In this week's New York Times Obama administration officials offered stunning and sobering perspective on the growing danger presented by North Korea. Its uranium enrichment program is more advanced than Iran’s. The North’s recently revealed site could not exist without support of a sophisticated network of still undisclosed facilities. And, most disconcerting, not only did efforts to thwart proliferation to North Korea fail, but North Korea succeeded in providing sensitive technology to some of the most dangerous regimes on the state sponsors of terrorism list.
Moreover, clear evidence of North Korean involvement at a Syrian nuclear reactor (destroyed by Israel in 2007) appears to have been unduly brushed aside by senior Bush administration officials to avoid upsetting the ill advised Six Party agreement, celebrated as a diplomatic breakthrough at the time.
Ambassador John Bolton aptly questioned the Bush administration approach in April 2008 saying, “[The] administration is focusing on what it thinks it knows (plutonium), ignoring what could be the far more dangerous activities (uranium enrichment) it has reason to suspect.”
Ominous, but now undeniable.
To date, the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea has been more prudent than that pursued in the second term of the Bush administration. Team Obama, at least, has not responded to North Korean provocations by resuming pointless talks and celebrating ineffective agreements.
But the absence of bad policy is no substitute for a real strategy. No doubt the Obama administration would rather avoid a crisis, but it now has one on its watch. Surely the administration would rather focus on the president’s vision for a nuclear free world and the U.S.-Russia arms control agreement aka New START now before the Senate. However both seem rather irrelevant once mugged by the reality of North Korea.
We now have a nuclear capable rogue state killing its neighbors. Not only that but it is capable of showing off some of the world's most dangerous technology which it has historically been willing to sell. If that is not worthy of being called a crisis, what is?
This combination of diplomacy, deception, provocation, and proliferation in dealing with North Korea is bad enough in itself, but it also is a discomforting foreshadowing of the future of Iran’s related program if greater action is not taken there.
For these and many other reasons the Obama administration can no longer afford to coast without a strategy for dealing with North Korea. That strategy, if it is likely to have any positive effect, will have to take some risks.
The U.S. must support our South Korean ally, who faces growing pressure to retaliate with each North Korean provocation and attack. Together, we must now actively consider all possible means to contain, cripple, and eventually eliminate North Korea's ability to threaten us in this way.
At a minimum, we must take measures to disrupt the uranium enrichment facility North Korea just revealed and increase efforts to identify and disrupt undisclosed facilities. Aggressive financial measures also are needed, beyond the scope of sanctions considered to date.
The worst possible option would be to pretend this is not a crisis and attempt to resume talks. That will only further convince the North that it can act with impunity in terms of terrorizing the South and continue to peddle the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Stephen Yates was Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs from 2001 – 05 and currently is president of DC International Advisory.