Even in today’s interconnected world, a lot of news is bundled by region — and so it often works with rogue states and their neighborhoods. The past few months have been an especially lively period for wayward states in the Middle East, where by diplomatic sleight-of-hand the regimes of Damascus and Tehran have been transformed from terrorist-sponsoring WMD proliferators into erstwhile or potential partners of the U.S. in nonproliferation. In August the big focus was on Syria, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and the ensuing deal — in which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin translated Assad’s nerve gas into a bargaining chip for re-expanding Russian influence and a dwindling role for the U.S. in the Middle East (in which Secretary of State John Kerry is now praising Syria’s President Bashar Assad).
September brought the Iranian regime’s “charm” offensive, in which President Hassan Rouhani traveled to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, snubbed President Obama’s offer to meet in person, and lectured the world on Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He was rewarded with a presidential phone call, the return to Iran of a million dollar griffin-shaped silver drinking cup and plans for nuclear talks next week in Geneva.
While that’s been going on, Americans have had plenty of distractions on their home turf, between news of the federal shutdown, debates over what’s actually been shut and footage of news anchors trying unsuccessfully to log onto the new government healthcare web sites.
Amid all this, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on North Korea. It’s been eight long months since Pyongyang’s third nuclear test — way back in February. It’s been three years since North Korea advertised to the world that along with its plutonium path to the bomb, it had installed at its Yongbyon complex a uranium enrichment facility (which on satellite imagery appears to have since doubled in size). Given the tempo of the modern news cycle, that’s prehistoric.
But that steam rising from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex is not for making tea. South Korea’s main intelligence agency has confirmed the reports of a number of U.S. analysts that North Korea has restarted the Soviet-built reactor that was shut down in 2007, as part of a failed nuclear freeze deal that was bracketed by North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. There is some debate over whether this reactor is more dangerous as a source of plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear bomb program, or as a facility so decrepit that it might go haywire and produce what Russia has warned could be a “man-made catastrophe.”