The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins is concluding that North Korea has restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which has been shuttered since 2007. The plutonium-producing reactor was central to Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and provided fuel for the nuclear tests the regime has conducted as recently as this past February. Now that the North has successfully launched a ballistic missile, Washington and its allies must prepare for a far more confident North that will go right back to trying to extort aid for supposed “concessions” to end its nuclear and missile programs.
This is a script that has burned both the Bush and Obama administrations, and it is all too predictable. With Syria and Iran dominating the foreign policy headlines, this is a perfect time for the North to begin another cycle of nuclear and missile test preparation. A distracted Obama administration will only encourage aggressive behavior by ignoring such action, but can all-too-easily get bogged down in another round of meaningless negotiations. The impasse on the Korean peninsula is the result of decades of wishful thinking and a failure to press our fleeting advantages (such as the Banco Delta Asia financial sanctions on the Kim family’s personal fortune). If the North Koreans are extracting fuel again, there will likely be another test. Washington has no excuse not to be prepared, but it must understand that any new testing from the North brings it perilously close to having a functional nuclear weapon on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Accommodation and sending signals that we don’t want to exacerbate the situation is exactly what Pyongyang hopes to see.
The administration must resist attempts to blackmail it into negotiations, and must return to the idea of crimping the lifestyle of the leadership, as well as supporting South Korean plans to respond to any new provocations. This is also a time to press for better coordination between Japan and South Korea, especially given this week’s announcement that the US will deploy another X-Band radar to Japan, as well as Global Hawk surveillance drones, all of which will be used to track the North’s activities. Neither China nor Russia can be relied upon to put real pressure on the North, so American credibility will again be tested by how it responds to the North’s destabilizing actions.