[Viewpoint] One weird reality showBefore North Korea premiered the second season of its nuclear drama, a publicity event took place. The New York Times reported that North Korea had shown a visiting U.S. scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker of Stanford University, a uranium enrichment facility equipped with centrifuges. The world is now watching the latest show, wondering who will be the director, the starring actors and what will be the theme.
Season one of the nuclear drama was about North Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il’s heroic negotiation battles with the Untied States over his nuclear weapons program. The scenario focused on making Kim the “Great Leader” who built a strong country and military by carrying out two nuclear tests despite U.S. pressure.
This artificially created “Great Leader” succeeded in arming his country with nuclear weapons, but it is hard to ignore the fact that he is also the primary culprit in the North Korean population’s steady slide into starvation. The North Korean leadership, therefore, has to resolve its economic crisis, in addition to promoting itself as “a strong military country.”
For the second season of the nuclear drama, and to create a new leader who is capable of arming the country with nuclear weapons and resolving the economic crisis, the director and the hero is being recast from Kim to his son and successor, Jong-un. Kim Jong-un recently became entitled to wear the uniform of a general and gain some control over the armed forces. He also made a grand political debut after his appointment as vice chairman of the Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission.
The North is making sure that Kim Jong-un is the one to restart the diplomatic battle with the United States over its light-water reactor program. The North claims that about 2,000 centrifuges are already installed and operating. Hecker argues that the North is capable of producing 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium annually, enough to build two nuclear warheads if Pyongyang redesigns the facility. With that development, the danger of North Korea becoming a more robustly nuclear-armed state is rising fast and Washington will need to adjust.
The North will demand the six-party talks resume. Furthermore, it will try to use the talks to directly negotiate with the United States by linking its uranium program with earlier promises from the outside world to help it construct light-water reactors. The North will likely demand that the international community build the reactors in return for giving up its uranium program. And internally, the North will crow that those negotiations were carried out under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.
If it is rewarded with light-water reactors, the North will try to use them as proof of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. The North probably wants light-water reactors to produce both uranium for bombs and electricity at the same time. The uranium will give it an opportunity to bolster its nuclear arms cache, while the energy production part will give it a new opportunity to resolve its energy crisis.
The propaganda to highlight Kim Jong-un’s achievements has already been in high gear in the North. The term “CNC,” referring to computer numerical control technology, has been promoted as if it were the achievement of Kim Jong-un. The acquisition of light-water reactors is an important tangible step to glorify the successor’s leadership.
The North’s strategy, however, is hardly foolproof. Although it insists that the light-water reactors are to be used for peaceful purposes, the North already developed a nuclear arms programs in violation of its international commitments, losing its credibility. In these circumstances, the North’s right to peaceful nuclear programs must be restricted.
At the same time, the North’s uranium enrichment program is in violation of its international commitment to denuclearize and a direct challenge to UN resolutions. Pressure from the international community, with the United States at the center, will likely grow.
Even after the North showed off its uranium enrichment facility, the United States made clear that there will be no negotiations to reward the North for its bad behavior.
China may also not turn a blind eye to the North’s repeated provocations.
The North’s light-water reactor card, therefore, will have some limits in jump-starting the six-party talks. It will also be difficult for Pyongyang to win light-water reactors by negotiating with Washington within the six-party talks. It is clear that international sanctions will be strengthened if the North continues its uranium enrichment program to build a light-water reactor. Pyongyang must never forget that the second season of the nuclear drama featuring Kim Jong-un will have a tragic ending.
*The writer is a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
By Jeung Young-tai