Every time North Korea does something provocative — which is often — Washington insists that Pyongyang must give up its nuclear weapons programme.
Days after North Korea launched its most high-tech intercontinental ballistic missile yet, US national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that US President Donald Trump "is committed to the total denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". Not that this line is confined to the Trump Administration. The Obama and Bush administrations before it also repeatedly insisted that North Korea must denuclearise.
That might have been a realistic aim before Pyongyang could build a hydrogen bomb and missiles that can reach the United States. It's just a matter of time before the North Koreans can put the two together — if they can't already.
The Trump Administration won't admit it, but North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power, analysts say. Why would Kim Jong Un's cash-strapped regime spend so much time and money on building these weapons only to give them up? And even if they were prepared to bargain them away eventually, why would they do so now, when Trump and his top aides are threatening military action?
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"We've seen no indication in recent years that they are interested in denuclearisation," said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale Law School. "So it's difficult to rationalise how we are still so fixated on it."
Vipin Narang, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist at MIT, agreed. "It's a fantasy that they're going to willingly give up their nuclear programmes so long as Kim is in power. He saw the fate of Saddam and Gaddafi — why would he give up his nuclear weapons?" asked Narang. Trump's willingness to pull out of the international nuclear deal with Iran would only heighten North Korea's mistrust of a negotiated denuclearisation agreement with the US.
Kim has pursued nukes as a way to fend off outside threats and bolster his legitimacy inside North Korea. "The only way you can convince them to denuclearise is to make nuclear armament costly enough to destabilise the regime," said Chun Yung Woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator with the North. "To do that would require a total economic blockade to suffocate the regime."
In Washington, there is a growing sense that time is not on the United States' side. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in October that North Korea was only a matter of months away from perfecting its nuclear weapons programme.
Trump and McMaster have repeatedly said that military options are on the table, a message that North Korea takes especially seriously when US fighter jets are practicing precision strikes on the Korean Peninsula. This is coupled with frequent assertions that Kim is an irrational madman who can't be deterred in the way that the US military deterred his father and grandfather.
"There are a lot of people who argue that there's still a window to stop North Korea from getting an ICBM with a nuclear warhead to use against the United States," said Narang. "They're telling themselves that if they strike now, worst-case scenario: Only Japan and South Korea will eat a nuclear weapon."