U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement this weekend that North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kae Gwan will soon visit New York City is the strongest indication yet that the six-party talks -- the negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear program between the United States, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea -- could resume as early as this fall. If so, it would not only mark an end to what's been a two-year hiatus in the talks, but it could also signal the beginning of a new, and critical, phase of the negotiations. Indeed, while all the involved parties are by now deeply familiar with the basic issues at hand, the stakes are higher now than ever to salvage a palatable solution to North Korea's nuclear problem.
Right now, North Korea may well be at a critical transitional moment in the development of its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has already completed the first phase of developing such an arsenal, having built a small, minimal nuclear force consisting of a handful of weapons that it may or may not be able to mount on a few short-range missiles. The issue before us now is what dangers lie ahead if the North steps up that effort. If Pyongyang is anything like other small nuclear powers such as India, Pakistan, and Israel, we can expect it to move on to building increasing numbers of more sophisticated nuclear weapons mounted on a variety of missile delivery systems.
Imagine a world in which North Korea is armed with tens of weapons mounted on missiles able to devastate Seoul and Tokyo and, conceivably, even parts of the United States. Increasingly confident of its own nuclear prowess, Pyongyang would have free rein to indulge its worst international impulses. We could expect the North to provoke frequent confrontations with South Korea and peddle its nuclear know-how on the international black market without fear of serious reprisals.
It would also represent a strategic defeat for Washington. It would undermine the credibility of the U.S. regional nuclear umbrella, triggering escalating demands from South Korea and Japan that the United States reinforce its security commitment; it might also spur the breakdown of the entire regional nonproliferation regime, as Washington's allies move to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. All this would be happening at a time when U.S. domestic pressures to cut or redeploy conventional forces abroad would make it difficult or impossible to bolster American defense commitments. It would also seriously aggravate fault lines between the United States and China, particularly if Beijing stands aside as Pyongyang's nuclear posture grows.
While many experts are concerned about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, imagine the dangers of a politically unstable, nuclear-armed North Korea. Those weapons could become pawns in internal power struggles or even used by competing factions against each other. That may seem far-fetched, but because we are unlikely to know whether the North will have taken the proper precautions to prevent this from happening, these dangers would have to be taken seriously.
Certainly, the North has the wherewithal to expand its nuclear program if it's so inclined. Late last year, Pyongyang revealed a surprisingly sophisticated program that could eventually allow it to produce highly enriched uranium for more bombs. The North is also actively working on increasingly capable missiles at the new modern Dongchang-ri launch facility. News reports on Sunday, July 24, revealed that it had conducted rocket-engine tests late last year for those systems at that site. If North Korea is like any other small nuclear power, its scientists are probably also working on increasingly sophisticated bomb designs; the military establishment has almost certainly made plans for a bigger, more capable, nuclear arsenal.