By Matthew Pennington ,AP
WASHINGTON — Preoccupied with domestic woes and high-stakes Middle East 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 pressing China to exert more pressure on its troublesome ally.
But the administration’s own first appointee as envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, and former Clinton administration negotiator, Robert Gallucci, said the U.S. government has not had direct contact with a senior North Korean official for more than a year and that 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 Middle East. 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 16-day partial government shutdown and brought the U.S. within a whisker of debt default, to damage limitation over the botched rollout of his landmark health care policy.