|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un smiles while riding a white horse on Mount Paektu, the Korean Peninsula's highest peak, in footage released Wednesday by the North's KCNA. Yonhap|
By Yi Whan-woo, Kim Yoo-chul
As nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States remain in a stalemate after no "substantial outcome" from their recent encounter in Sweden, the lack of visible progress in the denuclearization dialogue is raising concerns that the North is "buying time" for its military and nuclear advancement.
During an Asan Institute for Policy Studies security forum held in Seoul, Tuesday, Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Washington-based RAND Corporation, claimed that despite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's promise to end his nuclear program, Pyongyang has not taken any meaningful measures toward this. Instead, the North has increased its capability since the failure of the summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in Hanoi, he said.
Bennett estimated that North Korea now has about 45 nuclear weapons, something the Asan Institute confirmed.
"Has Kim given up one nuclear weapon yet? Has he shut off production 0at one production facility, let alone taking it down? No, he hasn't done that. Quite the opposite. According to my estimates, since March of last year, Kim Jong-un has increased his nuclear destructive potential about 50 percent."
Just days ahead of the working-level talks with Washington's negotiators, the North tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, a move viewed by many as aimed at increasing its leverage in the search for concessions and sanctions easing.
"It's an irony that denuclearization talks are extending time for the North's nuclear advancement," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. "The North has pursued nukes for decades. The North's nuclear ambitions have continued through three generations of the North Korean leadership lineage. This is not something that can be resolved within a year or two."
Bennett also added the North is unlikely to unilaterally dismantle a single weapon if Kim doesn't have the support of Pyongyang's military elite.
On Wednesday, the North's official KCNA reported Kim rode a white horse during a visit to Mount Paektu and slammed the ongoing economic sanctions. Kim Jong-un visited the mountain ahead of a "big political or diplomatic decision," according to North Korea watchers in Seoul.
At the Stockholm talks, the United States offered limited sanctions relief to North Korea such as the partial restart of tourism to Mount Geumgang and allowing the import of industrial components if the North presented a comprehensive but detailed plan for denuclearization. But this was rejected.
Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, remained skeptical over any of the North's plans to dismantle its nuclear program as sought by the United States.
He said North Korea was not "enjoying" the delay in denuclearization talks, adding Kim Jong-un has been underscoring economic reform and seeking to relinquish his country's nuclear program in return for economic sanctions relief.
"I would not say the North deliberately delayed the nuclear negotiations to test its new weapon, because this would only put off its economic development," he said.