Low-Key U.S. Reaction to Uranium Enrichment Revelations May Have Prompted North Korean Aggression, Analysts Say

By Patrick Goodenough | November 24, 2010 | 6:03 AM EST

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young holds a moment of silence in Seoul for the two South Korean marines killed in the North Korean attack, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Yonhap, Kim Hyun-tae)

(CNSNews.com) – Pondering possible reasons for North Korea’s deadly artillery attack on its southern neighbor, some Pyongyang-watchers in South Korea believe the regime is trying to prod the U.S. into talks after its most recent provocation – the unveiling of previously-undisclosed uranium enrichment facilities – failed to generate the desired response.

Other proffered theories include a show of strength to quell any suggestion of internal instability surrounding North Korea’s succession process.

Although North Korean forces have occasionally caused provocations near the land and maritime borders Tuesday’s attack on Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea was described in Seoul as the first direct shelling of its territory since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.

More than 100 shells landed on the small island, which houses a military base and a civilian residential area, and lies just south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) sea border, which Pyongyang does not recognize.

South Korea’s defense ministry said two marines were killed and 16 injured, six of them seriously. Three civilians were also hurt.

South Korea fired back, and President Lee Myun-bak warned that “enormous retaliation” would be necessary if the North “maintains an offensive posture.”

Pyongyang through its official mouthpiece linked the incident to annual military exercises currently underway in South Korea, but analysts suggested that was merely a pretext.

A police ship carrying evacuated residents of the island targeted by North Korean artillery on Tuesday arrives at a port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010.. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

Several days ago North Korean officials invited an American scientist to inspect its nuclear complex at Yongbyon where the visitor, former Los Alamos National Laboratory head Siegfried Hecker, witnessed uranium-enrichment facilities he later described as “stunning.”

“Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us,” Hecker said in a written report on his return.

Hecker briefed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, the State Department said.

As long ago as October 2002 the Bush administration confronted North Korea with evidence that it had for several years been covertly enriching uranium, in direct contravention of a 1994 agreement with the U.S. called the Agreed Framework.

The State Department said then that the North Koreans admitted the violation, and the carefully-crafted Agreed Framework began to unravel, with the North restarting a plutonium-based reactor that had been mothballed under the 1994 deal, expelling U.N. inspectors, and later twice testing nuclear devices.

In a bid to resolve the crisis, from 2003 onwards the U.S. and four other affected countries – South Korea, Japan, China and Russia – held numerous rounds of “six-party talks” with Pyongyang, throughout which North Korea has consistently denied the uranium-enrichment claims.

The talks have been stalled since the end of 2008.

‘Come to the table’

If North Korea was hoping to prompt a favorable response from Washington by showing its facilities to Hecker, it was not successful.

“We will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behavior,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on Monday. “They frequently anticipate doing something outrageous or provocative and forcing us to jump through hoops as a result, and we’re not going to buy into this cycle.”

U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth then reaffirmed while visiting the region that the six-party talks would not resume “while active programs are underway or while there is a possibility that the North Koreans will test another nuclear device or test a missile.” Japan and South Korea have concurred, although a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Tuesday “the most urgent task is to restart the six-party talks at the earliest possible date.”

Yang Moo-jin, a North Korean expert at Kyungnam University, told the Korea Herald Tuesday that Pyongyang likely “felt ignored and enraged” at the stance taken by the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

Yang said North Korea as a result wanted to show that it was “fully capable of increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula” – hence Tuesday’s artillery assault.

“Because the revelation of the uranium enrichment facilities did not drive the U.S. to move as much as it wants, it seemed to have moved further with a message demanding that the U.S. come to the table before it is too late,” Yang told another newspaper, the JoongAng Ilbo.

Song Dae-sung, president of the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, agreed the attack was an attempt to get the U.S. to talk.

North Korea’s extreme action can be seen as a threat by which to generate dialogue with President Obama,” he told The Daily NK, a South Korean news hub focusing on the North.

“Even though they displayed centrifuges through which they could produce uranium weapons, there was no change in the U.S. attitude, so they carried out the attack on us.”

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.S. and top arms control official in the Bush administration, says returning to talks would be a grave mistake.

“The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North,” he said in an article on the uranium enrichment development.

“Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong-il faces the actuarial tables,” said Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.”

‘Red lines’

Another supposition put forward Tuesday linked the attack to the succession process in Pyongyang, where Kim Jong-il is believed to be gradually handing over authority to one of his sons, Kim Jong-un.

The regime may believe creating tension with the rest of the world would help build loyalty among the North Korean people to the heir-apparent, said Korea University professor Yoo Ho-yeol.

“The attack appears to be part of the North’s attempt to consolidate internal grip on the way for the success of Kim Jong-un,” the Korea Times said in an editorial Wednesday.

Seoul should prepare for additional bizarre provocative acts from the North, including its third nuclear test, as the North consolidates the power of Kim Jong-un and prepares for the centenary of the birth of its founder Kim Il-sung in 2012.”

The independent intelligence analysis firm, Stratfor, mulled whether North Korea was trying to “move the red line for conventional attacks,” as it has done successfully in the case of the nuclear standoff and missile development.

“Is North Korea attempting to test or push back against limits on conventional attacks?” it said in an analysis. “If so, are these attacks meant to test South Korea and its allies ahead of an all-out military action, or is the North seeking a political response as it has with its nuclear program?

“If the former, we must reassess North Korea’s behavior and ascertain whether the North Koreans are preparing to try a military action against South Korea – perhaps trying to seize one or more of the five South Korean islands along the NLL. If the latter, then at what point will they actually cross a red line that will trigger a response?”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow