A new N. Korea provo­ca­tion — or a win­dow to diplo­macy?

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNA FI­FIELD

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 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 an­nounce-

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 proved that North Korea has the abil­ity to at­tach a war­head to the mis­sile and have it sur­vive reen­try into 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 had 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 proved to be an unreliable ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner over the past two decades, reneg­ing on ev­ery deal that it has signed. But de­spite Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­peated talk of mil­i­tary op­tions for deal­ing with Py­ongyang, most an­a­lysts say that diplo­macy re­mains the only re­al­is­tic 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 Py­ongyang 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 Pa­cific Fo­rum at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, “it will be will­ing to dis­cuss a freeze — in test­ing, not a ver­i­fi­able freeze of its mis­ment. 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,” she said, “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.”

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 U.S. of­fi­cials, the North Kore­ans have been in­sist­ing on be­ing recogsile nized and treated as a nu­clear power — some­thing that is anath­ema to Wash­ing­ton.

Wendy Sher­man, who dealt with 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 say 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.

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.”

Melissa Han­ham, a North Korea ex­pert at the Mid­dle­bury In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Mon­terey, Calif., said the lat­est de­vel­op­ments un­der­score the need to re­dou­ble ef­forts to talk to Kim’s regime, rather than giv­ing up on diplo­macy.

“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,” she said, would lead them to de­cide “they can build more trucks to use as mis­sile launch­ers or build more nu­clear war­heads.

“Then we will have even big­ger prob­lems.”

CHUNG SUNG-JUN/GETTY IM­AGES

A tele­vi­sion at a Seoul rail­way sta­tion shows a news re­port on North Korea’s lat­est test of a mis­sile, which ap­pears ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the eastern United States. North Korea pro­claimed that it had achieved a “price­less vic­tory” and com­pleted its mis­sile de­vel­op­ment process.

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