North Korea ratchets up nuclear defiance

For the first time, the rogue state has admitted to having a uranium-enrichment program. It also threatened to respond militarily to any attempts to stop any of its ships suspected of carrying nuclear components.

Jacky Chen/Reuters
North Korean military forces patrolled the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong on Sunday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (c.) visits the headquarters of the 7th infantry division at an undisclosed place in North Korea in this undated recent picture released on Sunday by North Korea's KCNA news agency.

North Korea has responded with defiance to the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning its May 25 nuclear test, declaring as "absolutely impossible" any chance of giving up its nuclear program and accusing the United States of maintaining a nuclear arsenal "completely within range" of its own borders.

In the latest rhetoric from Pyongyang, the state-run newspaper Tongil Sinbo forecast a nuclear arms race in the region, saying "the Korean peninsula is becoming an area where the chances of nuclear war are the highest in the world."

That statement reflects North Korea's view that US nuclear weapons bases in Japan or in the Western Pacific pose a threat, even if the US withdrew all of its nuclear weapons from South Korea around 1990, as the US has claimed.

Against that background, North Korea says it's stepping up its own nuclear program and will respond militarily to any attempts to stop any of its ships suspected of carrying nuclear components or the missiles for firing them to distant targets.

On Sunday, one day after North Korea vowed to weaponize more spent plutonium rods and enrich uranium to produce nuclear weapons, the country's ailing leader, Kim Jong Il, expressed "great satisfaction" after inspecting a division of infantry troops, finding them ready for "combat ability in every way," the state-run North Korean Central News Agency reported.

The North's fresh defiance presents a growing challenge for President Obama as he prepares for talks Tuesday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

"We cannot question the seriousness of the situation," says Paik Hak Soon, senior researcher on North Korea at South Korea's Sejong Institute. "The UNSC resolution was all-out confrontation, and North Korea is countering in its own way."

Mr. Paik says he has no doubt that North Korea is preparing for its third nuclear test while advancing its uranium enrichment program.

"There is no stopping North Korea's actions," he says.

What's the status on the North's uranium and plutonium?

The UN resolution theoretically calls for cooperation in halting proliferation of the components and technology for fabricating nuclear weapons, but North Korea is assumed to have all it needs to produce more warheads with plutonium at their core at its central nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang.

Although North Korea has yet to build warheads with highly enriched uranium, Kim Tae Woo, senior researcher at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses, says Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's atomic bomb, sold materiel and technology to North Korea for that purpose before Pakistan's role was revealed more than five years ago.

"We already know of deals between Pakistan and North Korea," says Mr. Kim. "We can presume North Korea got the technology from Pakistan. They also got the centrifuges for uranium enrichment."

On Saturday, North Korea for the first time publicly revealed the existence of the uranium program – something that it had always denied.

US officials have long said that North Korea's vice-foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, acknowledged the program in a meeting in Pyongyang in October 2002 with a team led by James Kelly, then US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, but Mr. Kang repeatedly charged that his words had been distorted.

It was that meeting that led to the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva agreement under which North Korea shut down its nuclear facilities. North Korea in 2007 again agreed, in six-party talks hosted by China, on a program for disabling and dismantling its nuclear program, but those agreements broke down early this year when the North refused to agree on verifying what it was doing to comply.

Tipping point: Boarding North Korean ships

Now, the question is whether the rhetoric of recent days will explode into open conflict. The tipping point, analysts say, will be any attempt to board a North Korean vessel anywhere near the Korean peninsula.

Although the UN Security Council resolution empowers countries to do just that, neither China nor Russia are expected to cooperate to that extent. Nor is South Korea likely to be enthusiastic about any action that would lead to war.

North Korea would probably not be able to act forcefully in case a vessel were stopped far from the Korean peninsula while transporting missiles to client states in the Middle East, but the odds of conflict would go up significantly in nearby waters.

"If anything happens near the Korean peninsula and if they have reason to believe South Korea is involved," says Kim Tae Woo, "they will make provocations." For that reason, he believes, "South Korea will have to be very careful."

China's role

One reason for North Korea's boldness is believed to be the reluctance of China – the source of most of the fuel, fertilizer, and food the North desperately needs – to bring about the collapse of the North Korea regime by cutting off shipments. The Chinese fear a flood of refugees across the porous Yalu and Tumen river borders with the North.

"China will cooperate to some extent with the UN resolution," says Mr. Paik. As for stopping and boarding North Korean ships, he goes on, "They will not do that."

As for stifling ties with companies and financial firms doing business with North Korea, which is also called for in the UN resolution, Paik says the Chinese "will cooperate to some extent," but not entirely.

In the end, he says, "the only thing that can possibly ease tensions is to have a political approach" – another attempt at negotiations, perhaps led from the US side by a high-profile official.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.