On November 12, North Korean scientists took Stanford professor Siegfried Hecker and two colleagues to the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The North Koreans led the Americans to a building that Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratories, had visited in February 2008. The structure had been transformed into a “stunning” uranium enrichment facility, Hecker would later write.
That revelation brings to an end the long-running debate inside the U.S. intelligence community over whether the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has an active uranium enrichment program. North Korea acknowledged that it had such an effort back in 2002. But the North Koreans later claimed their admission was a misunderstanding. And in the years since, the intelligence community has had little knowledge of the North Korean nuclear program—it is, after all, the most secretive project of the world’s most secretive regime. There was no fresh intelligence to cast doubt on the program’s continued existence, because there was little new information about the program at all.
This absence of evidence led to a split in the U.S. intelligence community. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), along with analysts at the Department of Energy, voiced strong skepticism about the existence of a North Korean enrichment program. But others, most notably analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency and most of the leadership at the CIA, were convinced that enrichment work was continuing. By 2007, the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community on the existence of an enrichment program was downgraded from “high-confidence” to “mid-confidence,” and pro-engagement policymakers were comparing the worrisome intelligence on North Korea to prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Meanwhile, Bush administration policymakers eager for engagement with North Korea—led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and functionary Christopher Hill—downplayed the likelihood of DPRK enrichment efforts and mocked those who worried about them. “Some people imagine there is a building somewhere with a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium,” Hill commented.
Well, we don’t know about the women. But just two months after Hill’s dismissive comments, the evidence of a secret enrichment program continued to build. In June 2008, North Korea presented documents to the United States that were intended to verify the DPRK’s claims regarding plutonium production. In an underappreciated irony, analysts found traces of highly enriched uranium on the 18,000 pages of materials. The CIA and DIA argued that the new evidence confirmed their suspicions. INR and DOE found reasons to doubt it.
Stephen Hadley, national security adviser under George W. Bush, mentioned the dispute in a little-noticed speech he delivered two weeks before leaving office. In his remarks, Hadley warned that North Korea would be “an early challenge” for the Obama administration. “This is especially true because some in the intelligence community have increasing concerns that North Korea has an ongoing covert uranium enrichment program.” Originally intended for use in a speech by President Bush, this carefully vetted claim, coming from the preternaturally cautious Hadley, raised eyebrows among Korea-watchers. The White House meant it as a marker—something that would provide an official, on-the-record indication of the state of intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear program.
It was also an incongruous coda to four years of failed engagement with a rogue regime. During that time, North Korea had tested a crude nuclear weapon and been caught red-handed providing assistance to Syria, a leading state sponsor of terror, in the construction of a nuclear reactor. And yet, after stern denunciations, Bush officials had continued to reward North Korea’s occasional, symbolic diplomatic gestures with bilateral meetings and relief from sanctions.
Which brings us to the current impasse. On November 23, 2010, just two days after the DPRK’s uranium enrichment program was revealed in the pages of the New York Times, North Korea launched an unprovoked, 50-minute artillery barrage on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong that killed two South Korean marines, two civilians, and injured dozens of others. The Obama administration expressed concern about the nuclear revelations and condemned the attacks. A White House official told ABC’s Jake Tapper that the administration would not be “rushing into six-party talks” with North Korea because “we see that as rewarding bad behavior.”
Not rewarding bad behavior is good. Punishing bad behavior? That’s better.
Yet the nuances of the Obama administration’s position have little to do with the severity of punishment and everything to do with the speed of capitulation. Almost as quickly as the Obama administration expressed its determination not to reward “bad behavior,” the White House announced its intention to do just that. That same day, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, said the administration would “continue our coordination of moves designed to lead eventually to the resumption of the six-party talks.” Perhaps anticipating questions about the wisdom of seeking new agreements on nuclear disarmament with a regime that has violated every other such agreement, Bosworth added: “We are very concerned as to the sincerity of the DPRK’s approach to this.”
But not concerned enough to change course. On the evening of November 23, with fires still burning on Yeonpyeong, a statement on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the United States had agreed to seek an immediate resumption of the six-party talks. Bosworth, addressing reporters in Beijing after meeting his Chinese counterparts, said: “We agreed on the essential need for us to continue coordination and consultation on this issue, the uranium enrichment program, and of course on the subject of how . . . to bring about a resumption of the Six Party process.”
And so the cycle begins anew. Kim Jong Il feels neglected. He does something provocative. America and her allies offer statements of concern. Negotiations resume. The U.S. side offers generous concessions while threatening to tighten sanctions. North Korea makes promises it does not intend to keep. American diplomats celebrate their “achievement.” And, after a period of relative quiet, Kim Jong Il begins to feel neglected again and does something else provocative.
For much of the foreign policy establishment, the familiarity of this cycle provides comfort. When North Korea declares itself a nuclear power, or tests a crude nuclear weapon, or launches missiles into the Sea of Japan, or blows up a South Korean ship, or reveals to an American scientist a state-of-the-art centrifuge operation—the response is the same. It’s just Kim Jong Il being Kim Jong Il, people say.
But this is false comfort. Nineteen out of twenty times, Kim’s actions can be explained as diplomatic gamesmanship. But the consequences of being wrong that one time—the consequences of misjudging a belligerent and dying dictator with nukes—are grave.
It is up to the White House to break the cycle of futility. The Obama administration’s cool attitude toward North Korea during its first 20 months in office was a welcome change from the Bush administration’s overeager engagement. Getting serious about North Korea, however, requires dispensing with two comforting but inaccurate assumptions that have guided the diplomacy of administrations from both political parties for nearly two decades. The first is the notion that Kim Jong Il can be talked out of pursuing nuclear weapons. The second is that China and the United States share fundamental security interests in disarming North Korea.
For years, U.S. policy on North Korea has been outsourced to China. Successive presidents have asked that Beijing use its muscle to control its combative ally. It hasn’t worked, because the Chinese believe that the status quo is preferable to escalation. The Obama administration needs to flip that equation by making the status quo less acceptable. Rather than asking China politely to do our diplomatic spadework, why not use our diplomatic and economic leverage over China to demonstrate that there are consequences for Beijing’s recalcitrance?
In the short term, we can reimpose the tough sanctions that were unwisely lifted by President Bush in the summer of 2008, and immediately return North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terror. The administration could also urge South Korea to end its participation in the Kaesong Industrial Complex—a zone of joint economic cooperation with North Korea in which South Korean companies provide capital and North Korea provides labor. Beyond that, America can aggressively seek to interdict North Korean ships suspected of carrying illicit materials, and increase the number of regular, high-profile joint naval exercises we conduct with South Korea.
No doubt, it will be tempting for President Obama to take the easier path—to pursue meaningless nonproliferation agreements, to offer platitudes about a nuclear-free world, to restart the six-party talks and otherwise seek dialogue about disarmament with regimes committed to nuclear weapons. But as French president Nicolas Sarkozy reminded Obama at the U.N. Security Council last year:
The people of the entire world are listening to what we’re saying, to our promises, our commitments and our speeches. But we live in a real world, not a virtual world. We say: Reductions must be made. And President Obama has even said: ‘I dream of a world without [nuclear weapons].’ Yet before our very eyes, two countries are doing the exact opposite.
And what have the repeated offers for dialogue produced? Sarkozy answered his own question.
—Stephen F. Hayes