By Joseph R. DeTrani

The P-5 plus one nations have made considerable progress negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran to temporarily halt and dismantle portions of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure for at least ten to fifteen years, with the prospect that Iran never will seek nuclear weapons.  After almost two years of intensive negotiations, a final nuclear agreement with Iran is likely to be concluded on June 30 of this year.

In stark contrast to the intensive diplomatic effort of these six countries engaging a heavily sanctioned and defiant Iran, the five countries engaging a heavily sanctioned and defiant North Korea on issues not too dissimilar from Iran’s appear to be disunited and unable to re-establish a meaningful dialogue with North Korea.  This is unfortunate.

Since December 2012, when North Korea successfully put a small satellite into orbit, followed by a relatively successful nuclear test in February 2013, resulting in additional United Nations Security Council resolutions further sanctioning North Korea, the leadership in Pyongyang has focused efforts on its nuclear and missile programs, while acknowledging that the economy and the economic well-being of its people requires more attention.  Slow progress with economic reforms is underway.  Trade with China continues to be critically important, as is the crude oil and food that China continues to provide.  But more must be done to reform an economic model that has neglected the economic well-being of its people, especially those living in the provinces. An infusion of foreign investments and a relationship with international financial institutions would provide the capital necessary to jump start local industries, like textiles, minerals and metals.  Relying only on China and a dysfunctional public distribution system is a formula for continued economic stagnation.

In sharp contrast to North Korea’s nascent economic reforms, their nuclear and missile programs have prospered over the last three years.  North Korea has an impressive arsenal of ballistic missiles.   Many of these short and mid-range ballistic missiles have been sold to countries like Iran, Libya and Syria.  It’s simply of question of time before North Korea launches its KN-08, a solid fuel ICBM capable of reaching the U.S.  Recently, North Korea announced that it successfully test-fired a newly developed ballistic missile from a submarine.

North Korea’s nuclear programs continue to progress, at a speed similar to its ballistic missile programs. TheYongbyon plutonium reactor appears to be operational.  The uranium enrichment facility that reportedly, in 2010, was spinning 2000 centrifuges, has been expanded appreciably, possibly doubling the number of centrifuges capable of enriching uranium. And the construction of the experimental light water reactor at Yongbyon is approaching completion. Estimates recently published by David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security assessed that by 2020 North Korea could have between 20 and 100 nuclear weapons, most apparently based on uranium enrichment.  The Institute also expressed increased suspicions that there may be significant covert nuclear activities in North Korea, including the operation of a second centrifuge plant and the construction of nuclear weapons.

Given the progress North Korea has had with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, both plutonium and uranium enrichment-based, it’s a question of time before the North is capable of miniaturizing these nuclear weapons and mating them to ballistic missile delivery systems.  Some assess that the North has this capability.  However, without actually testing this capability to determine if they can successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile, it’s problematic, in my view, as to their capability to deploy a missile with a nuclear warhead.  North Korea maintains that their nuclear test in February 2013 was a miniaturized nuclear device, which gives further credence to the view that they have made progress with miniaturization.

Since Kim Chong Un replaced his father in December 2011, relations with the U.S., South Korea and Japan have deteriorated appreciably.  North Korea’s relations with Russia are improving, but its only real ally, China, hasn’t been happy with the new leader.  That doesn’t mean they’re not allies and that China will cease supporting North Korea.  It does mean that Xi Jinping and the Chinese people don’t want North Korea fomenting unrest and instability on the Korean Peninsula.

It would appear that it would be in the interest of the five countries negotiating with North Korea since 2003 that six party negotiations be restarted soonest, to address the multitude of issues requiring eventual resolution.  North Korea has expressed a willingness to return to negotiations, hopefully to address comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  A dialogue that also addresses North Korea’s need for security assurances and other deliverables is necessary.  Indeed, the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement addressed all these issues.

As we make progress with a nuclear agreement with Iran, it’s in the interest of all nations to redouble Six Party Talks efforts with North Korea to immediately halt its nuclear and missile programs and unconditionally return to equitable nuclear negotiations.

Joseph R. DeTrani  is president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit professional organization.  He previously was the Director of the National  Counterproliferation Center, the North Korea Mission Manager for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Special Envoy for the Six Party Talks.  The views are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any government department or agency.

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