Whoever wins Tuesday's election will face a long list of foreign-policy challenges, ranging from Iran's nuclear weapons program to the Arab Spring. Usually lurking somewhere behind the frontrunners is North Korea and its own home-grown nuclear effort. But there are good reasons why dealing with the threat presented by Pyongyang should be near the top of the to-do list for a new president. After all, if the North follows its historical playbook, it may present him with one of his first crises abroad.
Why should a new administration view the challenge of North Korea as a priority? First, regional perceptions that the United States is not paying sufficient attention to the North Korean threat would raise doubts about the credibility and seriousness of the American "pivot" towards Asia. Second, we cannot ignore the fact that a hostile, nuclear-armed North is located next door to South Korea and Japan, two major military allies and trading partners. Both countries will question U.S. security commitments if they perceive a weakening of American resolve to reduce the North Korean threat to their security. For these reasons alone, whoever wins on Nov. 6 should pay more attention to the North Korean problem before it gets out of hand.
Even more disturbing, U.S. diplomatic passivity in the face of a growing North Korean threat feeds Pyongyang's narrative that it now has the upper hand in its relationship with the United States. North Korea believes it has emerged from a difficult three years with flying colors. Pyongyang has successfully weathered a U.S.-South Korean effort that, in the words of one former Obama administration official, was intended to "force North Korea to reassess the value of its program and therefore maximize the chance of pursuing denuclearization seriously."
How did that work out?
Despite that effort, the North's leadership transition is progressing, its economic decline has halted, and its development of weapons of mass destruction is moving forward. This new reality was obvious to us during a recent meeting with North Korean officials, who felt that they were now in a strong position to deal with the United States.
The most obvious danger is North Korea's WMD program, which may grow significantly by 2016. True, the North hasn't conducted any missile or nuclear tests, failed or successful, recently. But we cannot ignore the reality that Pyongyang is steadily moving down the road to becoming a small nuclear power, perhaps in as little as four years. A recent study by a well-regarded American expert concludes that, in a worst-case scenario, the North may acquire almost 50 nuclear weapons by 2016 (it has a handful today). Moreover, despite the failure of Pyongyang's missile test last spring, the North is sinking millions of dollars into facilities designed to test new, bigger, and better ballistic missiles that presumably will be armed with nuclear weapons.
Measurements of the flame trench and distances between the four concrete footings for a gantry at a new pad under construction at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground (Musudan-ri) indicate a site designed for a larger rocket than the Unha. Propellant and oxidizer buildings are larger than those at the new Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri).