North Korea’s nuclear test and military provocations in 2009 and 2010 created a situation far too dangerous to leave unattended. When President Obama hosts South Korean President Lee Myung-bak this week, they are likely to discuss a second round of U.S.-North Korea talks this month, effectively opening the first negotiation of Obama’s presidency to contain North Korean belligerence.
The goal of this diplomacy remains the peaceful denuclearization of North Korea. But the administration needs to make clear the costs that will come with a failed negotiation. For too long, the North Koreans have been told to “denuclearize or else,” yet the regime has defied agreements with little consequence. Washington would do well to plan with other participants in the “six-party talks” — South Korea, China, Russia and Japan — and U.N. Security Council members the consequences of another failed negotiation: financial sanctions, military augmentations of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and other actions that target the regime in Pyongyang.
While many remain skeptical that denuclearization is achievable through diplomacy, efforts will be made to build on the agreement reached by the Bush administration in 2005. That agreement promised political and economic incentives in return for verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all of Kim Jong Il’s nuclear treasures; it fell apart when the North would not reveal its nuclear secrets to inspectors. A new negotiation must avoid the same dead end while pursuing denuclearization. Economic and political incentives need to remain on the table, but Washington should try to achieve peaceful denuclearization by building three new elements into its strategy.
First, nuclear safety. Simply put, you cannot dismantle that which is not safe. The meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in March happened at an old complex but one that was relatively safe by international standards. The Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea is anything but safe.
Almost a decade ago the International Atomic Energy Agency deemed North Korean nuclear facilities, radiation shielding systems, cranes and waste disposal sites seriously defective. The agency has been unable to implement any safeguards measures in recent years.
Construction practices at the old plutonium complex and the centrifuge enrichment facility that the North revealed in November 2010 are not compatible with international reactor safety standards, according to an American scientist who visited the site. One nuclear expert, who now serves in the Obama administration, stated after a 2007 visit to Yongbyon that the levels of radioactive contamination leaking at the site would require its closure were it in a U.S. state. North Koreans have admitted to South Korean nuclear experts that their design team for a new light-water reactor comprises young, domestically trained engineers who learned by “trial and error.” Experts at the Nautilus Institute cite the location of spent fuel rods near the reactor cores or in reactor secondary containment buildings as design flaws and factors that could contribute to a meltdown. North Korea’s unreliable power grid also could lead to accidental shutdowns for nuclear power generation.