North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons regardless of how any future diplomatic negotiations with the United States proceed, according to the U.S. intelligence community’s top North Korea expert.
Sydney Seiler, the current National Intelligence Office for North Korea, spoke during a recent virtual event hosted by the Washington Times Foundation and said that Pyongyang has passed over opportunities to improve its relationship with the United States. According to Mr. Seiler, Pyongyang will continue to prioritize its development of nuclear weapons at the expense of any future improvements in U.S.-DPRK relations.
A Lost Opportunity?
Speaking as part of “The Washington Brief,” a recent virtual event hosted by the Washington Times Foundation, National Intelligence Officer for North Korea Sydney Seiler argued that North Korea remains focused on developing its strategic weapons capabilities, even if doing so comes at the expense of any potential improvements in U.S.-DPRK relations. According to Mr. Seiler, North Korea has routinely chosen to eschew following through on opportunities to improve its relations with the United States, including during the two summit meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former U.S. President Donald Trump. In Mr. Seiler’s estimation, North Korea had “simply squandered away an opportunity to move forward with the United States in a better relationship,” and that North Korea now likely believes that “its survival in no way is related to an improved relationship with [South Korea] and is not even related to an improved relationship with the United States.”
Instead, Mr. Seiler believes that North Korea is more focused on being recognized as an official nuclear weapons state. That recognition is unlikely to come from the United States, however, citing both the impact of doing so on regional and global nonproliferation efforts as well as the optics of appearing to have abandoned its ally in South Korea.
Denuclearization vs. Threat Reduction
NIO Seiler is not alone in his assessment that North Korea is unlikely to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Other officials in both the intelligence community as well as the military have also reported a belief that North Korean denuclearization is doubtful. A number of experts outside of the government have suggested that with North Korea unlikely to voluntarily abandon its nuclear weapons program, the United States should move away from an exclusive focus on North Korean denuclearization and instead embrace efforts designed to reduce the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea. According to experts, this should include efforts to limit further North Korean production of fissile material as well as preventing further weapons testing, and could also include a political strategy designed to set the stage for reductions in North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities in the future.
The Biden administration’s North Korea policy – announced following a month’s long review of U.S.-DPRK policy – maintains denuclearization as the policy’s ultimate objective. The policy has been described, however, as moving beyond the “strategic patience” framework employed by the Obama administration as well we the top-down, grand bargain style of diplomacy favored by the Trump administration. Instead, the Biden policy will feature a phased approach to denuclearization built around step-by-step agreements involving partial sanctions relief in exchange for North Korean steps towards that ultimate objective.
It was recently announced that important lines of communication on the Korean Peninsula have been restored. This has led to hopes for renewed inter-Korean engagement and even a possible inter-Korean summit meeting, which could pave the way for a resumption of nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States. But as Mr. Seiler and others have pointed out, North Korean abandonment of its nuclear capabilities remains highly unlikely regardless of how that diplomacy plays out.