SINGAPORE – North Korea will probably claim with credibility within four years that it can hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, a potential time bomb for Donald Trump’s re-election prospects, according to Christopher Hill, a former senior U.S. diplomat who led talks with the reclusive regime.
The chance of multicountry negotiations resuming soon with North Korea is “pretty much nil,” Hill said Saturday in an interview in Singapore. The former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who was ambassador to South Korea from 2004-2005, said Kim Jong Un was likely to keep improving his arsenal and the options for countering him were limited.
“Contrary to what many people have said, they are not testing the new administration, they are testing weapons of war,” Hill said. “And sooner or later, but certainly within the next four years, within the first mandate of Trump, they will announce with credibility that they have a deliverable nuclear weapon.”
“The problem for Trump is that would be an enormous difficulty for him in 2020 elections,” said Hill, now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. “Trump is not going to want to have to face the electorate having allowed North Korea to have a nuclear weapon targeted at the United States.”
With Kim claiming that his country is in the “last stage” of preparations to test-fire an inter-continental ballistic missile, the incoming U.S. president could face a greater challenge than predecessor Barack Obama in dealing with the regime. Trump has already veered from calling Kim a maniac to saying he could sit down with him to negotiate, raising questions over how exactly he plans to tackle the North Korean issue once in office.
Kim has stared down years of international sanctions, continuing to test atomic bombs and the missiles that could carry a miniaturized warhead to the continental U.S. On Sunday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying Pyongyang may launch its long-range missile at any time and from any location.
“Destructive behavior is normal for them,” said Park Cheol-hee, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University and an adviser to South Korean government ministries. “We have to be very realistic” about North Korea, he said.
“They will get much more united and much more blunt and resistant to external pressure,” he told a security forum on Saturday in Singapore. “Money will not solve the problem. The combining of sticks and carrots is still needed.”
Six-party talks involving South Korea, Russia, China and Japan aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its program — a process in which Hill played a key role — were formally abandoned by Pyongyang in 2009.
“The prospects for a resumption of talks in the near future are pretty much nil,” Hill said. “I don’t rule it out for the future, but certainly I think the prospects are not good. And the trouble with Trump is you can’t really predict how he’s going to react to things.”
Trump, a real-estate billionaire who authored “The Art of the Deal,” said during his campaign he could negotiate directly with Kim over a hamburger. But Hill doubted the U.S. would get any traction if it sought to switch to direct talks.
“We’re predicting the unpredictable, but I just don’t see President Trump saying ‘well I am going to sit down with him and we’ll work this out,’ ” Hill said. “Moreover even if such a thing were to happen, I don’t see the North Koreans giving up their nuclear weapons right now.”
With Trump indicating he will be tougher on China — already he’s castigated it for not doing more to prod its neighbor and ally — the prospect of greater international cooperation against Kim is fading. China is North Korea’s main trading partner and supplier of its energy and food supplies.
That said, Beijing’s influence has waned after a period in which North Korea appeared to listen to China under former leader Kim Jong Il. China has also been reluctant to push too hard because of concerns it could lead to North Korea’s total collapse.
While there is a tendency to overestimate China’s leverage over the regime, “I don’t think there is any kind of political solution to this without the participation of China,” Hill said. But Trump, he said, “in some respects seems to blame China as much as he blames North Korea.”
“In any event, the Chinese relationship with North Korea is rather bad right now,” he added. “I think the Chinese worry a lot about North Korean collapse, and not just because of refugees. The collapse of a neighboring historical ally is a bigger matter than refugees. It has to do with a loss of face in China, a sense that somehow it could somehow presage change in China.”
South Korea may not be much help either. Amid a political crisis that has seen lawmakers vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye, the next election — due either way by December — could usher in a government that is less keen on pressuring Kim, Hill said.
And Kim currently appears secure as leader. Having purged many officials in recent years — including his own uncle, who was a conduit to China — “he seems to be strong,” Hill said. “I don’t put it outside the realm of possibility that there are people in North Korea who would like to get rid of him. But that’s kind of more an expression of hope than of fact.”
That leaves Trump with few options. His only choice might be just to try to slow Kim, Hill said.
“The best we can do is somehow retard their program from a technical point of view,” he said. “If I am looking at a possible way forward, I think it would be something like that. I don’t see the North Koreans saying ‘they are going to obliterate us, we need to get rid of our nuclear weapons.’ “