N. Korea’s “New Look” Nuclear Program

Pyongyang’s nuclear program hasn’t been in the headlines lately. In the next few months that could change.

North Korea’s “new look” leadership, including speculation about both leadership and potential economic reforms, have drawn the lion’s share of media attention in recent weeks. As a result, the fact that North Korea’s nuclear program continues unchecked has dropped from the headlines following North Korea’s failed rocket launch in April and the subsequent breakdown of the Obama administration’s “leap day” understanding with North Korea. An article this month by Frank V. Pabian and Siegfried Hecker in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and an Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) report by David Albright and Christina Walrond are firm reminders that North Korea’s nuclear program continue regardless of whether or not they are in the headlines.

Pabian and Hecker build on geo-spatial analysis of North Korea’s two previous tests to suggest possible options North Korea might take (or might have already taken) in the event they decide to conduct a third test. The ISIS paper provides preliminary estimates regarding North Korea’s potential production of weapon-grade plutonium if they decide to use the LWR currently nearing completion at Yongbyun for such purposes. However, North Korea’s uranium enrichment efforts add a sizable degree of uncertainty to estimates of North Korea’s fissile material stocks because there is no credible means of monitoring North Korean production of weapons-grade materials now that North Korea is using centrifuge technology, most likely at a secret site, for the purpose of uranium enrichment.

But as he takes steps to consolidate his power, Kim Jong-un appears to be holding the program even closer, acknowledging the program as his father’s achievement by including mention of it in North Korea’s revised constitution. It is even possible to imagine that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent might even become an internal justification for North Korea to pursue limited economic reforms that in turn, may tempt neighbors to strengthen relations with Kim Jong-un’s nuclear North Korea.

As a first step in this direction, North Korea has normalized its relationship with China, with China’s CCP International Liaison Department head Wang Jiarui becoming the first foreign official to meet with Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-taek visited China weeks later to talk about two major economic zones on which the two sides have agreed to cooperate. A rumored Kim Jong-un visit to China would be a major step toward conferring legitimacy upon Kim Jong-un and shoring up external financial support for the new leader in the name of stability, even while North Korea’s nuclear program continues apace. South Korea’s new president, to be elected in December, is also likely to pursue better relations, including a more stable inter-Korean relationship that is unlikely to be conditioned solely on North Korea’s denuclearization. Even if these developments provide a near-term motive for North Korea to defer a nuclear test, they will leave the U.S. marginalized in its efforts to deny acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status.

The task of coordinating South Korea’s likely shift in policy toward engagement while refusing to acquiesce to North Korea as a nuclear power would be difficult enough to manage if there is a transition in power only in South Korea, but the there is also the possibility of a dual power transition in Washington and Seoul in the event that President Obama does not win re-election. This circumstance presents a worrisome opportunity for North Korea to keep pressing forward on its own nuclear program, and could provide two new administrations with an early and urgent test for the alliance. Even if North Korea’s nuclear program is off the front pages, it does not lessen the gravity or capacity of the North Korea issue to become a major policy headache for both Washington and Seoul in 2013.

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Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.