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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 248 (February 7, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

North Korea Experts Discuss Pyongyang's Nuclear Threats at a Seoul Forum

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean and U.S. experts discussed North Korea's nuclear threats and the possible countermeasures to take if the North follows through with its threat of conducting a third nuclear test during a security forum in Seoul this week.

   Tensions are high on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea threatened to conduct a third nuclear test in retaliation for a U.N. Security Council resolution that widened sanctions against Pyongyang for its December rocket launch. There have been a series of signs indicating its imminent detonation.

   During the forum hosted by Yonhap News Agency and the Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) of Stanford University on Feb. 5, the experts reviewed the past diplomatic efforts on North Korea and looked at current security situations and prospects in the Northeast Asian region amid a series of leadership changes in China, Japan and South Korea.

   The experts agreed that if North Korea conducts a third nuclear test, South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye's pledge for engagement with the communist regime would be revoked, urging Pyongyang to change its policy of confrontation. Park, who is to be sworn in as the president on Feb. 25, has pledged more positive interactions with North Korea than her predecessor.

   "If North Korea uses the coming year to attack South Korea again or conduct another test of a nuclear device or long-range rocket, the possibility of significant near-term improvement in the situation on the Korean Peninsula will evaporate," said David Straub, associated director for the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University.

   "Fundamental choices must be made by North Korea, because it is Pyongyang that is on a fundamentally wrongheaded and unsustainable course," said Straub, who served as head of the U.S. State Department's Korea desk from 2002 to 2004.

   Straub hopes North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un will "understand that the possession of nuclear weapons and the threat and use of conventional force against others are only worsening their own strategic situation."

   Former U.S. defense secretary William Perry said diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions have been a failure, and South Korea, the U.S. and other nations must pay attention to the reality of the North's nuclear capabilities.

   "When I consider where we are with North Korea today, compared with 13 years ago, I am compelled to conclude that diplomacy with North Korea in the past 13 years may well go down as the greatest diplomatic failure in our history," Perry said at the forum.

   Perry, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said diplomacy with North Korea has allowed Pyongyang to "build a small nuclear arsenal, conduct two nuclear tests and prepare for another nuclear test."

   "They have built at least two uranium enrichment facilities, probably using one of these to build highly enriched uranium to increase their nuclear arsenal," Perry said.

   "One lesson we must learn from that is we should not continue the same losing diplomatic strategy," he said.

   The former U.S. defense chief said in a separate interview with Yonhap that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test soon with either plutonium-based devices or highly enriched uranium, or both. "I think they are technically ready or will be ready in a few weeks (for the nuclear test)," he said.

   However, he dismissed the notion that the North's long-range rockets or nuclear weapons will be a serious threat to the U.S.

   "Suppose North Korea has 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), but how can they threaten the U.S. that has more than a thousand ICBMs? I don't think the North Korean government is suicidal," he said.

   He also said any military options for the U.S. against Pyongyang are not practical, citing different circumstances now than from some two decades ago. In 1994, Washington prepared for an attack on the North when the communist country was beginning to produce plutonium at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, and Perry himself was involved in the plan.

   "In those days, all the North Korean nuclear facilities were in one place so that we could attack them with one strike. But now, facilities are spreading all over the country, and bombs could be moved around from place to place. So it's not possible today to eliminate all the nuclear capability," he said.

   Just as the U.S. did back then, the use of military is "always the last possible alternative," Perry said, advocating the launch of "an official dialogue."

   "We need an official dialogue between senior officials of the U.S. and North Korea. Any unofficial dialogues can only be the stepping stones to the official one," he said.

   Officials in Seoul have said North Korea has completed all preparations and could detonate a nuclear device at any time.
Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist at Stanford University who was shown North Korea's modern uranium enrichment facility during a visit to the country in late 2010, called for South Korea and the U.S. to lay out a new policy aimed at limiting the North's nuclear threat before the North's nuclear ambitions become "an increasingly menacing and permanent fixture."

   However, Hecker estimated that the North's nuclear threat is "still in its infancy."

   "American and South Korean policies since 2002 designed to denuclearize North Korea have failed to halt the North's relentless march to enhance its nuclear programs -- from nuclear reactors, to uranium enrichment, to nuclear tests and its long-range missile capabilities," Hecker said.

   "Yet, in spite of the North's threatening rhetoric, the nuclear threat is still in its infancy -- the worst is yet to come, unless the new administrations formulate policies that focus on limiting the threat," he said.

   Numerous analysts have raised doubts over Washington's so-called "strategic patience" approach toward North Korea, a policy which shuns direct talks with the North until it agrees to abide by past nuclear commitments.

   "North Korea has now categorically stated its nuclear weapons are not negotiable," Hecker said. "South Korean and American actions must focus on those weapons being a temporary hedge rather than an increasingly menacing and permanent fixture."

   The six-nation talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, have been dormant since April 2009, when the North quit the negotiating table and conducted its second nuclear test a month later.

   Pyongyang claims the uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy development, but outside experts believe it will give the country a new source of fission material to make atomic bombs, in addition to its widely known plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.

   Hecker said North Korea will likely conduct its third nuclear test with a highly enriched uranium (HEU) explosion because there is "no plutonium in the pipeline."

   "The North's Yongbyon nuclear facility has a potential for 2 tons of low-enriched uranium fuel per year or 40 kilograms of HEU per year," Hecker said.

   If North Korea follows through on its threats of a nuclear test with HEU, it will "potentially greatly expand the size of their nuclear arsenal because we don't know when and where they enrich uranium because it is so easy to hide."

   Hecker also said "(The North's) uranium enrichment appears to have all requisite technologies."

   During the forum, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim called on North Korea to avoid any "provocative" moves.

   "We continue to call on the DPRK (North Korea) to avoid any provocative behavior, become a responsible neighbor and return to an authentic and credible diplomatic process toward our shared goal of denuclearization," Kim said.

   "The process will not happen overnight. It will not be easy," Kim said. "But we will continue to press forward, in cooperation with our friends and allies in the region, to help build a Northeast Asia full of peace and prosperity."

  (END)
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