North Korea keeps its word, at least on the nuclear front.

Pyongyang is building a light-water reactor (to eventually produce plutonium) and has launched a pilot uranium enrichment program with 2,000 centrifuges–the tools for nuclear bomb-making, according to widespread reports. This is indeed troubling, but it’s not clear what the United States will do about it–even now that North Korea has shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.

The North’s first direct attack since the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War killed two marines and two civilians and injured many others. It also made it far more difficult and complicated to resume nuclear negotiations.

Washington has put the North Korean nuclear dilemma on and off the back shelf for years.

George W. Bush’s administration addressed it toward the end of its term when it hit roadblocks in the Middle East. The Obama administration has taken a reactive, rather than a proactive, approach to the North’s provocations.

But the decades-old issue has led to international complacency even though the severity of North Korea’s nuclear threat is clear. Far more active diplomacy is needed to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear programs to prevent instability and a potential “domino effect” of emerging nuclear actors.

The Six-Party Talks–involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia since 2003–essentially died after Pyongyang walked away last year. Complicating matters, an international investigation concluded that Pyongyang torpedoed a South Korean naval corvette, The Cheonan, in March, killing 46 sailors.

Despite the North’s recent charm offensive and public rhetoric signaling its willingness to return to the Six-Party Talks, history indicates that it’s best to be skeptical about Pyeongyang’s will to dismantle its nuclear programs.

North Korea has tested two nuclear devices and is most likely working on a third. Its nuclear ambitions center on the regime’s survival and recognition as a nuclear power. It has enough nuclear weapons-usable material for between six to eight nuclear bombs, and aims to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could potentially hit America’s West Coast. Pyongyang believes these capabilities will protect it from what it calls “hostile U.S. policies.”

Washington and its allies must do more to crack the North Korean nuclear problem. Not only is the status quo a recipe for instability in Northeast Asia, but we need a new course to ensure that others don’t follow the “Pyongyang model.”

Indeed, Iran has already stolen from Pyongyang’s nuclear playbook. North Korea is also believed to have transferred nuclear expertise and technology to other states, including Iran and assistance to Syria in constructing a nuclear reactor, which Israel bombed in 2007.

The key question has always been whether Pyongyang would surrender its nuclear ambitions, given the right price tag. And, concurrently, what formula to use. Early on, the Obama administration concluded the North would never abandon its nuclear arsenal under the current Kim Jong-il regime. So it chose to manage the problem, and focus on preventing the spread of nuclear and missile parts to other countries.

It also hoped that Kim Jong-il’s successor would be a more suitable negotiating partner. But the unveiling of his youngest son Kim Jong-un as the heir apparent suggests that North Korea won’t be changing its nuclear policies. While there has been some progress in disabling the North’s nuclear facilities, there has been much more political push-and-shove over the past 20 years, prompting observers to wonder if this is a lost cause

The overarching concern is that Pyongyang will manipulate Washington’s set of strategic weaknesses to achieve its objectives.

Progress will only come from aggressive diplomacy and creative ideas that directly target the crux of denuclearization. This means the irreversible removal of all nuclear weapons-usable materials and explosive devices as well as the dismantlement of all proliferation-prone facilities. If not, the U.S. would be resigning itself to accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear power.

Active engagement, combining carrots and sticks, is the most sensible route, provided it entails a tight incentive-based system with no wiggle room to reneg, cheat or break promises. But engagement will only work if the United States and its allies take a constant, proactive approach and define the terms of engagement.

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Duyeon Kim

Duyeon Kim is the deputy director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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