U.S. losing leverage to stop North Korea nuclear programs, experts say


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is prepared to wait out the Biden administration and is betting that the U.S. and its allies eventually will be forced to accept his nation as a nuclear power, former top U.S. officials and regional experts said Tuesday.

Speaking at “The Washington Brief,” a monthly forum hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, analysts said that while President Biden’s recent White House meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in showed solidarity between the two countries in their approach to Pyongyang, the levers available to pressure North Korea may be diminishing. The optimism of the Trump era — sparked by a trio of historic face-to-face meetings between Mr. Kim and former President Donald Trump — is being replaced by apparent entrenchment in North Korea, as the country’s leadership grows increasingly convinced that nuclear weapons are necessary to survive and that there’s no pressing need to abandon them.

“Why would they give this all up?” said former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser Joseph DeTrani. “They’ve worked so long to get this. It’s a deterrent and it provides survivability, insurance, for the regime to survive.”

“They’re waiting for the U.S. to cave on the issue of denuclearization,” he added, “when we finally say that a responsible North Korea with nuclear weapons, maybe we can live with that.”

The White House maintains that the complete and permanent elimination of North Korea‘s nuclear-weapons program remains the ultimate goal. No recent U.S. administration has publicly indicated that Washington is prepared to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

The U.S. and South Korea signed a joint statement last month doubling down on that stance.

And Mr. Biden and Mr. Moon stressed that diplomacy leading to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the best path forward for all parties. 

Mr. Biden even seemed to suggest that he’d be willing to meet Mr. Kim in person under the right circumstances. During the summit with Mr. Moon, the White House announced that longtime State Department official Sung Kim would serve as the special U.S. envoy to North Korea, signaling that the administration was ready to mount a new diplomatic push.

But the Biden-Moon meeting also sparked new animosity with Pyongyang. On the heels of that meeting, Seoul announced the end of longstanding South Korea-U.S. rules that limited South Korea’s ballistic-missile development to a range of about 500 miles.

North Korean state-run media this week blasted that announcement as another example of “U.S. hostile policy toward [North Korea] and its shameful double-dealing.” 

Specialists warn that Mr. Kim almost surely is preparing for new missile launches and perhaps even the country’s first nuclear test since 2017. He also may be growing increasingly confident that America is losing some of its influence over international affairs, particularly as China continues its rise as a major regional and global rival.

“Certainly [Mr. Kim’s] approach is to be bracing for pressure, not preparing to reap the fruits of negotiations,” Markus Garlauskas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said at Tuesday’s event, which was moderated by former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill.

“Kim has tested our will and found we are not in a position right now to be able to confront him with the costs and risks sufficient to get him to stop in his tracks,” Mr. Garlauskas said. “He may be proceeding cautiously but I think he’s still proceeding.”

Indeed, crushing economic sanctions on North Korea that have contributed to impoverished living conditions for much of its citizenry have had relatively little impact on Mr. Kim’s thinking on foreign policy and national security matters. A return to the so-called “strategic patience” approach of the Obama era seems unlikely to bear fruit, particularly if Pyongyang is able to rely on China for economic aid to circumvent a U.S.-led economic sanctions campaign.

“A long-term pressure campaign, I believe, is unsustainable because in my opinion the U.S. hegemonic role in that region is declining and our alliance system is going to weaken anyway,” said Alexandre Mansourov, professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “Maybe generational change, maybe technological change, in North Korea will bring us in a different situation in the future, but that’s a very distant future. So we’ll have to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea in our lifetime.”

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