The North Korean Enigma

CAMBRIDGE – What is going on in North Korea? On November 23, its army fired nearly 200 artillery rounds onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, near the two countries’ disputed maritime border, killing four – including two civilians – and demolishing scores of houses and other structures. The presence of civilians, many of whom had to be evacuated, made North Korea’s attack even more provocative than its sinking in March of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors.

And, just a few weeks before the shelling of Yeonpyeong, North Korea showed a delegation of American scientists a new and previously undisclosed uranium-enrichment plant, which will increase the regime’s capacity to make nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been a matter of concern for two decades. Pyongyang violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by secretly reprocessing enough plutonium to produce two nuclear weapons in the early 1990’s. After it withdrew from a restraining agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994, it expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and began reprocessing spent fuel that could produce another six bombs’ worth of plutonium.

Now, with its new enrichment plant, North Korea’s access to fissile materials will greatly increase. Its leaders have a reputation for selling dangerous items such as missiles, narcotics, and counterfeit currency, and many worry that they might transfer nuclear materials to other countries or to terrorist groups. The recent WikiLeaks disclosures of classified American diplomatic documents, for example, suggest that North Korea has been helping Iran with its advanced missile program.