A photo released by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows leader Kim Jong Un guiding a launching of the medium-to-long range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in 2017. File Photo courtesy of KCNA/EPA-EFE
SEOUL, July 12 (UPI) -- North Korea will maintain its nuclear arsenal for the next two decades and the United States' insistence on its rapid disarmament is an "unrealistic goal," according to a report by the Federation of American Scientists presented in Seoul on Friday.
"There is no mix of economic, diplomatic or military pressure that can verifiably eliminate North Korea's arsenal on acceptable terms in the next few years," read the report, which was produced by a study group on North Korean policy at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "North Korea will in all likelihood remain nuclear-armed and under the control of the Kim family for the next two decades."
The report claims that a single-minded focus on disarmament has overlooked other threats from North Korea, including "the risk of conventional war, ballistic missile proliferation, contagion of infectious disease and the continued suffering and repression of the North Korean people."
The authors call for a new, long-term strategy in dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea that looks to manage risks and maintain stability while working toward economic, humanitarian and diplomatic engagement.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been at an impasse since a February summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to produce an agreement.
North Korea has been seeking concessions such as sanctions relief in exchange for steps it takes toward dismantling its nuclear capabilities, while the United States has continued to hold onto a "maximum pressure" strategy that calls for complete denuclearization first.
That hard-line approach hasn't yielded any results, according to one of the report's authors, Adam Mount, senior fellow at FAS.
"The focus on disarmament that the Trump administration has pursued, this all-or-nothing approach, has unfortunately left us with nothing so far," Mount said at a news conference in Seoul on Friday.
"The imperative is to put in place an agreement that, even if it doesn't get us to disarmament in the very near future, at least provides tangible security benefits that can be built on subsequently," he said.
Despite diplomatic engagement that has now included three meetings between Trump and Kim, North Korea has continued to operate its uranium enrichment facility, increase its nuclear stockpile and conduct ballistic missile tests.
Pyongyang's capacity to strike anywhere in the mainland United States with its Hwaesong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile was confirmed this week in a defense white paper from the United States Forces Korea.
The FAS report calls for "not just a policy shift, but a mindset shift," said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for refugee-support group Liberty in North Korea, who contributed to the report.
"It's calling for recognition that the decades-long effort to try and prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them failed," he said.
"Part of the reason for the failure of North Korea policy over the last decades, is not having a holistic, long-term approach," he added. "In order to make progress, we need a realistic approach that would include not just traditional security, but non-traditional security, human security and economics."
The report makes a series of recommendations, including negotiating a "threshold agreement" that would establish a baseline level of stability and prevent expansion of North Korea's arsenal or its proliferation to other countries.
The report also calls for offering some sanctions relief and economic engagement in exchange for North Korean improvement on security issues, illicit transnational activities and human rights.
"An approach that relies on economic isolation and coercion is unlikely to disarm North Korea and will inhibit efforts to shape the regime's transformation and mitigate its destabilizing behavior," the report said.
Humanitarian assistance and a sustained focus on improving human rights conditions in North Korea should be a key part of any negotiations going forward, according to the report, an element which has been notably absent in most diplomatic engagements.
There has been some movement in stalled negotiations between the United States and North Korea in recent weeks, highlighted by the surprise DMZ meeting between Trump and Kim at the end of June.
The two spoke for almost an hour, and Trump became the first sitting president to enter North Korea when he briefly stepped across a military demarcation line that separates the two Koreas.
Afterward, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that working-level discussions between North Korea and the United States would resume "around the middle" of July, although no further details have been announced.
Reports this week have indicated that the United States appears willing to soften its stance, offering a temporary suspension of some sanctions in exchange for the dismantlement of North Korea's main Yongbyon nuclear facility and a freeze of its nuclear program.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus on Tuesday described a nuclear freeze as the first step toward an end goal of complete denuclearization.
"I don't think that the administration has ever characterized a freeze as being the end goal," she said. "That would be at the beginning of the process."
Mount said that an overall lack of strategy and Trump's emphasis on spectacle rather than substance has hindered the negotiation process.
"Too much emphasis has been placed on cosmetic and symbolic steps to the detriment of real progress," he said. "And unfortunately, I think the opportunity of negotiating with Kim Jong Un directly has so far been wasted.
"[The Trump administration] has got to shift tactics if they want to make progress," he said. "They can and they should do it now."