SEOUL, South Korea – The United States and its partners have pushed North Korea for years to abandon its atomic ambitions, but the North has conducted two nuclear tests and now claims it has 2,000 centrifuges producing uranium for a new reactor.
Critics say this shows that U.S. policy of shunning direct talks with North Korea until it agrees to abide by past nuclear commitments is not working; these critics say North Korea, for its part, is determined to win Washington's acceptance that it is a nuclear power.
North Korea launched nuclear and missile tests last year. The Obama administration has not held direct, official talks with Pyongyang since an international finding that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have called on North Korea to acknowledge responsibility for the sinking and express a sincere willingness to disarm before talks can resume. North Korea denies it launched the torpedo that sank the warship.
Critics bemoan what they see as a lack of urgency and focus in Washington, which they say fails to deal with a frightening security threat. The Obama administration, they say, has repeatedly played down North Korean provocations and has appointed Stephen Bosworth as its special envoy spearheading negotiations, a part-time diplomat who also serves as dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School.
"Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama is learning the hard way that the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the private Arms Control Association in Washington.
Kimball said current claims that the North has quickly and secretly built a uranium enrichment facility demand that Washington and China — the North's only major ally and a member of stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations — "directly re-engage North Korea in talks aimed at containing and verifiably freezing the North's bomb program."
On Monday, Bosworth defended U.S. policy.
"I would not at all accept that our policy toward North Korea is a failure," Bosworth said after flying to Seoul to meet South Korean officials. "They are a difficult interlocutor," he said of the North, "but we're not throwing our policy away."
While the North's uranium program is disappointing and provocative, he told reporters, it isn't surprising. "This is not a crisis," Bosworth said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed his words, saying the Obama administration would take its time to assess the available information. He said the revelation of the new uranium enrichment facility would violate Pyongyang's obligation to stop pursuing nuclear weapons but also may be what he called a "publicity stunt."
The comments contrasted with those of U.S. military officials, who warned that the new facility could speed up the North's ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it could enable North Korea to build "a number" of nuclear devices beyond the handful it is presumed to have already assembled. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called North Korea "a very dangerous country."
The latest predicament came about when a U.S. scientist, Siegfried Hecker, posted a report over the weekend that said he was taken, during a recent trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex, to a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.
Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is regularly given rare glimpses of the North's secretive nuclear program, but he called Pyongyang's new efforts "stunning."
Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make nuclear bombs, in addition to its known plutonium-based program. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear weapons.
New satellite images also show construction under way at Yongbyon for what the North says is a light-water nuclear power reactor. Such a reactor is ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but it would give the North a reason to enrich uranium.
The flurry of reports come as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly tries to pave the way for his inexperienced youngest son to become heir. The North, subject to harsh international sanctions, may also be looking to force the resumption of aid-for-disarmament talks.
Washington has long pushed North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.
Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. negotiated a "framework agreement" with North Korea that froze its nuclear weapons program. In exchange, the U.S., Japan and South Korea agreed to provide the North with two reactors that would produce electricity but posed a lesser risk of nuclear proliferation. The agreement came undone during the Bush administration, which accused the North of pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program.
It was only in 2003 that the United States joined forces with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea in the on-again off-again six-party talks. Those talks ended in December 2008 and have not resumed.
Lee Chul-ki, a political scientist at Seoul's Dongguk University, said North Korea has been disappointed that the Obama administration's policy hasn't changed much from the Bush administration's hard-line stance. North Korea, Lee said, wants to show the United States that it will continue to bolster its nuclear capability if Washington doesn't change policy.
Some North Korea observers argue that the North's major goal is to get Washington's acceptance of it as a nuclear power. They call for a strategy that focuses on improving relations and trying to cap the number of weapons in North Korea's nuclear arsenal.
Such talk often gets blasted by conservatives as rewarding a government that brutalizes its citizens, and the Obama administration has said it is not interested in a nuclear cap.
Two of Hecker's companions on his trip, Robert Carlin and John Lewis, wrote in Monday's Washington Post that the news of the centrifuges will spark criticism that negotiations have proved worthless and that what is needed is increased international pressure on North Korea.
But they added in the column that what actually is needed is a thorough review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, "analysis of the facts as we best know them and an honest assessment of the options."
Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, said that only frustration will come from insisting on a complete abandonment of the North's nuclear programs.
"I don't know if there's anything you could do that would satisfy the current leadership, to make them feel secure, where they could abandon their nuclear weapons," Pinkston said of the North.
But he said that engagement may make sense if officials believe it's possible to follow a "slightly less ambitious policy" — for instance, one that involves capping the North's nuclear weapons, slowing the program down or getting a look at what the North has actually accomplished.
Associated Press writers Kelly Olsen and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects title of nuke lab. An interactive timeline about North Korea's nuclear ambitions is available as_international/north_korea_nuclear.)