It’s tempting at times like this to liken China to a guardian that has to keep answering the door to frustrated neighbours armed with a new complaint about its unruly teenager. The next visitor to China’s front door will be Stephen Bosworth, the US envoy to North Korea.
Bosworth’s trip, which is also taking in meetings with South Korean and Japanese officials, is aimed at crafting a response to North Korea’s unveiling of a new plant for enriching uranium, a facility that gives the country another option for producing highly-enriched uranium bomb fuel.
According to a report released by Siegfried Hecker of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, who visited the Yongbyon nuclear complex earlier this month, the facility is much further advanced than most analysts had expected.
Hecker notes that the control room at the fuel fabrication plant is ‘astonishingly modern. Unlike the reprocessing facility and reactor control room, which looked like 1950s US or 1980s Soviet instrumentation, this control room would fit into any modern American processing facility.’
‘I expressed surprise that they were apparently able to get cascades of 2000
centrifuges working so quickly, and asked again if the facility is actually operating now,’ Hecker wrote in the report. ‘We were given an emphatic, yes. We were not able to independently verify this, although it was not inconsistent with what we saw.’
All this raises some troubling questions—how did the country acquire such sophisticated centrifuge technology so quickly? Are there other uranium centrifuge facilities somewhere else? How much knowledge of the procurement scheme do Chinese officials have?
The US has been keen to tamp down any suggestion that this is news to it, describing the finding as ‘provocative’, but not a surprise. Still, speaking on ABC’s ‘This Week’ show yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen hinted that the US might not be fully up to speed on this when he emphasized the difficulties in securing reliable information on North Korea.
Mullen told Christiane Amanpour: ‘This is something we've been concerned about for a significant period of time, and also penetration of the North Koreans, in terms of intelligence capabilities, is very, very difficult.’
Mullen, along with a number of US officials and policymakers, pointed to China as the key country in any efforts to pressure North Korea. He noted that the United States had been ‘engaged’ with China for a significant amount of time on the issue and that a great deal of the effort to ‘re-engage’ on the issue ‘will have to be done through Beijing’.
It’s still up for debate exactly how much influence Beijing has with North Korea, although the two trips to China this year by Kim Jong-il, and the introduction of his son and presumed successor, Kim Jong-un, to visiting Chinese officials last month suggest North Korea places some significant value on its ties with China.
But regardless of how much sway Beijing has, it’s still not clear whether it wants to exercise it in a way that will satisfy the United States and its allies. One sign was China’s decision to block for months a UN report on North Korean compliance (or otherwise) with sanctions. Another was the announcement by the United States last month that it had a ‘significant’ list of Chinese firms and banks that were violating the sanctions (although it added that it didn’t believe these activities had been authorized by officials).
It’s difficult to see where things go from here. The US would likely want to push for even tougher sanctions and would argue that the latest move violates UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which states that North Korea should ‘abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner and immediately
cease all related activities.’
But North Korea will no doubt have calculated, quite probably correctly, that Beijing has no intention of backing stricter sanctions measures.
Successive US administrations have found themselves damned if they do talk to North Korea and damned if they don’t. But with no viable pre-emptive military option open, and with sanctions failing to bite the regime hard enough to dissuade it from its chosen path, we might very well find ourselves back on the well-trodden ‘make a deal, break a deal’ path of offering bribes for good behaviour that never materializes.