News / Asia

Q&A: How North Korea's Nuclear Claim Looks to South Korea, China

American nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker's recent visit to North Korea has revealed new details about North Korea's uranium enrichment program. He was stunned, he says, by the sophistication of the new facility and the speed at which it was built.

The revelations have likely prompted closed-door, top level meetings inside the governments of Pyongyang's two neighbors, South Korea and China, although neither country has officially responded to the revelations.

VOA's Victor Beattie talks about the possible ramifications with Mike Chinoy, a Senior Fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of the 2008 book "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

North Korea apparently chose to allow Siegfried Hecker to see new details about their uranium enrichment efforts. Why now?

The North Koreans have always wanted, for many years, to have uranium enrichment capability, although for a very long time their efforts to acquire the components and to actually put one together didn't go very far.  This recent effort appears to have really only picked up steam in the last year or 15 months, and I think what's significant about the timing is that the North Koreans have since a year ago this past summer been seeking to re-engage with the United States.  They wanted bilateral talks with the U.S. They've signaled the willingness to return to the six party talks, but under somewhat different terms than before in that they've wanted to be accepted as a nuclear power as the point of departure for any of that diplomatic engagement. The Obama administration, sticking with its allies in South Korea, has been very reluctant to get involved in talking directly with the North Koreans, and I think, the move now by the North Koreans to start building a uranium enrichment plant is what happens when you don't talk to the North.  The North Koreans have repeatedly sought to signal that in the absence of engagement, they will move ahead to develop what they call their nuclear deterrent, and this uranium enrichment is really part of that."

How does this affect Pyongyang's relationship with South Korea, which has been particularly tense since Seoul blamed the North for the March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan?

"For South Korea, there is a somewhat similar moral as with the United States which is: this is what happens if you don't talk to the North Koreans. Because the South Koreans, particularly following the sinking of their naval vessel, like the Americans, have been unwilling to get involved in negotiations. They've insisted that the North Koreans apologize for the sinking of that ship. They've insisted that the North Koreans make clear commitments in advance about what they would do to roll back their nuclear program. And, at the same time, they, like the United States, have supported U.N. efforts at sanctions and other attempts to sort of coerce and pressure North Korea. Sanctions, coercion, pressure generally don't work with the North Koreans. They can inflict harm on North Korea, but there's very little evidence that they actually produce positive change in North Korean policy in the direction that the United States' allies would like."

How does this affect North Korea's relationship with its most important international ally, China?

"For the Chinese, it's obviously embarrassing to see their friends in North Korea do this. The Chinese have been pushing the U.S. and South Korea for months now to talk to North Korea. Chinese diplomats have been going to Seoul and going to Washington, saying 'It's time to put aside your objections and the North Koreans are willing to come back to the six party talks.  It's time to talk to them,' and that has not been advice that Washington has and Seoul have heeded.  The other thing is that it's very clear that the Chinese feel their main concern in the Korean peninsula is instability in North Korea and they are not going to let North Korea go down.  And this imposes built-in limits on how much pressure or coercion they are willing to inflict on North Korea. And the answer is not very much."

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