US wary of North Korea weapons advances while talks take place

WASHINGTON: North Korea could buy time to build up and refine its nuclear arsenal, including a warhead able to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, if it manages to drag out any talks with Washington, US officials and experts say.

Even if North Korea freezes nuclear detonations and missile tests during such talks – as South Korea has said Pyongyang offered to do – there is plenty of other technical work it could pursue while diplomatic efforts are under way, they say.

Such work could include completing development of a re-entry vehicle that can deliver a nuclear weapon, production of rocket frames, engines and mobile launchers and increasing the output of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for bomb-making.

“North Korea can be expected to proceed on all these things … unless an agreement freezes or stops these activities, something unlikely in the short run,” said David Albright, a nuclear non-proliferation expert who heads Washington’s Institute for Science and International Security.

President Donald Trump has said Pyongyang seems “sincere” in its offer of talks, but some in Washington are wary that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be using it as a stalling tactic for further weapons development – especially of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland – and to seek relief from tough international sanctions.

US intelligence officials have said Kim is only months away from being able to mount such a strike, while some experts say he may already have the basic capability, even if it remains untested.

The Trump administration must weigh such risks, including North Korea’s history of reneging on commitments, in deciding whether to go to the negotiating table, US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Proponents of engagement, including Joel Wit, a senior fellow at Washington’s US-Korea Institute, said the fact that North Korea was unlikely to agree to a complete freeze of activity should not be an obstacle.

“These programs are going to continue, but if we have a suspension of nuclear tests and missile tests, that’s a good first step here. It’s better than not having one,” he said.

US officials said Trump would be prepared to quickly pull the plug on diplomacy if it becomes obvious that Pyongyang is just trying to drag out talks.

One administration official said that while it was unclear how long Trump might keep the negotiating window open, it would likely be evident in months “if North Korea is just playing us.”

 Published in Daily Times, March 9th 2018.