By Mick Krever, CNN
Another North Korean nuclear test is “quite likely” in the “not-too-distant future,” a veteran former American diplomat told CNN’s Paula Newton, in for Christiane Amanpour, on Tuesday.
“They’re well along on this path of theirs to the development of nuclear weapons, and testing is an important feature of that program. So I expect there will be another test in the relatively near future,” Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and former special representative for North Korea policy, said.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry warned on Tuesday that the North has stepped up activity at its main nuclear test site, possibly preparing to carry out a fourth underground blast.
The reclusive regime in Pyongyang is known to have conducted three previous tests, all of them believed to be based on plutonium. The most recent one took place February 2013.
“At some point, as their missile program continues to develop and their nuclear weapons program continues, they will reach a point where I think we will all conclude they are a very grave threat to regional stability, and indeed to nuclear non-proliferation,” Bosworth said.
Recent experience shows, the former diplomat told Newton, that the “one way that we have of at least slowing them down, or gaining some additional time, is to engage with them.”
Engagement with the North Koreans is “very painful,” he admitted.
“It’s very aggravating to have to deal with these guys. But unfortunately, we really don’t have an alternative.”
When the international community did engage with North Korea, in the 1990s, it “gained eight years in which we know that they were not producing any fissile material,” he said.
“The record is that when [the North Koreans] are not engaged, or when they are not bound by any international agreements that they are observing – which is the case now – then they proceed ahead with their nuclear development.”
Seoul’s warning comes as U.S. President Barack Obama kicks off a trip to the region, including South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Chief on his agenda, Bosworth said, should be a better explanation of what his administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia” really means.
When the policy was announced, he told Newton, it was interpreted either as a refocusing of American interest away from the Middle East, or as an effort to “contain” China’s rise.
“I don’t think really that it’s either one of those two things.”
Being “distracted by events elsewhere” may be an explanation, he said, but it is no excuse.
“If we still consider ourselves a global power we’ve got to be able to deal with more than one important issue at a time.”