Amid signs that negotiations between North Korea and the US are stalling, analysts say Pyongyang still sees its nuclear arsenal as a key tool in securing its national safety and winning concessions from international rivals.
Just as the United States has doubled down on its sanctions on Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not retreated from his pledge to expand his operational force of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, increasing his leverage under any still-elusive denuclearisation deal.
A US think tank said on Monday it had identified at least 13 of an estimated 20 active, undeclared missile bases inside North Korea, underscoring the challenge for American negotiators hoping to persuade Kim to give up his weapons programmes.
As time goes by, North Korea’s likely expansion of its arsenal could force Washington to rethink its insistence on full denuclearisation, said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
“This is the choice the United States has to make: whether they keep pursuing the ideal of ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation,’ or take this dilemma into consideration and make a compromise for limited denuclearisation,” he said.
US President Donald Trump met Kim at an unprecedented summit in Singapore in June where they agreed to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
But with scant sign of progress on negotiations since and recent high-level meetings cancelled, Trump said last week he’s now in “no rush” and still wants to meet with Kim for a second time.
US officials have said sanctions forced North Korea to the negotiating table and vowed to keep pressure until complete denuclearisation.
But North Korea has credited its nuclear and missile breakthroughs for providing it the standing to meet the world’s largest powers.
Kim’s own words suggest Pyongyang will continue with production and development of the nuclear programme even as it negotiates with Washington on denuclearisation, experts say.
“In the 2018 New Year address, Kim Jong-un called for shifting to full-scale production and deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the US-based James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).
“He’s never said or done anything since then to contradict that.”
North Korea has not tested a nuclear bomb or ballistic missile since last year, and has said it has shuttered its main nuclear test site with plans to dismantle several more facilities.
North Korea recently warned, however, it could restart its nuclear programme if the United States does not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.
Monday’s report by the Washington, DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), sparked media coverage calling it a “great deception” by the North Koreans.
But South Korea’s presidential Blue House said without an actual deal to violate, Pyongyang has broken no promises.
“North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base,” Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said. “It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory...the fact that such a missile base exists shows the necessity for negotiations to be achieved quickly.”
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