Surprise! Well, actually, it’s not a surprise. In 2013, North Korea announced their intention to start producing plutonium again in defiance of international sanctions. Today, intelligence chief James Clapper appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to confirm that Pyongyang has followed through on its threat — just days after a successful satellite launch:
North Korea has expanded a uranium enrichment facility and restarted a plutonium reactor that could start recovering spent fuel in weeks or months, the U.S. intelligence chief said Tuesday in delivering the annual assessment by intelligence agencies of the top dangers facing the country.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Pyongyang announced in 2013 its intention to refurbish and restart nuclear facilities, to include the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor, which was shut down in 2007.
“We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor,” Clapper said in an opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months.”
This news comes just days after North Korea launched a satellite into space, also in defiance of its previous agreements and international sanctions. CNN reports that the satellite itself appears to have fared poorly, tumbling in space and making itself useless. In terms of a test of long-range ballistic missile capability, though, it’s a rousing success. It succeeded so well, in fact, that South Korea wants an ABM missile shield system in place immediately:
Sanctions already in place against Pyongyang ban it from working with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, blacklist certain figures and organizations and prohibit the import of luxury goods.
Park called the launch a “challenge to world peace,” while her government announced it would begin talks with the United States to deploy a defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which can intercept missiles in flight.
A U.S. defense official told CNN that plans to implement the missile defense system had been accelerated in response to the launch, and it could potentially be deployed within weeks.
Concerned about U.S. military influence so close to its borders however, China has criticized the plans to implement THAAD, summoning the South Korean ambassador following Seoul’s announcement on the system.
Golly, perhaps China should have thought of that before now, eh? Or perhaps the Obama administration should have used that as leverage to get Beijing to keep a lid on Kim Jong-un and his dictatorial regime. The Washington Post editorial board condemned Barack Obama for his passiveness and inattentiveness to this danger:
President Obama’s policy since 2009, “strategic patience,” has failed. The policy has mostly consisted of ignoring North Korea while mildly cajoling China to pressure the regime. As the supplier of most of the isolated country’s energy and food, Beijing has enormous leverage. But Chinese President Xi Jinping appears even more committed than his predecessors to the doctrine that it is preferable to tolerate the Kim regime — and its nuclear proliferation — than do anything that might destabilize it. …
What is needed is a return to the only non-military strategy that brought results: sanctions that strike at the regime’s inner circle. Mr. Kim and his cronies are still managing to import luxury goods from China, in spite of a U.N. ban; they still use Chinese banks to do business with the rest of the world. Those links could be curtailed if China, like Iran before it, were designated as a money launderer and U.S. sanctions were slapped on Chinese banks and other businesses that supply weapons and luxury goods.
Pending U.S. sanctions legislation, already passed by the House and scheduled for a Senate floor vote this week, would mandate these steps, while providing the administration with some flexibility. It should pass, and Mr. Obama should sign it. The administration and South Korea have taken one positive step, by announcing formal consultations on deploying an advanced missile defense system in South Korea as quickly as possible. That sensible step had been on hold because of China’s objections. …
“Strategic patience” is no longer a viable option.
It wasn’t viable in the first place, as events have shown. Obama’s passive foreign policy, often called “leading from behind,” has encouraged Chinese aggression and obstinance on a wide range of issues, and North Korea is only one of those. To harken back to Teddy Roosevelt, speaking softly only works when carrying a big stick and making sure everyone knows you are prepared to use it. Otherwise, all you’re doing is whispering and sending the signal that no one need bother to listen.