Stopping a Nuclear North Korea

Why solid diplomacy is Washington's best chance to dissuade Pyongyang from going nuclear.

This week North Korea confirmed what satellite imagery has already detected, that its construction of a new nuclear power plant is “progressing apace.” So is its enrichment of uranium to fuel that plant. That spells double trouble for U.S. security. When completed, that power plant, like all nuclear reactors, will generate plutonium as a by-product of energy-generating fission. And given enough time and centrifuges, low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel can be turned into highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Washington can’t stop these dangerous developments without negotiating with Pyongyang. A third round of bilateral talks is likely this month, but talks are not negotiations. Wary of partisan criticism, President Obama has been loath to deal. Instead, he is insisting that North Korea stop enrichment, along with nuclear and missile testing, as a precondition for resuming six-party talks.

That won’t play in Pyongyang. It is willing to suspend nuclear and missile tests while negotiations proceed, but it won’t suspend enrichment at Yongbyon monitored by international inspectors without getting energy or other aid in return. As its Foreign Ministry spokesman put it, “The DPRK is ready to resume the six-party talks without preconditions and implement the joint statement in a phased manner on the principle of simultaneous actions.”

Two lines of criticism imperil a deal. One is that even if it shuts down its two-thousand-centrifuge facility at Yongbyon, North Korea may have a second, undetected facility elsewhere capable of further enriching the power-plant fuel into weapons-grade uranium. Letting the enrichment facility we do know about run free because there may be another facility we don’t know about is to confuse a hypothetical threat, however plausible, with a clear and present danger.

A second line of criticism is that any suspension will be temporary and can be resumed once the North gets the aid it wants. Critics cite the 1994 Agreed Framework under which the Pyongyang halted its plutonium program only to resume it later. But that is a gross misreading of history. The program remained shut down until 2003—long after the United States failed to live up to its part of the deal. The shutdown denied the North dozens of bombs’ worth of plutonium. We don’t know whether North Korea would have permanently dismantled its plutonium program and not sought the means to enrich uranium if Washington had moved toward “full normalization of political and economic relations” and provided the two nuclear power plants it promised under the 1994 accord.

Similarly, North Korea was living up to the October 2007 Six-Party Joint Statement on Second-Phase Actions until South Korea, backed by the United States and Japan, reneged on the deal by failing to deliver promised energy aid. In response, the North conducted missile and nuclear tests, though its reactor at Yongbyon remains shut down.

Again, we don’t know whether we could have gone beyond disabling the plutonium program to dismantling it, along with the uranium-enrichment program, because we were unwilling to do what it took, including an end to enmity, a peace treaty, normalization of relations and political and economic engagement with the North.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman alluded to that history this week: “Pressing unilateral demand on others while not doing what they should do can never be tolerated.” The spokesman also warned against continuing talks without negotiating in earnest or seeking additional sanctions in the U.N. Security Council: “[T]he attempt to render the DPRK's peaceful nuclear activities illegal or delay them for an indefinite period will prompt resolute and decisive countermeasures.”

That threat should not be taken lightly. North Korea has yet to generate more plutonium by restarting its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, shut down as part of the October 2007 six-party agreement. But it could do so in 2012. It has yet to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, but it could continue to close in on that possibility in 2012. It has yet to conduct additional nuclear and missile tests it needs to develop its new deliverable warhead and more reliable missiles, but it could do so in 2012.

The only way to prevent Pyongyang from taking these steps is to strike a deal and keep it to test whether it is prepared to stop. Letting what we don’t know about North Korea’s weapons programs get in the way of stopping what we do know about would be a fateful error.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.