North Korea's Olympic move a chance for U.S. talks, analyst says

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  Jan. 18, 2018 at 12:12 AM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- North Korea is pursuing a dangerous path of nuclear weapons development, but that does not mean the United States should dismiss an opportunity to deescalate tensions during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a U.S. analyst said Wednesday.

Speaking before members of the Harvard Business School Club of New York, Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow with New America who recently met with North Korean officials in Moscow, said Kim Jong Un's overtures for reconciliation are not to be ignored as tensions recede on the peninsula.

"I think the Olympics actually offers an opportunity for both sides to scale back on the rhetoric," she said, referring to the U.S. and North Korean governments. "We now have a nearly two-month Winter Olympic pause."

"We must use that pause to pursue and exhaust every diplomatic option available to avoid a nuclear war, with a leader who is in regime-saving mode."

DiMaggio said Kim Jong Un is not irrational, but rather motivated by self-preservation.

Those priorities, however, have received mixed readings in the United States, owing to the rapid acceleration of weapons tests in 2017.

DiMaggio said a calmer assessment is necessary, given North Korea's circumstances.

"Kim would not carry out a first strike against the United States or its allies," the analyst said.

"Why would he engage in a first strike? It would be suicidal."

The rationality that characterizes the regime may have played a key role in Kim's offers in his New Year speech.

Kim's willingness to send a delegation to the Winter Games in South Korea has been met with a quick response from Seoul, and the two Koreas have held several talks at the truce village of Panmunjom.

Hundreds of North Korean athletes, performers and other representatives are expected to arrive in Pyeongchang in February, and the two Koreas agreed to march under a unified flag at the opening ceremony.

But none of the positive developments should turn U.S. attention away from the regime's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, according to DiMaggio.

"North Korea has an unflinching determination to advance its nuclear and missile program," she said, adding North Korea's sixth nuclear test conducted in September 2017 had a nuclear yield of 250 kilotons.

"By comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons."

Kim made it clear in his speech there was no stopping North Korea because under his rule the regime has "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force."

"U.S. intelligence agencies reduced the time that they estimate it will take North Korea to develop a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on top of the missile, capable of surviving the stresses of re-entry, and delivering it to the United States," DiMaggio said.

"The rationale behind this accelerated pace is clear," the analyst added.

"The North Korean leadership sees its nuclear program as its only source of security against regime change by the hands of the United States."

DiMaggio, who recently met with North Korean officials, including top diplomat Choe Son Hui in Moscow, said the weapons are also being used to strengthen the North Korean negotiation position.

"I had an opportunity to sit on a panel with a senior North Korean official in Moscow," the analyst said, adding Choe explained why Pyongyang believes it needs nuclear weapons.

In the short term, North Korea is not seeking nuclear parity, rather enough armament to "deter us from attacking them."

Weapons buildup and the possibility North Korea could have enough fissile material to build multiple bombs is why the United States should approach Pyongyang carefully and speak in a single voice, while not undercutting diplomatic efforts, DiMaggio said.

"Unpredictability is not an asset," the analyst said, referring to Trump's tweets about Kim Jong Un. "We do not have direct military-to-military communication with the North Koreans."

"If the North Koreans are misreading the signals, you could see how this could spiral into something...We would know within minutes if a missile was launched," she said.

"But we can't assume the North Koreans have the same technology."

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