The United States and South Korea intend in the next year to collaboratively develop a bilateral policy for responding to different kinds of unconventional threats from North Korea, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Wednesday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his South Korean opposite, Kim Kwan-jin, reached agreement on developing the new deterrence posture by 2014 in bilateral talks in Washington. The strategies are to be devised by the two-way Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, according to a joint statement released following the talks.
The two defense chiefs "reaffirmed that any North Korean aggression or military provocation is not to be tolerated and that the U.S. and the Republic of Korea would work shoulder-to-shoulder to demonstrate our combined resolve," the communique stated. They also demanded that the North immediately halt its nuclear weapons development.
North Korea in recent years appears to have focused on expanding its access to fissile material. In late 2010 it announced the establishment of a uranium enrichment facility and began construction on a light-water atomic reactor that could be used to generate warhead-ready plutonium. The isolated regime has also constructed a new underground chamber at its atomic testing site that Seoul and Washington fear might be used for a third underground nuclear test in the near future.
Kim told journalists at the Pentagon that Pyongyang had been readying for a fresh atomic test "for quite a long time," Agence France-Presse reported.
"And when the time comes for a political decision, it may in fact resort to this third nuclear test," the South Korean minister said.
He called for a resumption of the paralyzed six-nation talks aimed at permanent North Korean denuclearization. The aid-for-denuclearization negotiations involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States have not taken place since December 2008. Kim also assessed the young regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to be "quite stable" less than a year after assuming power following the death of Kim Jong Il.
Panetta said much still remains unknown about the new ruler in the North. "I think the bottom line is we still don't know whether or not he will simply follow in the steps of his father or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future."
"The concern we have is that they continue to prepare for a missile test, they continue to prepare for a nuclear test and they continue to engage in enrichment of uranium against all international rules," the ex-CIA director was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "They continue to behave in a provocative way that threatens the security of our country, obviously South Korea, and the region."
Pyongyang last week warned of "merciless" retaliation on the South should North Korean defectors in the country carry out a plan to send anti-regime pamphlets over the border using balloons. Though some activists earlier this week were able to release balloons into the North, no attack has been carried out.
Panetta said he was "relieved that the balloon incident, which raised concerns about potential provocation, that (it) did not occur," Reuters reported.
A separate group of North Korean dissidents who escaped to the South on Thursday floated tens of thousands of propaganda pamphlets over the border, according to a separate Yonhap report.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry on Thursday castigated an Obama administration envoy for his recent demand that Pyongyang adhere to previous pledges it made in 2005 to give up its nuclear weapons program, Yonhap also reported.
U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy Glyn Davies' "ludicrous statements" did nothing to improve the nuclear impasse, an unnamed ministry spokesman told the official Korean Central News Agency.
"It is illogical for the U.S. to urge the D.P.R.K. to honor its obligation while it is not complying with what it committed to do in the [Sept. 19, 2005] joint statement," the official stated. "The statement specifies the U.S. political, military and economic commitments to fundamentally end its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K. as a chief culprit of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula."
He insisted that Washington had breached its commitments in the 2005 agreement by ignoring "the sovereignty of the D.P.R.K. and openly and systematically stepped up military threats and economic sanctions against it."
Meanwhile, Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright in a new analysis estimated that the aspiring nuclear power presently possesses enough warhead-grade plutonium to fuel between six and 18 bombs.
Pyongyang's uranium enrichment program "provides North Korea with flexibility in increasing the size and sophistication of its nuclear arsenal," Albright and co-author Christina Walrond wrote in the assessment, posted to the website 38 North.
At present, the North does not have the means to produce more plutonium as it disabled its 5 megawatt reactor under an earlier denuclearization agreement. That could change, though, once the light-water reactor comes online. "Its rate of production of weapon-grade plutonium could exceed four-fold the rate of plutonium production in the 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon, while still producing a sizeable amount of electricity," according to Albright and Walrond.
"It could also use the LWR as part of a development program to build larger LWRs that could produce far greater quantities of electricity (and weapon-grade plutonium, if so desired)," the report states.
North Korea has never permitted international monitoring of its uranium plant at Yongbyon, so the outside world has little idea to what level it is enriching there. In order to power a warhead, uranium must be processed to levels around 90 percent.
"The use of both [weapon-grade uranium] and plutonium could allow for more total fissile material in a fission device and a higher explosive yield than possible with plutonium alone," the ISIS analysts wrote. "Weapon-grade uranium would allow for designs involving thermonuclear concepts that could not be achieved with designs only using plutonium."
Elsewhere, the close alignment of Washington and Seoul in the last four years on how to handle the North might be in jeopardy when a new South Korean president is elected in December, the Korea Herald reported.
Under Conservative President Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean government has agreed with the Obama administration on cutting off nearly all foreign assistance to the North until it demonstrates sincerity on the denuclearization front. By contrast, every leading South Korean presidential aspirant favors a policy of more engagement with Pyongyang.
Both Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, have vowed to maintain the U.S. hard line against aid to the North until it reforms.