TOKYO – North Korea’s claim to have built a new intercontinental ballistic missile “tipped with super-large heavy warhead” that can hit any part of the United States marks another unwelcome step from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program. But beyond the bluster and the boasting, some analysts see a tiny glimmer of hope.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, could the regime – with its pronouncement that it has now completed its missile development – now be more open to talks with the United States?
“Many have expected that Pyongyang would not be ready to negotiate until it deemed it had achieved a deliverable nuclear deterrent,” said Laura Rosenberger, a North Korea expert with the German Marshall Fund in Washington.
Now Kim’s regime says it has achieved that deterrent.
North Korea called Wednesday’s launch of a new model of intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Hwasong-15, a “great success.” This “most powerful ICBM” meets its “goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development,” according to a state media announcement.
North Korea’s claims to have the entire United States in range do appear to be justified, experts said, with the missile tested Wednesday showing the range to reach the easternmost parts of the country.
But Kim’s rocket scientists have not proven the ability to attach a warhead to the missile and have it survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, let alone deliver it to a target.
“I don’t believe their claim that they have achieved nuclear missile capability,” said Shin Won-sik, a former deputy commander of the strategic planning department of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. “North Korea has not shown any evidence or data proving they have obtained the reentry technology, so I don’t think North Korea has yet completed its nuclear program.”
Although this is difficult, the North is expected to achieve it in time, given the energy it is pouring into its weapons program. “North Korea is moving fast with its nuclear weapons technology,” Shin said.
Like Shin in Seoul, Yu Koizumi, an expert on missile development at the Institute for Future Engineering in Tokyo, said he did not believe that North Korea has crossed the finish line.
“This is definitely a milestone, but it’s not complete yet,” Koizumi said. “The Hwasong-15 has been launched only once, so they will need to test it more.”
North Korea has proven to be an unreliable negotiating partner over the last two decades, reneging on every deal that it has signed. But despite President Donald Trump’s repeated talk of military options for dealing with Pyongyang, most analysts believe that diplomacy remains the only realisitc course.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.”
The language that North Korea used Wednesday – saying it had achieved a “priceless victory” and completed the missile development process – gave some analysts hope that North Korea was positioning itself to negotiate, albeit on its own terms.
“Once Pyongyang is convinced that we are convinced that it can reach the U.S. mainland with an ICBM,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the CSIS Pacific Forum, “it will be willing to discuss a freeze – in testing, not a verifiable freeze of its missile or nuclear programs – in return for what it really wants, which is a lifting of sanctions.”
Rosenberger agreed that North Korea could be more open to talks if it felt it had achieved a technological milestone.
“This may mean the North is preparing to shift to a negotiating posture – but one in which it will seek to be treated as a nuclear power, and as a peer to the U.S., greatly complicating the goal of talks aimed at denuclearization,” she said.
North Korea has said it is willing to talk to the United States – although not about giving up its nuclear program – once Washington drops its “hostile policy.” The U.S. government has privately signaled it is willing to talk without preconditions.
China and Russia have, meanwhile, been calling on both sides to agree to a “freeze for freeze” whereby North Korea would stop testing while the United States and South Korea stopped military exercises – an idea rejected by both sides.
In talks with former American officials, the North Koreans have been insisting on being recognized and treated as a nuclear power – something that is anathema to Washington.
Wendy Sherman, who dealt with both North Korea and Iran while she was a senior official in the State Department, said that North Korea appeared to be “setting the table for negotiation.”
Sherman cited Choe Son Hui, director of American affairs in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, who appeared on two panels at a nuclear conference in Moscow that she attended last month.
“What they said was not brand new, in terms of the U.S. having to give up its hostile policies and their taking a very hard line on their nuclear weapons,” Sherman said. “But in between the lines, there was a lot of nuance in what they said. Most people came away believing that this was a preparation for some kind of dialogue.”
Some analysts think that part of the rationale for North Korea’s steady pace of testing this year was to get itself in the strongest possible position before sanctions inflict real pain on Pyongyang.
The latest rounds of sanctions imposed through the United Nations, in August and September, included potentially crippling bans on North Korean exports of coal, iron, seafood and garments. But they are expected to take several months to bite, and only if China fully enforces the resolutions.
But others see no more reason than usual for any optimism.
“I don’t think we should have any more confidence than before that this signals a consolidation of their abilities or that they’re interested in talks,” said Toby Dalton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It would be nice if that were the case.”
Still, rather than giving up on diplomacy, the latest developments underscore the need to redouble efforts to talk to Kim’s regime, said Melissa Hanham, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
“North Korea has been a spoiler and has backed out of many deals before, but to not negotiate with them or engage with them in positive ways, they can build more trucks to use as missile launchers or build more nuclear warheads,” she said. “Then we will have even bigger problems.”
The Washington Post’s Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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