North Korea has again played its nuclear card, after weeks of conciliatory gestures amid international sanctions against the North. North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported on September 4th that the North’s ambassador to the United Nations Sin Son-ho sent a letter describing the North’s nuclear activities to the chairman of the U.N. Security Council on September 3rd. According to the report, Pyongyang has reached the final stage of uranium enrichment and extracted plutonium is being weaponized. The North also threatened to further strengthen its nuclear deterrent if international sanctions continue. Dr. Jeon Seong-hun from the Korea Institute for National Unification speculates that North Korea is spurring efforts to secure a new source of nuclear fuel.
North Korea had previously vehemently denied the existence of a uranium enrichment program. But through the recent letter sent to the U.N. Security Council, the North officially revealed it was operating such a program. Uranium enrichment does not require large-scale facilities, like the Yongbyon Complex. I suspect North Korea has completed experimental uranium enrichment and entered a phase in which the nation can start developing nuclear weapons. Currently, the nuclear weapons North Korea possesses are made from plutonium. If the North succeeds in nuclear development through uranium enrichment, it will be able to secure nuclear warheads in another form. This will give more room for the communist country to strengthen its nuclear capability.
The letter written by the top North Korean envoy at the United Nations says that Pyongyang does not feel any need to respond to the request made by the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee. Experts interpret this as a response to a “request for a clarification” from the sanctions committee, with regard to the seizure of a North Korean ship by the United Arab Emirates in August. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced the nation’s nuclear arms plan in June, but the experts note that the recent letter implies more progress in the nation’s nuclear development. They are also wondering why the North suddenly took out its nuclear card again, after weeks of appeasement efforts. Here again is Dr. Jeon.
Looking back North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, the North had always been focused on nuclear armament, while making conciliatory gestures to the United States or South Korea. So, Pyongyang’s secret nuclear development isn’t surprising. But it’s still disturbing that North Korea has unexpectedly revealed its intention to resume provocative action by officially disclosing its uranium enrichment program, even while making a peace offensive toward the U.S. and South Korea. At present, Pyongyang is subject to U.N. sanctions, which delay dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. against the North’s will. Therefore, the North seems to be attempting to pressure the U.S. by using what it believes is another negotiation card.
In another notable part of the letter, North Korea declares completion of uranium enrichment and plutonium weaponization, while also expressing a will to engage in dialogue. The North stresses that it is opposed to the structure of six-party nuclear talks that have been exploited to violate North Korea’s sovereignty but that the nation has never denied denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the world. The North also says it is prepared for both dialogue and sanctions, indicating it will employ the two-pronged tactic of appeasement and threat. Regarding the North’s attitude, some speculate that the regime, which had declared a permanent boycott of the six-party talks, has now taken a step back from its previous position. But Dr. Jeon predicts it won’t be easy for North Korea to actually return to the multilateral negotiations.
When referring to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea is trying to change the security landscape in the region to its own advantage through nuclear arms reductions talks with the United States. Therefore, even if negotiations between the North and the U.S. begin, South Korea must carefully watch how the negotiations may evolve. North Korea wasn’t very enthusiastic about the six-party talks from the beginning. Pyongyang’s No.2 man Kim Yong-nam even declared a permanent end to the six-way talks. So, I don’t think the North is willing to return to the negotiations anytime soon. But North Korea is also well aware that both China and the United States remain firm in their positions about the six-party talks. Therefore, the basic frame of the six-party talks could be maintained, while actual negotiations are held between the North and the U.S. This variant form of the six-party talks, if possible, will be another option.
Meanwhile, U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth, who recently wrapped up an Asian tour, says there’s no fundamental change in the North’s tactic. He also stresses that the U.S. will face North Korea within the framework of six-way talks or to facilitate the negotiations, although Pyongyang doggedly insists on bilateral dialogue with the U.S. A high-ranking official in South Korea says Seoul and Washington have shared the view on employing both dialogue and sanctions when dealing with Pyongyang. Experts predict that sanctions against the North will continue for the time being, and a cooling-off period will be needed before effectuating dialogue with North Korea.
As a matter of fact, the Obama administration hopes to initiate dialogue with North Korea, but it’s hard to do so right now because of North Korea’s series of aggressive measures. I imagine the current deadlock will continue until the year’s end, at least. We inevitably co-exist with nuclear-armed North Korea, whether we want it or not. At this point in time, it’s necessary to devise a broad strategy aimed at convincing North Korea that the possession of nuclear weapons won’t serve its own interests and inducing the country to give up its nuclear programs.
North Korea is using the “two-track” tactic, in which it plays the “pressure” card when it comes to the nuclear issue and the “appeasement” card in other matters. The international community is wondering how the North’s multi-dimensional move will affect the nuclear standoff. In collaboration with the international community, South Korea should seek a way to solve the nuclear issue through dialogue, not by further aggravating regional conflict.