North Korea's New Nuclear Revelations: What Should the U.S. Do?

In the last two weeks, North Korea unveiled the construction of a new nuclear reactor and a uranium enrichment facility. These advances in the nuclear program demand that the United States reassess its policies toward North Korea and reinvigorate its attempts to engage with the rogue regime. Robert Carlin and John Lewis, both Ploughshares grantees, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on Monday reporting on their recent trip to North Korea and offering U.S. policy solutions going forward.  This op-ed accompanies technical analysis from Sig Hecker of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, also a Ploughshares grantee on the Korea trip, which featured prominently in The New York Times.

Carlin and Lewis reported that the enrichment facility contains “more than 2,000 centrifuges” that appear “well-built” and “modern.” The North Koreans told them that the centrifuges were operating, but Carlin and Lewis were unable to verify this fact.

Noting shortcomings in U.S. policy towards North Korea in recent years, Carlin and Lewis called for a reassessment of U.S. policy toward North Korea. The sanctions and isolation regime has so far failed to deny North Korea the resources necessary to continue its nuclear efforts. Further, Carlin and Lewis fear that pushing North Korea towards deepening its dependence on China is not good for long-term US interests in the region.

Yet Carlin and Lewis remain optimistic about American efforts to engage with North Korea diplomatically. Instead of writing off negotiation as too difficult, Carlin and Lewis urge greater efforts and longer-term thinking:

Dealing with North Korea is not easy, and the process has been exacerbated by myths about the travails of negotiating with its regime. This is not a problem of a particular administration or party. North Korea is on the sad list of countries that, over the years, Americans have convinced themselves they cannot understand and believe, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that it is impossible to engage. Not so long ago, of course, China and North Vietnam were high on that list.

Carlin and Lewis make one major recommendation: “U.S. policymakers need to go back to square one. A realistic place to start fresh may be quite simple: accepting the existence of North Korea as it is, a sovereign state with its own interests.”