- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2015

President Obama is expressing slim hopes that the U.S. can bring North Korea to the nuclear negotiating table the same way it did with Iran last summer, but analysts and other U.S. officials say there is virtually no sign that sanctions against Pyongyang are persuading the communist regime to cooperate.

In fact, two analysts on North Korea say in a report that Pyongyang’s failure to engage in talks with the U.S. and South Korea since February 2011 is a sign of “newfound confidence” in its nuclear arsenal.

With its possession of nuclear weapons, North Korea “can afford to play hard to get,” Robert Carlin, a former U.S. special ambassador for talks with North Korea, and Columbia University professor Robert Jervis said in a report for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“There is no doubt those in Pyongyang gladly use the time without negotiations to further develop the numbers, sophistication and delivery means for the nuclear arsenal,” they wrote.

Although the two Koreas raised hopes last week by holding a reunion of divided families, only the second such event in the past five years, South Korea’s intelligence agency said North Korea was preparing for a fourth nuclear bomb test. A nuclear test by the regime of Kim Jong-un, which is not believed to be imminent, would escalate tensions with South Korea, the U.S. and China.

During a meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the White House on Oct. 16, Mr. Obama said they discussed the Iran nuclear deal and “what it could teach us” about North Korea.

“We were prepared to have a serious conversation with the Iranians once they showed that they were serious about the possibility of giving up the pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Obama said. “At the point where Pyongyang says, ‘We’re interested in seeing relief from sanctions and improved relations, and we are prepared to have a serious conversation about denuclearization’ — I think it’s fair to say we’ll be right there at the table.”

But he acknowledged that “there’s been no indication” that North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear arsenal, which is believed to consist of 10 to 16 nuclear weapons and delivery systems that put all of South Korea and much of Japan within range. The U.S. has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.

Senators in both parties are venting frustration over U.S. policy on North Korea. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, called it an “abject failure.”

“I see no change. I see no hope for dealing with this issue,” Mr. Corker said at a hearing last week. “I appreciate the complexity of the risk posed by North Korea and our limited options. However, it certainly seems that more could be done to address this issue.”

Two bills to tighten sanctions have been introduced in the Senate this year, but their prospects for becoming law are uncertain.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, said North Korea hasn’t changed its abysmal human rights record despite increasing international pressure.

“I’m looking for new ideas,” Mr. Cardin told State Department officials at the hearing.

Sung Kim, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan, said the U.S. has “tightened sanctions and consistently underscored to [the North] that the path to a brighter future for North Korea begins with authentic and credible negotiations that produce concrete denuclearization steps.”

But he acknowledged that North Korea “continues to violate its commitments and international obligations, and continues to pursue nuclear weapons and their means of delivery as a strategic national priority, all at the cost of the well-being of its own people and while perpetrating horrific human rights abuses against them.”

Ms. Park urged Mr. Obama during their meeting to work with China more aggressively to persuade North Korea to return to the bargaining table, but there is skepticism that Beijing is willing to bring about substantial change with its neighbor.

“It seems to me to get a change in behavior in North Korea, it’s going to require greater support from China,” Mr. Cardin said. “There’s a question as to whether they really want to or not.”

In their report, Mr. Carlin and Mr. Jervis said North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is almost certain to grow over the next five years and its delivery systems are likely to improve. They said if there is any bright spot in the situation, it’s that North Korea hasn’t shown serious signs of acting on U.S. concerns that it’s “a coiled snake waiting for its opportunity to strike.”

“Apart from bolder rhetoric and more threatening propaganda, there has been very little in the way of unusual or enhanced aggressive action over the past five years,” they said. “If the North’s behavior — either in the diplomatic arena or on the military front — is to change as a result of its nuclear arsenal, we have yet to see signs of what those changes will be.”

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