North Korea could be ‘moving forward’ with nuclear program, analysts say

NEW YORK (UPI) — North Korea could be quietly moving forward with its nuclear weapons program while stalling talks on denuclearization — as differences between the United States and South Korea raise new concerns, analysts tell UPI.

In a week that began with fresh threats from Pyongyang to restart its nuclear program over the weekend, followed by the abrupt cancellation of a planned meeting in New York between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, the latest setbacks are not surprising given the regime’s escalating rhetoric, North Korea watchers say.

Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, R.I., said there is no way of confirming whether North Korea has abandoned its weapons of mass destruction.

“Moving forward with their nuclear program doesn’t necessarily involve testing in the high profile ways they’ve done it in the past,” Roehrig said. “And we’ve already seen evidence where there are indicators that the North Koreans have continued to move forward with their nuclear program.”

Roehrig said it is “not a surprise” there is little progress on denuclearization.

“There’s no deal in place yet,” he said. “I remain skeptical North Korea is going to be willing to give up its nuclear weapons.”

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told UPI Kim Jong Un may be doing as he pleases while he continues to engage U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Trump said Wednesday during his press conference on the U.S. midterm election he plans to meet with Kim in early 2019.

“We’re very happy how it’s going with North Korea,” the president said. “We think it’s going fine…We’re in no rush. We’re in no hurry. The sanctions are still on.”

Bennett is skeptical North Korea’s goals are compatible with U.S. objectives.

“Kim has not surrendered a single nuclear weapon and certainly the number of nuclear weapons is one of the best indicators of whether or not he is denuclearizing,” the analyst said. “In fact he appears to be building more nuclear weapons, going in exactly the opposite direction he’s promised to.”

Trump did not provide details on the reason for the postponed meeting between Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol, after the U.S. State Department said the meeting will “reconvene when our respective schedules permit.”

It is also unclear whether the delay was initiated by North Korea or the Trump administration, but the move is hardly surprising, says Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

“The question is can anybody in the Trump administration be flexible or creative enough to come up with a fix or an option that meets assumptions and expectations,” the analyst said. “When one side has preconditions, it’s really difficult to even start talking.”

North Korea’s precondition for talks has ranged from calls for an end-of-war or peace declaration, to the lifting of economic sanctions.

“It’s interesting the notion of a peace declaration seems to have fallen off the table,” Roehrig said. “I think the United States may need to be prepared to give a little on [sanctions] but it needs to be careful how much it gives away upfront on this issue before there are more signs North Korea is willing to denuclearize.”

North Korea’s demand for sanctions relief could mean they are working, Bennett said.

“We don’t know how effective the sanctions are being but we get the sense that they’re being pretty effective and effective against the elite,” the analyst said. “Or else why would Kim Jong Un be complaining about them so much?”

The Trump administration’s refusal to back down on sanctions comes at a time when President Moon in Seoul has proposed easing the embargoes.

“Certainly it’s no surprise in many respects that Moon is going in the direction that he has. He campaigned on that, he reached out to North Korea in the early days of his term,” Roehrig said, adding Pyongyang’s provocations pushed Washington and Seoul closer together in 2017.

Bennett said Moon’s optimism sidesteps a long history of stalled negotiations with North Korea that date back to at least 1992.

“President Moon is very hopeful that if you just give North Korea enough to help them feel like we’re no longer adversaries then suddenly they’ll start behaving,” Bennett said. “So far it hasn’t worked, and we haven’t seen North Korea give up a single nuclear weapon, or allow monitoring of a single production facility. None of those things have happened.”

South Korea’s fast-paced engagement could also be making Washington nervous, Squassoni said.

“I think the South Koreans are pushing ahead and that’s one of the dangers of this situation,” the analyst said. “Relations between South and North Korea are moving along nicely but you don’t want them to get out too far in front with regards to what’s happening.”

“Because obviously the United States doesn’t want pressure from our ally to make concessions that we may not feel so comfortable with.”

Trump said Wednesday he expects to hold a second summit with Kim in early 2019.

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