Despite Washington’s efforts to maintain a dialog with Pyongyang, chances for a diplomatic breakthrough leading to the denuclearization of North Korea are fading away, said experts, as the two nations remain locked in their position.
“At some point, there needs to be a determination that diplomacy is yielding diminishing returns,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
After almost two years of diplomacy, North Korea has been repeating an ultimatum more frequently that the United States has until the end of this year to present a new proposal for denuclearization. As the Pyongyang-imposed deadline approaches, the regime has increased threats to change Washington’s stance.
Washington has been demanding North Korea conduct full denuclearization. Pyongyang wants the U.S. to relax sanctions and cease regularly held joint military exercises with South Korea, which it claims as a threat against its regime, before denuclearizing. Those positions have remained unchanged for months, despite the publicly affectionate relationship between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for International Security and Nonproliferation, said on Monday that the U.S. is still seeking “the final and fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea.
On Tuesday, Ri Thae Song, North Korea’s vice minister of Foreign Affairs, released a statement, reminding the U.S. that “drawing nearer is the year-end time limit the DPRK set for the U.S.” to change its position. The DPRK stands for North Korea’s official English name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Song said, “The U.S. is keen on earning time needed for it, talking about the ‘sustained and substantial dialogue,’” but “far from acting in response to the measures taken by the DPRK first.”
He continued, “What is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get,” presumably referring to more missile tests.
The statement follows a test of two projectiles North Korea conducted on Thanksgiving Thursday. Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Friday it tested a “super large multiple rocket launcher.” It is North Korea’s 13th missile test since May.
In response, the U.S. on Monday called on North Korea to “avoid provocations” and “return to sustained and substantial negotiations to do its part to achieve complete denuclearization,” in an email message that a State Department spokesperson sent to VOA’s Korean Service.
Trump on Tuesday said the U.S. has “the most powerful military” and “hopefully, we don’t have to use it” in reaction to the latest round of North Korean provocations. “If we have to, we’ll do it,” said Trump in London while attending a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting.
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, thinks prospects for denuclearizing North Korea through diplomatic dialogues look grim.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about trying to pressure North Korea into giving its nuclear weapons up first before the United States does anything,” said Gause. “And for North Korea, that is not a solution that they want to be part of.”
Gause said if diplomacy fails, Pyongyang will form deeper ties with Beijing and Moscow which will lessen the U.S. ability to denuclearize North Korea.
Manning said the U.S. might need to aim for limiting the further development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program if North Korea is unwilling to take the first step toward denuclearization.
“At some point, the U.S. and the rest of the world may have to face a harsh reality that unless we are willing to risk a nuclear war, we may have to find a way to accept and then bind Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction,” said Manning, adding, “I don’t think we are quite there yet.”
Steve Biegun, who has been handling working-level talks with Pyongyang as the U.S. envoy for North Korea, said the U.S. has not seen “concrete evidence” that North Korea intends to give up its nuclear weapons. He made the remarks during his nomination hearing for the State Department’s deputy secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November.
Pyongyang has been unwilling to meet with Washington after walking away from the last round of working-level talks held in Stockholm in October. At the time, the North Korean representatives said the U.S. made an unacceptable offer.
Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief of Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “Washington should respond to North Korea’s end-of-year deadline with one of its own.”
He continued, “If North Korea doesn’t return to negotiations or conduct provocative action, the U.S. will rescind its self-imposed constrictions on military exercises and fully enforcing U.S. sanctions law.”
The U.S. postponed its military drills with South Korea in November to facilitate talks, but North Korea ramped up its own military drills. Kim personally supervised air force drills and ordered artillery drills on the inter-Korean border island of Changrin, according to KCNA reports issued in November, which did not give dates for the exercises.
Despite the lack of progress made on reaching a denuclearization deal, experts think talks could continue if Trump feels they could serve his political future and because North Korea does not want to end diplomacy despite threats it raised.
“President Trump has a large personal investment in his North Korean policy and his bromance with Kim Jong Un,” said Manning. “I think it would be difficult in an election year to admit failure of a signature policy. As long as talks or talks about talks are going on, Trump will continue to say his policy is working.”
Gause said, “What North Korea doesn’t want to do is step over any red line that’s going to slam the door shut on relations, potential diplomatic relations with the United States.”
He continued, “I suspect they will try to keep their tests to short-range and maybe medium range tests. But if they start to get into ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] tests and another nuclear test, then that means North Korea probably has made the calculation that the Trump administration cannot be dealt with."
Baik Sung-won and Kim Young-gyo of VOA’s Korean Service contributed to this report.