SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and its partners have pushed North Korea for years to abandon its atomic ambitions, but the North has conducted two nuclear tests and now claims it has 2,000 centrifuges producing uranium for a new reactor.
Critics say this shows that U.S. policy of shunning direct talks with North Korea until it agrees to abide by past nuclear commitments is not working; these critics say North Korea, for its part, is determined to win Washington's acceptance that it is a nuclear power.
North Korea launched nuclear and missile tests last year. The Obama administration has not held direct, official talks with Pyongyang since an international finding that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have called on North Korea to acknowledge responsibility for the sinking and express a sincere willingness to disarm before talks can resume. North Korea denies it launched the torpedo that sank the warship.
Critics bemoan what they see as a lack of urgency and focus in Washington, which they say fails to deal with a frightening security threat. The Obama administration, they say, has repeatedly played down North Korean provocations and has appointed Stephen Bosworth as its special envoy spearheading negotiations, a part-time diplomat who also serves as dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School.
"Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama is learning the hard way that the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the private Arms Control Association in Washington.
Kimball said current claims that the North has quickly and secretly built a uranium enrichment facility demand that Washington and China — the North's only major ally and a member of stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations — "directly re-engage North Korea in talks aimed at containing and verifiably freezing the North's bomb program."
On Monday, Bosworth defended U.S. policy.
"I would not at all accept that our policy toward North Korea is a failure," Bosworth said after flying to Seoul to meet South Korean officials. "They are a difficult interlocutor," he said of the North, "but we're not throwing our policy away."
While the North's uranium program is disappointing and provocative, he told reporters, it isn't surprising. "This is not a crisis," Bosworth said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley echoed his words, saying the Obama administration would take its time to assess the available information. He said the revelation of the new uranium enrichment facility would violate Pyongyang's obligation to stop pursuing nuclear weapons but also may be what he called a "publicity stunt."
The comments contrasted with those of U.S. military officials, who warned that the new facility could speed up the North's ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it could enable North Korea to build "a number" of nuclear devices beyond the handful it is presumed to have already assembled. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called North Korea "a very dangerous country."
The latest predicament came about when a U.S. scientist, Siegfried Hecker, posted a report over the weekend that said he was taken, during a recent trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex, to a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.
Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, is regularly given rare glimpses of the North's secretive nuclear program, but he called Pyongyang's new efforts "stunning."
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