undetected advances in uranium enrichment capabilities.
For the time being, the most likely step for Washington is to boost pressure on China to discipline Pyongyang, and to redouble efforts to enforce sanctions already in place against Pyongyang.
North Korean leaders undoubtedly know that any use of nuclear weapons would result in the utter destruction of their regime.
The time is probably approaching when the US will firmly inform Pyongyang that the regime will be held similarly accountable for the use of nuclear devices by terrorist organizations it can be shown to have supplied.