North Korea has shut down its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon to raise the stakes in its nuclear standoff with the United States. Since the reactor has been operating for about 25 months, North Korea should be able to extract enough plutonium for about two bombs sometime next year after the most radioactive elements in the fuel rods decay sufficiently to be handled by technicians.
Despite Pyongyang’s clear efforts to increase its nuclear capability, the Bush administration is still refusing to discuss the issue bilaterally with North Korea. Instead, Washington is relying on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang into returning to the six-party talks, which have been stalled for almost one year. This strategy is unlikely to resolve the crisis, and it also risks alienating U.S. allies and marginalizing Washington in the region.