Reports from two separate U.S. delegations to North Korea--one led by Charles "Jack" Pritchard from the Korea Economic Institute and the other by Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University (PDF)--have confirmed that North Korea continues to strengthen and potentially expand its nuclear capabilities. Both delegations were shown initial construction of what was described as a 25-30 Megawatt-electric (MWe) Light Water Reactor (LWR). The Hecker delegation was also shown a fuel fabrication plant in which 2000 centrifuges were organized in six cascades configured to enrich uranium, either for fuel production for LWRs or possibly for the purpose of expanding stocks of weapons grade fissile material. The 5 megawatt plutonium reactor that was shut down in July of 2007 remains inoperative.
These revelations of new construction of a light water reactor are consistent with initial satellite analysis of the LWR construction site conducted by Paul Brannan and David Albright in a report released from the Institute of Science and International Security in October. The revelations offer supporting evidence that North Korea is indeed pursuing uranium enrichment, consistent with North Korean claims since June 2009 that it would "bolster its nuclear deterrent in a newly developed way."
Revelations regarding North Korea's enriched uranium program pose a direct challenge to the Obama administration's policy on a number of fronts.
First, the renewed nuclear activities challenge the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," because any delay in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue allows North Korea to expand its stockpile of fissile materials. North Korea's activities also create political obstacles for the Obama administration to return to talks over North Korea's program, particularly in light of widespread skepticism--reinforced by these latest reports --that such negotiations would lead North Korea to give up its program.
Second, the construction of an advanced facility for uranium enrichment underscores the failure-to-date of the international sanctions regime imposed under UN Security Council Resolution 1874. The finding of the two delegations is consistent with the findings of the report (PDF) of an international panel of UN-commissioned experts to assess the implementation of the UN resolution. That report indicated North Korea has been finding ways around the sanctions regime by using front companies and false manifests--presumably primarily through China--to secure the necessary materials to pursue its program. Reports of North Korea's apparent ability to evade the international sanctions regime may lead to a redoubling of efforts to strengthen sanctions on North Korea at the UN while underscoring the insufficiency of counterproliferation efforts by themselves to curb North Korean nuclear efforts.
Third, North Korea's renewed nuclear efforts highlight the lack of agreement between China and the United States and South Korea in their approaches to North Korea, notably after the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last March. China has moved closer to North Korea and has supported stabilization of the Kim Jong-Il regime as it prepares for a family succession.
The PRC has apparently not only failed to restrain North Korean nuclear efforts, but is increasingly viewed as an enabler of North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea's renewed nuclear development efforts are likely to push North Korea higher on the Sino-U.S. agenda while strengthening skepticism of China's willingness to cooperate in restraining its neighbor. Presumably, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth's visit to Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing this week is designed to shore up regional cohesion in response to the latest revelations from Pyongyang. Absent a shared view between Washington, Seoul, and Beijing on the importance of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, near-term prospects for restraining North Korea's nuclear development remain bleak.