North Korea nuclear crisis

North Korea weighing a return to talks as missile launch boosts its bargaining power, US nuclear expert says

Security specialist who helped organise informal talks between the US and North Korea says Washington should focus on preventing Pyongyang from further developing ICBM

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 9:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 1:00am

Pyongyang’s latest successful intercontinental ballistic missile test has given it confidence in its negotiating power and it is seriously considering a return to talks, a top US nuclear expert who helped organise informal talks between Washington and Pyongyang said.

Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation, also told the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview that the US should seize the moment with a dual strategy of “maximum pressure and engagement” to hold talks with Pyongyang, while backing up its move with pressure such as sanctions.

“The best bet would be to focus on preventing the further development of Pyongyang’s ICBM capabilities through an agreement that would suspend their nuclear and missile testing,” DiMaggio said.

“My sense is that the North Koreans recognise they have to make some consequential decisions in the near term and they are exploring possible options,” she said. “They seem to understand they are going to have to re-engage at some point to reduce tensions because we are fast approaching a point of crisis.”

DiMaggio said that while the goal of denuclearising the Korean peninsula shouldn’t be abandoned, “there is a need to be realistic and set it aside, at least in the near term”.

Instead, DiMaggio continued that “placing an immediate focus on reducing tensions and deterring North Korea from using and proliferating its nuclear weapons makes greater sense”.

“The US must decide on its highest priority with North Korea at this time and set it as an interim goal,” she said.

DiMaggio helped establish the unofficial channel with the North Koreans early last year. Deeply involved in the regional security and nuclear non-proliferation fields for over 15 years, she has a special interest in holding policy dialogue with countries with which the US has had limited official relations, especially Iran, Myanmar and North Korea, according to the think tank’s website.

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After informal talks in Oslo, Norway, in early May, Choe Son-hui, the head of the North Korean foreign ministry’s North America bureau, said Pyongyang was open to dialogue with the US under the “right conditions”.

“If conditions are met, we will hold dialogue [with Washington],” Choe said.

US President Donald Trump made similar statements in May, telling Bloomberg he would be “honoured” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “under the right circumstances”.

“The task at hand is to find out what the ‘right conditions’ might be. We need to test whether the North Koreans are serious about dialogue, and the only way to do so is to talk to them,” DiMaggio said, adding that contact made in an unofficial dialogue such as the Oslo meeting could play a role in starting “talks about talks”.

At the official level, DiMaggio stated that “aggressive diplomacy”, including direct engagement, should be backed up in dealing with Pyongyang by the leverage of “maximum pressure”, such as through United Nations Security Council sanctions.

North Korea’s self-claimed test-launch on July 4 of an ICBM capable of striking Alaska is widely viewed as crossing the red line. DiMaggio said: “What cannot be denied is that North Korea is clearly focused on developing nuclear weapon delivery systems that can reach the continental United States.”

“The rationale behind their single-minded focus is clear – the North Korean leadership sees their nuclear programme as the only source of security against regime change. This position has hardened over the past few years. They have concluded that the United States will not attack a country that has nuclear weapons, plus the means to deliver them,” DiMaggio said.

“So now, North Korea has the capability of nuclear weapons and an ICBM, they have a strengthened position to go back to negotiation.”

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In response, two US supersonic bombers carried out live-fire drills in South Korea in a demonstration of military muscle, two days after Trump said in Poland ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg that he was considering a “very severe” response to Pyongyang’s unprecedented launch of a missile capable of reaching the US.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, also said on July 5 at an emergency UN Security Council meeting that the US “is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities”, including “our considerable military forces”. “We will use them, if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction,” Haley said.

DiMaggio said that “in some circles, the possibility of kinetic actions is being discussed, including potential pre-emptive strikes to destroy nuclear capabilities in North Korea”.

But she played down the military option. “The reality is that military action is not a viable option,” DiMaggio said. “We cannot dismiss the possibility that they would respond in a way that could inflict mass civilian casualties and severe damage to South Korea, as well as to Japan and potentially American forces based in the region.

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“And how would Beijing react? It could lead to a regional war or even a wider war that could include the use of nuclear weapons,” she said. “The risks are just too great, especially when we haven’t even begun to exhaust diplomatic options.”

DiMaggio added that relying on China to solve the North Korea problem is “a misguided approach” mainly because American interests in North Korea do not necessarily align with China’s interests.

The Trump administration has been pushing China to use its economic ties with North Korea as leverage to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, from its provision of energy and food supplies to its alleged financial support through certain Chinese banks with links to the reclusive country.

“The Chinese leadership won’t bring crippling sanctions against North Korea because they won’t risk increasing the possibility of the North Korean regime’s collapse, which could lead to a mass refugee influx into China and bring US troops to the Chinese border,” DiMaggio said.

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DiMaggio said the US needed to change the way it looked at China in this equation. “One way to do so would be to work with China, along with South Korea and Japan, to put together a diplomatic package of both incentives and disincentives that would be jointly carried out.

“Russia would need to be involved and perhaps the Europeans could be brought in,” she said. “The US would need to take on a leadership role to get all of these players on the same page and follow a coordinated strategy.”