orth Korea is once again ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula: first by Pyongyang's willing disclosure of its massive uranium-enrichment capabilities, followed in short time by a shower of artillery shells on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, killing South Korean marines as well as civilians.
On his recent visit to North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Complex, Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now co-director of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, was "stunned" to see an "astonishingly modern" new North Korean uranium-enrichment facility at its "advanced stage."
"At the fuel fabrication site," summarized Hecker, "we were taken to a new facility that contained a modern industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges that was recently completed. Unlike all previously visited Yongbyon nuclear facilities, the uranium enrichment facility was ultra-modern. These facilities could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium bomb fuel."
Robert Carlin, former chief of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State, told ABC News, "the military potential of uranium enrichment technology is serious. The North's plutonium inventory is sufficient for eight to 12 primitive nuclear weapons."
The Hecker-Carlin report has caused a sharp reaction in Washington and Seoul. "The assumption certainly is," says Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "that North Korea continues to head in the direction of additional nuclear weapons. And they're also known to proliferate this technology. They're a very dangerous country. I've been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time. This certainly gives that potential real life, very visible life that we all ought to be very, very focused on." South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young is so concerned that he is requesting the ROK Parliament to approve his proposal of deploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.
As Pyongyang appears to be determined to force Washington either to start the direct talks or accept it as a nuclear power, policy makers and advisors in Washington are turning their eyes on Beijing for a solution. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and under secretary of state for international security, writes, "North Korea's newly revealed nuclear facility should surprise no one, serious efforts must be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula." Mullen agrees, "We've been engaged with China for an extended period of time with respect to North Korea. A great part of this, I believe, will have to be done through Beijing."
China is North Korea's only patron and military ally. China accounts for almost three quarters of North Korea's total foreign trade and more than 90 percent of its oil imports. But Beijing also views Pyongyang as a vital strategic buffer against the United States and the last thing Beijing will do is to use its influence over Pyongyang to curb its nuclear weapons ambitions.
In fact, preparations are unfolding fast to roll out the red carpet in Beijing for North Korea's heir-apparent Kim Jong-eun's first state visit to China, as early as before the year's end. A photo-op with Xi Jinping, China's next ruler, will not only help the young Kim to consolidate his power domestically, but also once again cement the "lips and teeth" relations between Pyongyang and Beijing. And "with China accelerating the scale and scope of their bilateral capacity-building activities in North Korea, it's difficult to see any sense of urgency in Pyongyang to resume diplomacy with Washington," says John Park of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
As North Korean artillery shells are hitting South Korea's border islands, Pyongyang is holding out the threat of two types of warfare-land and nuclear. In the meantime, Beijing has also drawn a line in the sand: it will continue to serve as Pyongyang's defense lawyer as well as its lifeline. To "engage" Pyongyang through Beijing has become nothing but a pipedream. The only way to deal with North Korea is to increase pressure and tighten sanctions further.
To confront an increasingly belligerent Beijing-Pyongyang axis, the United States also has to increase its military presence in Northeast Asia and to resume the role of a "regional stabilizer" and provide reassurance to our allies in the region. North Korea's threat will only end when Washington has forced Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons program and the use of military force against the South, even at the risk of escalating tensions with China and the potential of a military action against North Korea.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.