A top adviser to the U.S. president on national security issues said Tuesday that persuading North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons “is probably a lost cause” and the best Washington can hope for is to cap the capabilities.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula — long the stated U.S. goal — is now a nonstarter for Pyongyang.
“I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” Clapper said at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York. “They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival.”
Washington has long pushed for the North to scrap its nuclear program and has vowed never to recognize the reclusive country as a nuclear power.
Clapper’s comments appeared to highlight internal divisions in the White House’s approach to reining in the North’s ever-improving atomic and missile programs as Pyongyang seeks to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Clapper noted that although Pyongyang has yet to test its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, Washington operates under the assumption that the North has the capability to hit parts of the U.S. — particularly Alaska and Hawaii — with a missile.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that while he had not seen Clapper’s remarks, U.S. policy toward the North remained unchanged.
“We want to continue to see a verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula,” Kirby said.
“We want to see a return to the six-party talk process, and that means we need to see the North show a willingness and an ability to return to that process which they haven’t done yet,” he added.
The six-party talks, which groups the isolated state plus China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, have been frozen for years.
In the absence of the talks, Pyongyang has ramped up its nuclear and weapons activities this year to a level previously unseen, with two atomic test explosions — including its most powerful to date — and more than 20 missile tests.
Clapper, who oversees the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, said he got a good taste of how the world looks from Pyongyang’s perspective when he visited the North on a secret mission in 2014 to help secure the release of two Americans held there.
“They are under siege and they are very paranoid, so the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them,” he said.
“The best we could probably hope for is some sort of a cap, but they are not going to do that just because we ask them. There’s going to have to be some significant inducements.”
On the subject of sanctions, Clapper said that while they remain an option for the U.S., “we’re kind of running out of gas … since we’ve imposed most of them that we can.”
North Korea has been hit by five sets of U.N. sanctions since it set off its first nuclear device in 2006, and negotiations are ongoing to close loopholes in existing sanctions over its second atomic test in September.
But leader Kim Jong Un, who took power in late 2011, has shown no signs of abandoning his nuclear and missile push, with the country even enshrining its status as a nuclear power in a new 2012 constitution.
Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, agreed that the North would “almost certainly never denuclearize.”
“It took them 20 years to get here,” Kelly said. “It cost huge resources for a country constantly beset by scarcity. And they endure enormous international opprobrium to get here. … It would be remarkable if they gave up nukes after all that for sanctions relief.”
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, called Clapper’s comments “nothing new.”
“He’s clearly stating the obvious,” he said.
Pinkston said the North’s “byungjin” line embraced by Kim — which focuses on the parallel development of the economy and nuclear weapons — has become an indelible part of the country’s character.
“It’s nonnegotiable and part of the DPRK’s national identity,” he said. “Abandoning the nuclear program would constitute revolutionary change — not a policy shift.”
As for any successful attempt by the U.S. to cap the North Korean nuclear program, Pinkston said Washington has little leverage to make such a move.
“They will cap their program according to their internal plans and objectives — not according to what the Americans suggest in diplomatic talks,” he said, warning that any incentives or rewards delivered to Pyongyang would be pocketed while the leaders “continue with their original objectives anyway.”
In his comments, Clapper also recommended the U.S. and South Korea capitalize on using information as a weapon against the North.
“That’s something they worry about a lot,” he said. “And their reaction to the loudspeakers being activated along the DMZ or the dropping of leaflets by NGOs over North Korea, and they go nuts when that happens. And so that is a great vulnerability that I don’t think we have exploited.”
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