SEOUL – North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, a former North Korean diplomat warned ahead of next week’s summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
“No money in the world will convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons,” said Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, at a news briefing here Tuesday.
Thae fled his post in 2016 and is the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea.
The former diplomat said North Korea has been following a long-term strategy to pressure the United States to offer a peace agreement and begin lifting sanctions while not requiring that Pyongyang fully denuclearize.
He said Kim has followed the path of Pakistan, a de facto nuclear state which argued the military threat posed by nuclear-armed India justified the need for its own weapons.
“North Korea’s policy was to escalate the crisis of war to justify its nuclear weapons,” Thae said.
He said that Trump unwittingly played into the hands of Kim, by threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea at a 2017 speech to the U.N. General Assembly speech.
Raising the real possibility of war was “a real strategic mistake,” Thae said, claiming there was never a genuine threat of conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. “I believe, unfortunately President Trump fell into this trap.”
Trump said last week that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, was on the brink of starting a war with North Korea.
“He told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea,” Trump said, a claim that was flatly rejected by several top advisors to Obama.
Trump and Kim will meet for a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 and 28.
The second meeting aims to further negotiations that have stalled since the first time the two leaders met last June in Singapore. That summit produced a vaguely worded declaration that North Korea would work toward a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Pyongyang has been looking for a peace declaration and relief of punishing international sanctions in exchange for steps it has already taken while Washington has held out for complete denuclearization first.
However, Washington seems prepared to moderate its all-or-nothing stance at the upcoming summit, potentially offering reciprocal concessions in exchange for steps that North Korea takes toward denuclearization.
Speaking at Stanford University on January 31, Washington’s top envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, said the U.S. was prepared to move “simultaneously and in parallel” with North Korea to implement the commitments outlined at the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit.
This approach also plays into Kim’s hands, said Thae, arguing that Kim has successfully shifted the framework to emphasizing peace before nuclear disarmament.
North Korea didn’t launch any missiles or test any nuclear weapons in 2018 and in May, the country made a show of dismantling its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. At a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September, Kim also promised to shut down the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, in exchange for “corresponding measures from the U.S.”
Thae said Kim may genuinely be willing to give up the Yongbyon and Punggye-ri sites, but said the gesture is of dubious value.
“It’s like painting a used car that is ready to be sold as scraps and selling it an expensive price,” he said. “Those sites are already very close to the end of their lives.”
Thae warned that the summit in Vietnam will be a failure if Trump can’t get Kim to declare that he will abandon all of his nuclear facilities and weapons and return the country to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which it withdrew from in 2003.
Without such a declaration, “North Korea is demanding the U.S. to recognize it as a nuclear state,” the former diplomat said.
North Korea itself has not hidden its unwillingness to unilaterally denuclearize.
In December, the state-run Korean Central News Agency ran a commentary saying that the North would not give up its nuclear weapons without the removal of the regional “nuclear threat” posed by U.S. forces.
“When we refer to the Korean Peninsula, the term encompasses the area of DPRK plus South Korean territory where U.S. nuclear weapons and other forms of aggression forces are deployed,” the editorial said. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea.
“When we refer to the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ as well, it should be correctly understood as removing all nuclear threat factors from not only the North and the South but from all neighboring areas.”
In his New Year’s address, Kim also threatened to restart Korea’s weapons programs if the U.S. doesn’t ease sanctions.
And while Trump claimed that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat” after his first meeting with Kim, many analysts have expressed skepticism that Pyongyang has any plans to give up its nuclear weapons.
“In fact, North Korea has still not surrendered any warheads, missiles, or launchers,” wrote Robert Kelly, professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University in a recent commentary for the Lowy Institute. “We still lack a concrete, costly signal that Pyongyang actually wants or will do what Trump and (South Korean President) Moon keep saying they are doing.”
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