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Washington • Preoccupied with domestic woes and high-stakes Mideast diplomacy, the Obama administration has little time these days to focus on the ominous signs that its enemy North Korea is advancing its nuclear weapons program.
Within the past two months the secretive nation has restarted a reactor that can produce plutonium for bombs. Recent satellite photos also appear to indicate new tunneling at its underground nuclear test site and major construction at its main missile launch site.
The Obama administration, like Congress, is deeply skeptical about negotiating with the North, which says it wants to restart aid-for-disarmament talks. The U.S. has opted to tighten sanctions on Kim Jong Un's regime, while also urging China to exert more pressure on its troublesome ally. Beijing's envoy for Korean Peninsula Affairs, Wu Dawei, is currently in Washington for talks with U.S. officials on "how to achieve our shared goal of a denuclearized North Korea in a peaceful manner," the State Department said Monday.
But the administration's own first appointee as envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, and former Clinton administration negotiator Robert Gallucci are arguing the U.S. government needs to talk directly with North Korea. They said there hasn't been direct contact with a senior North Korean official for more than a year and said the current diplomatic impasse only buys time for Pyongyang to develop its nuclear program further.
The former envoys said that in informal talks last month, North Korean officials told them they were willing to negotiate about their nuclear weapons program. "Whatever risks might be associated with new talks, they are less than those that come with doing nothing," Bosworth and Gallucci wrote Monday in the International New York Times.
Coming from Bosworth in particular, that's pointed criticism. On his watch, the administration's engagement with Pyongyang was very cautious a policy dubbed "strategic patience" and actually drew criticism from then-Sen. John Kerry, who favored more active efforts to talk with the reclusive regime.
But the United States appears unlikely to re-enter talks with North Korea anytime soon, although Kerry, now secretary of state, has kept that possibility open if Pyongyang takes concrete steps to show it is serious about denuclearization.
For one thing, the administration has its hands full. On foreign policy, it is embroiled in diplomacy on Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian civil war adopting moderate stances that have rankled some of its allies in the Mideast. It's also fending off anger from allies in the West, such as Germany, France and Spain, over spying allegations.
On the domestic front, President Barack Obama has lurched from a budget standoff that sparked a two-week, partial government shutdown and brought the U.S. within a whisker of debt default, to damage limitation over the botched roll-out of his landmark health care policy.
That leaves little time, or perhaps political appetite, to try another round of diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, whose government spoiled the last round in spring 2012 by launching a rocket into space what the U.S. regarded as a test of ballistic missile technology that could potentially threaten America. This February, the North conducted an atomic test and later threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the U.S. when it led the international effort to tighten sanctions.
Now North Korea says it wants to restart multi-nation nuclear talks, but is resisting any preconditions and is asking for the U.S. during those talks to conclude a peace treaty to replace the temporary armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
While acknowledging the administration is justified in being skeptical about North Korea, Bosworth and Gallucci are urging it to relax its requirement that "North Korea meet its demands before any dialogue begins" a reference to Washington's desire to see a freeze in the North's nuclear and missile programs before returning to the six-nation talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
But they also say the North should take its own steps to building confidence, first by releasing Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen held in a North Korean prison. Then they propose the North declare a moratorium on its nuclear tests, suspend operations at its main nuclear facility and allow international inspectors in.
The North, however, is moving in the opposite direction.
Around late August it is believed to have restarted a mothballed reactor that can produce a bomb's worth of plutonium a year. Recent satellite imagery also appears to show it has expanded its uranium enrichment complex and has made preparations for future explosions at its remote nuclear test site. According to the latest imagery analyzed by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the North has also conducted major construction at its main missile launch site, including possible work on a new launch pad for mobile missiles.
That could all strengthen North Korea's bargaining position, but make Washington even more unwilling to sit down and talk.
Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for Associated Press in Washington.