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April 18, 2005
North Korean Brinksmanship Redux

The DPRK has ominously shut down or scaled back its power production from a nuclear reactor at its main weapons complex, raising the possibility that the NoKos will harvest more plutonium to make more weapons. It also could be nothing more than a bluff intended to make the US back down and engage in the same kind of bilateral talks that wound up going nowhere during the Clinton administration:

The suspected shutdown of a reactor at North Korea's main nuclear weapons complex has raised concern at the White House that the country could be preparing to make good on its recent threat to harvest a new load of nuclear fuel, potentially increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal.

The White House's concern over the past week arises from two developments. An American scholar with unusual access to North Korea's leaders, Selig S. Harrison, a longtime specialist on North Korea at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said after visiting the country two weeks ago that he was told by a very senior North Korean that there were plans "to unload the reactor to create a situation" to force President Bush to negotiate on terms more favorable to North Korea.

That focused new attention on spy satellite photographs of the reactor, which has been watched intensively in recent months. While American officials would not discuss what the spy satellites had seen, commercial satellite photographs of the plant, taken by DigitalGlobe and interpreted by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, show that the plant was apparently shut down or shifted to a very low power level at least 10 days ago, around the time of Mr. Harrison's visit.

Mr. Harrison's message and the satellite photographs present a mystery that has underscored how difficult it is for intelligence officials to decipher the state of the nuclear program in North Korea. The signs could mean that preparations are beginning to extract fuel rods from the aging five-megawatt reactor, the first step in the elaborate process of reprocessing the rods into weapons-grade plutonium. But there could also be more innocent explanations, among them maintenance - or a diplomatic bluff.

The Times mentions that Harrison isn't exactly a neutral analyst in this issue, either. He has frequently criticized the Bush policy on North Korea and favored bilateral negotiations instead of applying regional pressures on the Kim regime:

Though administration officials strike a public pose of little concern about North Korea's threats, the message brought back by Mr. Harrison has seized the attention of senior American officials as they are debating internally whether the diplomatic approach they have taken for the past two years should be declared a failure. White House officials are a bit skeptical of Mr. Harrison, who has been critical of Mr. Bush's refusal to negotiate one on one with North Korea, and who is often warmly received in Pyongyang, the capital.

In other words, this appears to be a bluff. How convenient that a Bush critic, one "often warmly received" by North Korea's tyrant, shows up at the same time as this rather ostentatious power fluctuation. Kim has tried everything to unbox himself from the regional stranglehold that Bush is using to pin Kim down to an agreement on disarmament. Now he wants to rattle regional nerves by appearing to add to his arsenal.

Unfortunately, the size of the arsenal is not especially relevant, at least not on this scale. The only relevant point is that Kim has nukes, not whether he has eight or sixteen. Predictably, the NY Times fails to consider this in its analysis, but I suspect that the Bush administration will show considerably less panic than Pinch Sulzberger's crew.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 18, 2005 7:47 AM

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» More Fuel For The North Korean Fire from Epoch3 Blog
Word has come from North Korean observers that the country has shut down their reactor again to harvest more spent fuel rods. The belief is that this will provide them with even more raw material for their weapons grade processing and will double the ... [Read More]

Tracked on April 18, 2005 7:25 PM

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