In a Sept. 3 letter sent to the U.N. Security Council, North Korea announced it is close to completing experimental uranium extraction, with ongoing weaponization of plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. With those pronouncements, Pyongyang said it is prepared for sanctions or dialogue. The message comes at the same time as an Asian visit by U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth and is in keeping with North Korea's pattern of creating new crises to encourage dialogue.
North Korea, in a Sept. 3 letter to the U.N. Security Council, announced it has almost completed experimental uranium extraction and continues to weaponize plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. In the same message, Pyongyang said it was prepared for sanctions or dialogue. The message was timed to match U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth's visit to Asia, and follows North Korea's pattern to create crises, paving the way for dialogue. Pyongyang's letter to the United Nations balanced threatening rhetoric about new nuclear weapons development with a call for the resumption of dialogue. Since the early 1990s, when the Cold War system collapsed and Pyongyang found itself standing alone against the United States, Pyongyang has employed a dual-track policy of creating crises with the intent to negotiate back down to the status quo, and gain concessions along the way. For North Korea, the concessions are not as important as the broader goal — maintaining the regime. And this Pyongyang has done remarkably well, despite deep-seated economic problems, international condemnation and pressure, and a charter position on the U.S. Axis of Evil list. North Korea has steadily escalated the sense of crisis this year, detaining two U.S. journalists in March, carrying out a second nuclear test May 25 — and two days later declaring itself no longer bound by the Armistice Agreement — and carrying out a series of missile tests between July 2 and July 4. But in recent weeks, Pyongyang appeared to step back from confrontation, hosting former U.S. President Bill Clinton in early August and releasing the U.S. journalists, hosting South Korean representatives of Hyundai, re-opening the border crossing to the Kaesong joint economic zone and sending representatives to Seoul for the funeral of former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The latest letter once again raises tensions, with Pyongyang claiming not only to still be preparing additional nuclear weapons, but also pursuing uranium enrichment (an accusation that in 2002 triggered a several-year nuclear crisis). Pyongyang's Yongbyon reactor — which the country shut down as part of its negotiations with the United States and others — is a plutonium reactor, and purifying weapons-grade plutonium is somewhat simpler than purifying uranium, as it uses a simpler chemical process rather than a four-stage process that includes complex cascades of centrifuges . However, creating a plutonium-based nuclear weapon is more complex, requiring a perfectly timed and perfectly placed set of explosive charges around a sphere of plutonium that detonate at the exact moment with the exact force, triggering fission. This implosion device requires much finer skill and quality control than the simpler gun-type device that uses uranium — which essentially fires one piece of uranium into another, the force of the collision triggering the reaction. North Korea's claim of experimental uranium enrichment is probably not with the use of the centrifuges, but rather with laboratory tests with laser isotope separation, and thus at this stage, it is highly unlikely that Pyongyang has enough weaponized uranium to create even a single nuclear device. Rather, it is simply sending a message that there is more to deal with in resolving the North Korean situation. It is very common for Pyongyang to add one or two additional elements into the mix shortly before restarting dialogue, making the new items the top priority for resolution. When it works, Pyongyang gives up something it does not even really have (or at least not functionally), and in return receives money, fuel, food and time. Pyongyang has a history of pre-arranging crises and launching both the stressors and talks at times of its own choosing. North Korea has set the resumption of dialogue for around October, after the country completes a 150-day mass economic campaign. Starting the new crisis now puts them on track. By announcing the uranium enrichment now, as Bosworth is traveling to Asia to meet with his partners in dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis, Pyongyang can stir confusion and disagreement among the partners, and later exploit these differences. In addition, by raising the stakes right after making more friendly gestures, North Korea leaves many arguing that the regime is desperate for dialogue, and whether dialogue, sanctions or more concrete action are necessary. This places Washington in a no-win situation. If it tries to simply ignore North Korea, Pyongyang can exploit the concerns of its neighbors and the international media to pressure U.S. action. Washington is unlikely to try a more permanent solution via military means, leaving a continuation of the U.S. program to target sanctions and dialogue. This also creates political problems, not only in the potential example it sets for U.S. nuclear policy toward Iran (and Washington has tried to distinguish between the two as separate cases), but also in perpetuating the seemingly never-ending cycle of North Korean provocation and appeasement.