Experts see no rapprochement by North Korea despite economic woes

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Experts see little prospect for talks between Washington and Pyongyang as North Korea tries to advance its nuclear and missile program amid a badly weakened economy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spoke at a five-day meeting of the ruling party without mentioning any rapprochement with the United States or South Korea.

Nor was the government’s regular tone of criticism of US “hostile policy” or any other diplomatic gesture in Kim’s speech reported by the North Korean press.

Kim said North Korea will continue to strengthen its military capacity to respond to the “increasing instability of the military situation on the Korean peninsula and international circumstances,” the government agency KCNA reported on Saturday.

In response to Kim’s speech, the State Department told the Korean National Service Voice of america that Washington will continue its rapprochement efforts with Pyongyang.

“The United States remains committed to achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and diplomacy” with the People’s Republic of North Korea, a State Department spokesman said.

The official also said that the United States has no hostile intentions towards North Korea, is prepared to meet unconditionally, and is confident that Pyongyang will respond positively to its proposal.

Nuclear talks between the two countries have been stalled since October 2019.

Dialogue perspectives

Robert Manning, member of the Atlantic Council, says Kim’s message “does not suggest new avenues for nuclear diplomacy.”

Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International StudiesHe said that North Korea’s main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon “appears to be operating, which is generally not a sign that the leadership is willing to negotiate.”

Washington’s efforts to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table could be more difficult if North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities, says Soo Kim, a political analyst at the RAND Corporation.

North Korea tested a ballistic missile on Wednesday, according to the US and South Korean military. In September and October, Pyongyang also tested other types of missiles and a launch from a submarine.

Economy

North Korea’s first missile test in 2022 took place despite Kim saying in his speech that his government would focus on improving the economy, hit by severe food shortages.

Kim promised to “increase agricultural production and completely solve food problems,” according to KCNA.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, says the food and economic situation in that country could be “worse and more critical” than Kim said.

“If things inside North Korea are as serious as his speech suggests, that favors North Korea trying to reach out to the US, South Korea and the international community to try to solve their problems,” Revere said.

However, “the price it would have to pay would be to put its nuclear and missile programs on the table and address the concerns of the US and others about them.”

Harry Kazianis, Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, believes that Kim will not try to worsen his fragile economy with nuclear tests or long-range missiles that can reach the United States.

“At the present time, I don’t see that Kim wants to test substance weapons that are of concern to the United States,” Kazianis said. “Kim does not want more economic pressure on him or hurt any assistance from China that he needs now more than ever.”

To Ken Gause, Program Director Adversary Analytics, Kim is unlikely to test weapons that will elicit strong responses from the US and China, “unless he is willing to do so as an entry point for rapprochement.”

[Con información de Cristy Lee y Jiha Ham, VOA]

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