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Experts See North Korea Shunning Nuclear Talks as Economic Crisis Deepens

South Korean army soldiers patrol along the barbed-wire fence in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, on Jan. 5, 2022.
South Korean army soldiers patrol along the barbed-wire fence in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, on Jan. 5, 2022.

Experts see prospects dimming for nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang as North Korea struggles to continue its nuclear and missile programs while its economy founders.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spoke at a five-day meeting of his Workers’ Party with no mention of engagement with the United States or South Korea.

Neither the regime’s usual critical tone toward the “hostile policy” of the U.S. or any diplomatic overture was present in Kim’s speech made at the Party meetings reported by the regime’s state media, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Kim said North Korea will continue building its military capabilities to respond to “growing instability of the military situation on the Korean Peninsula and international circumstances,” which KCNA reported on Saturday.

In response to Kim’s speech, the U.S. State Department told VOA’s Korean Service on Tuesday that Washington will continue its efforts to engage Pyongyang.

“The United States remains committed to achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and diplomacy with the DPRK,” said a State Department spokesperson, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“To this end, we will continue to seek engagement with the DPRK as part of a calibrated, practical approach in order to make tangible progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, and our deployed forces,” said the spokesperson.

The State Department spokesperson also said the U.S. has no hostile intent toward North Korea, is prepared to meet without preconditions, and hopes the DPRK responds positively to its outreach.

Nuclear talks between the two countries have remained deadlocked since October 2019.

Prospects for talks dim

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, “[Kim’s] message suggests no new opening to nuclear diplomacy.”

Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said North Korea’s main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon “appears to be operating right now, which is generally not a sign that the leadership is eager to bargain.”

Washington’s efforts to strike up nuclear talks with Pyongyang may become harder as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities, according to Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Kim’s emphasis on bolstering North Korea’s military capability “suggests [he] remains on the path of enhancing his nuclear leverage over his counterparts – if and when another opportunity arises for negotiations,” said Soo Kim.

“In fact, it may become increasingly more difficult for the U.S. and South Korea to negotiate as North Korea continues to expand its suite of nuclear and missile capabilities. Kim’s got vested interest in in the weapons program and thus is unlikely to give them up under Washington’s terms,” continued Soo Kim.

North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile on Wednesday, according to both South Korean and U.S. militaries.

North Korea conducted a spate of advanced missile launches in September and October, including its rail-launched and submarine-launched missiles.

Economic challenges

North Korea’s first launch of 2022 comes even as Kim said in his speech that his regime will focus on improving its economy, marked by dire food shortages.

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

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with an extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, North Korea’s economic and food situation may be “more downbeat and critical” than portrayed in Kim’s speech.

“If things inside North Korea are as serious as [his speech] implies, it actually argues in favor of North Korea reaching out to the U.S., the ROK, and the international community in an attempt to resolve its economic shortcomings and its food situation,” said Revere.

“But the price that Kim Jong Un would have to pay for such engagement would be willingness to put its nuclear and missile programs on the table and deal with the concerns of the U.S. and others about those programs,” Revere added.

Revere, however, said there is no indication Kim is ready to barter away his nuclear and missile programs as he stressed self-reliance rather than seeking outside help.

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, said Kim does not look forward to further burdening the already frail economy with testing a nuclear weapon or long-range missile that can reach the U.S.

“At present, I see zero chance Kim will test any weapons of substance that America worries about, like an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] or nuclear weapon,” said Kazianis. “Kim does not want any more economic pressure placed on him, nor does he want to endanger any [economic] assistance from China that he needs now more than ever before.”

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said Kim is unlikely to test weapons that will evoke strong responses from the U.S. and China “unless [he is] willing to use it as an entryway into engagement.”

VOA Korean Service reporter Jiha Ham contributed to this report.